Cover photo from “The 21st century brand”

The 21st century brand

Thought Leadership

The bad news for this blog, and most people reading it, is that advertising is dead. It was dead last year, but this year it’s even more dead, and that’s the deadest it’s been since Jesus said ‘buy my book.’ Such was the consensus of pundits at this year’s SXSW Interactive, held in Austin, Texas this year for the 26th time.

The annual digital media and technology orgy is the place where geeks gather to hero worship Nicola Tesla, where people with Twitter followings that most of us can only dream of come to swap notes, and where young entrepreneurs with 8 and 9 figure net worths (on paper, at least) descend from the Valley of Silicon to grace us with their presence – replete with aww-inspiring sound bytes like “If I had $500M in the bank, I’d still want to write software.” Send the change my way, Matt Mullenweg.

Running after them a distant second is a staggering 25,000+ mere marketing mortals from around the world who have paid for the privilege of listening to these Americans do what Americans do best – talk about themselves, and talk about the peculiarly American art of money-making – and to great effect.

There’s a palpable buzz breathing the same air as figures and founders from brands that have become so much a part of our daily digital lives – from YouTube and Google to WordPress and Reddit. There’s a certain fever pitch at SXSW, and not only from the hurried schlepping between the hundreds of sessions across multiple venues.

This year nobody was denying that the playing field for brands isn’t getting any easier. In recent years multiple (and continuing) recessions have taken their toll, consumers are disengaging in ever-greater numbers, distrustful in their droves, and wise to the spin of the traditional marketing pitch.

Great brands are about understanding people and their behaviours, not just putting bells and whistles on the technology you’re using to reach them.

While the innovation buzz at SXSW this year arguably belonged to Google Glass, the hot topic for the non-geek set was mobile. “The next big thing – hopefully if we can figure it out – is the 21st century brand. And the key is ‘mobilityness,'” said Thom Kennon from Brabble. Most brands, he said, are still operating with a mindset that is way out of step with the new reality. Success in mobile commerce is about “eliminating friction,” says Rich Lesperance, Head of Emerging Media at Walgreens.

In fact, customer experience is critical to marketing today – more so than ever, and at every touchpoint. This is something that US brands figured out long ago, but surprisingly for the rest of the world, putting customers at the heart of your value chain is an idea that’s taken a while to catch on.

It’s part of a paradigm shift, says Rob Griffin of Havas Media. “We’ve got to stop selling products, but rather, sell an outcome in people’s lives. So instead of ‘new sneakers,’ it’s about ‘being a better runner.’”

What’s more, when it comes to addressing consumers online, we need to move beyond Likes and Follows to true engagement. As Creative Strategist from Facebook, Kevin J Knight says, “engagement doesn’t equal ‘Like this if you like summer.’”

Prominent commentator and advertising industry analyst Bob Garfield calls ours “the relationship era,” where it’s no longer enough – or makes sense – for brands to invest in exorbitant branding exercises like TVCs, for instance, that don’t match real-world experiences. As he presciently puts it, “your public shapes your image; advertising counts for very little in the relationship era.”

As if adding another nail to the advertising coffin, Head of Digital at PepsiCo Shiv Singh says that brands “want and need to be in the flow of culture, and it’s very hard to do that spending months developing creative only to lob it over the fence and hope it sticks.”

Perhaps it’s best summed up in the words of Tim Reis, Google Head of Social and Mobile, who says, simply, “make the experience amazing and your brand will take care of itself.”

One brand that seems to get it is Sonos (, which undertakes almost negligible advertising, preferring instead to focus their marketing investment on PR and experiential. Sonos created one of the most talked about spaces at SXSW. Their brand experience took place in a funky old house in downtown Austin, where they put on the ultimate house party featuring name DJs, innovative touch and try sections and immersive sound installations.

Of course, whether or not the demise of advertising is a bad thing depends on which side of the fence you sit on. For PR and communications pros like me and other digitally-led disciplines, the future is bright.

Great brands are about understanding people and their behaviours, and catering to them, not just putting bells and whistles on the technology or channels you’re using to reach them. Ultimately, though, it’s a case of who dares to break with traditional marketing wins in this new era, and so the question then becomes, do you dare?

This article originally appeared on Amsterdam Ad Blog in 2012.