Trust-based marketing eats branding for breakfast, any day of the week according to Jonathan Salem Baskin, Founder of Arcadia Lab, which helps businesses to communicate about innovation.
Jonathan has 30 years of marketing experience in major global brands and is a currently a Forbes contributor. Jonathan firmly believes that brands are dead - and he offers a better alternative.
Listen in as he challenges the conventional truths in marketing and provides a new perspective for the future of business.
Everyone explains that making your business different is vital — but NO ONE (not even experts) explains how to actually do it... Until now.
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"A terrific celebration of marketers and marketing in all its forms."
"You're literally the only marketer I can stomach."
Louis: Bonjour, bonjour! Welcome to everyonehatesmarketers.com. I’m your host, Louis Grenier. everyonehatesmarketers.com is a podcast for digital marketers who are sick of shady, aggressive marketing. I interview no nonsense marketers who are not afraid to cut through the bullshit and say things as they are. During this show, we’ll learn how to get more visitors, more leads, more customers, more long-term profit by using good marketing, by treating people the way we like to be treated.
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In episode 11of everyonehatesmarketers.com, I’m interviewing Jonathan Salem Baskin. He’s the founder of Arcadia Lab, which helps businesses to communicate about innovation. He has 30 years of experience in marketing. He worked for Blockbuster, for Apple, Nissan, Edelman. He’s also a contributor for Forbes. He has a lot of experience in marketing. He’s quite a contrarian, just like me I believe. He firmly believes that brands are dead, which is a very bold statement. But he’s not just saying that to shock people, he actually believes in it. He offers a very, very good alternative.
This episode is quite different from the others because it’s really about changing your point of view about something that everybody considers as a given, as a truth. But he really challenges this truth and tells you that it’s not necessarily what people should think of, especially not what marketers should think. More importantly, he’s also offering a very, very strong alternative. Have a listen and let me know what you think.
Jonathan: Hey, Louis.
Louis: Thank you so much for taking your time to talk to me today.
Jonathan: My pleasure.
Louis: I have a first question for you. How did you fall in love with marketing?
Jonathan: Wow, great first question. It’s funny. I’m one of those geeks that actually in college dreamed of working in the advertising business. I actually had a subscription to advertising. It’s delivered to my dorm room every week.
I was interested in words, I was interested in ideas. I felt that marketing was the place where I could put those topics and those interests of mine not just into practice but really to test. I like the idea of versus just being a person with a single idea or issue that I promoted, for that matter a business I promoted and instead being in a position to constantly attack different challenges and take on different tasks. I would say I fell in love with marketing when I was 18 years old and the love affair continued.
Louis: It’s funny. You said marketing magazines, right?
Louis: That’s quite nerdy, right?
Jonathan: Yeah, terribly.
Louis: My fiancé would always make fun of me because I’m a big nerd as well. But I don’t take that as a bad thing at all. I think it’s good. But I like to dig deeper into you. You mentioned in an interview that one of the reasons you fell in love with marketing was because of a particular T.V. ad?
Jonathan: Oh, yes. You’ve done your homework. Again, I won’t reveal my age but I’ve been around for a while. That was a T.V. commercial that was very popular when I was in my teens. It was for something called Hai Karate cologne. You’ll find it on YouTube. Back then it was probably a minute long spot. That tells you how old I am. But the spot had this geeky guy with glasses on who reminded me of me because again, I was that nerd walking into this party after having kind of covered himself in this Hai Karate cologne. The women in the party go so nuts for him that he has to fight them off with karate because they’re attacking him. They’re just so attracted to him. He’s like a wild strange attractor magnet guy.
I thought to myself, “Wow. I want that cologne. I want to be that guy, really.” I actually as a teenager, saved my money, went and bought the cologne. It didn’t work. It’s funny. I mentioned this story in an event a couple of years ago. Some guy in the audience raised his hand and said, “Well, it worked for me.”
I think the bigger issue was this brand promise that obviously worked was simply not true. Shame on me for believing it, but shame on the brand for promoting it. It started me along a path that I didn’t know at the time but really along a path that led me to always striving for more clarity, more transparency and more truthfulness in communications.
It’s one thing to be able to convince and inspire people to do something, but it’s quite another thing to actually inspire them and inform them of the way things really are and still have their loyalty and their business. To me, that became the bigger a-ha for me. But again I didn’t know that at that time but looking backwards, that started me along the track towards truthfulness, understanding and communications.
Louis: I don’t know if there’s a brand called Lynx in the U.S. as well. Have you heard of it?
Jonathan: I have not.
Louis: Okay. Maybe it’s a European thing. There is this after shave type of product like shower gel, that kind of product that are being advertised in Ireland and in France. I’ve seen it elsewhere as well. It’s exactly the same concept, pretty much the same concept in the TV ad you described. This guy who’s showering with this beautiful shower gel that smells so nice and then women would just literally run into him because they want a piece of him. I guess they didn’t innovate too much on this. They probably just took the idea.
Jonathan: Or it really does work this time. If so, I’m sorry I need to write this down. What’s the name of this brand? I’m going to have to look into it.
Louis: It’s Lynx.
Louis: I’m curious. I always try to get deeper into who I’m talking to. Because I guess it’s as important as what you can tell us about marketing or branding. You kind of fell in love with marketing this way and you had your first job with the Edelman agency after a while. What happened between your youth, like when you were 16, 18 and your first job? What did you study? What did you do?
Jonathan: I went to a small college in Maine in the far north of New England of the United States. It’s a little small school called Colby College in the middle of nowhere. I actually majored in English literature with a specialty in romantic poetry. I started a rock band. I played synthesizer.
I spent four years reading literature in the forest, poetry in particular. Without building too much into it or reading too much into it, no pun intended on the reading part, but the value of literature as a window into many of the themes and topics that I would end up working on in marketing is again one of the things that in retrospect makes perfect sense to me but at that time I wasn’t necessarily trying to be strategic about it. I simply was interested in literature. I love reading, I love poetry, I love hearing and reading poetry aloud which I think is something missing in our lives today generally.
I actually dated a woman in college who was a classics major. She was busy translating Latin and Greek. I took four years of Latin also and that’s where we met. We used to talk about geek. We used to write each other love notes in Latin. She had an interesting position on literature and on these themes that I was exploring through reading the romantics in particular. She said, “Whatever the theme, whatever the topic, there’s a Greek or a Latin poet or playwright who thought the same and said the same thing.” She was excellent. She was an A+ student. We almost got into this geeky sort of competition where I’d say, “What about the Keith’s poem about losing a vision of perfection and the crushing blow of that human emotion and how brilliantly expressed.” She’d say, “Oh, yeah. Aeschylus did that about 2,000 years ago.”
She was brilliant at it. But still for me, this idea that literature and art maybe going all the way back to ancient times to give her credit where credit is due, was touching on and exploring a lot of the same themes and ideas that I would end up touching and exploring as a marketer and as a communicator. I think that without pushing it too far, you could argue that here we are at the end of 2016, beginning of 2017 looking at this new era of ours. I’m fascinated by how much it really also resembles every other era and that we human beings tend to not change anywhere near as fast as our technology or our opinions about ourselves.
That’s what I spent four years doing. Again, at that time what I spent four years doing was reading poetry and going to parties in the forest and my band was playing psychedelic first songs; the clash and having a great time. That’s what I spent four years doing.
Louis: After those four years, what did you do to end up working for this agency?
Jonathan: I grew up in Chicago, which is the third largest city here in the United States. I grew up in the city. When I graduated from college and came back home, it took me about a nanosecond before I realized I really couldn’t find a job or wanted to be working in Chicago. I needed to be in a bigger city. I wanted to be in New York. This is, again, back in the old days before people did a lot of really pre-thought about where or what they were going to do. I pretty much just announced to my family I’m moving to New York and got on an airplane and started looking for a job in an advertising agency.
I was writing scripts for TV shows thinking I might I do that. I was interviewing for creative positions in ad agencies. After about 6 months of doing that and living burning through every friend and distant relative who was willing to let me live with them in New York City, it came time to the end of the year and my dad, credit to him said, “Sounds like you’re doing great. Guess what? Unless you find a job before the end of the year, you’re coming home.” At that point, he ran a factory that manufactured hospital supplies. He said, “I’ll give you a job.”
I’m actually remembering it now. I sort of get a shudder. I shake. At that point, I broadened my search and said I’m going to look at PR agencies and I’m not going to demand a creative role per se. I simply need to be on the communications agency world. That led me up to a much longer list of places, one of which was Edelman. I went into the Edelman office there. At the time, Richard Edelman who’s the son of the founder had just graduated from business school. There were about 10 or 12 people in the New York office. The company was based in Chicago. I met him and he pretty much said I’d work on a financial services, a commodity trader client. When I was in business school part time, now that I’m running the office, if you know anything about PR, could you run this thing starting the next day? To which of course I lied and said sure.
I got a job. I was able to avoid working in the hospital supply factory. My first account was a company called Conticommodity services which was a subsidiary of a big agri business called Continental Grain. I was a financial services publicist, which I learned how to do pretty quickly.
Louis: I can sense from your personality in the story that you have a strong personality. You seem to know what you want and you’re not afraid to go against the grain sometimes. Where do you think it’s coming from?
Jonathan: You mean my personal motivation, my personal sense of self?
Jonathan: Probably some conscious and some unconscious things. Consciously, I’m curious about the world. I don’t believe in reincarnation so I suspect that my time here is finite. I have always had a sense ever since I was a little kid, a desire to be engaged. What was it that Steve Jobs once said that you need to live everyday of your life as if it were your last. I’m not that negative about it but I’ve always been curious. I’ve always kind of had an appetite for doing different and more things.
I think the unconscious part is when you’re a Caucasian man growing up in mid-century America, you are given a sense of, I don’t know if it’s entitlement or it’s simply assumption that you have the right to explore things and explore different things. I think I don’t want to take too much credit for what I’ve done in my life because part of it was simply the circumstances that allowed it.
Quick aside, a job or two after Edelman, I got a job working at gray advertising. I remember distinctly to this day, the moment they introduced me to the team. They were all in the elevator, 20 to 30 people the floor that I was working on. They’re there to welcome me. I’m the new guy. They literally presented to me the young lady who was going to be my secretary. I marched throughout and said, “Meet your secretary.” She was very nice and friendly and walked me in. It turned out she had the exact same experience as I had. She had gotten better grades in college. She’d been in the agency longer than I was, of course because I only got there that day. Yet because of the social structure, both formally and sort of unconsciously and all of the givens, she was never encouraged or given the sense of empowerment to do what I was doing. When arguably, she was not only as capable as I was but as I learned working with her during the following years, she was actually better at it than I was. But because of the social structure she wasn’t able to do that. I benefited a lot of bit from the way things were. I need to be honest and give that credit where credit is due.
Within that context though, I’m curious. I’m as curious today as I was during that first job.
Louis: That’s quite nice of you to be honest about this. Because I don’t think that many people would be in this situation. I guess it’s good that things are changing in the right direction in terms of salaries between men and women and the role that women have in the society.
Jonathan: I hope so.
Louis: I was planning to ask you a question about another story of yours that would describe who you are today but you actually said the story, which is great. I think you’re a great story teller as well.
Jonathan: Thank you.
Louis: I think I understand a bit more who you are and why you are who you are. Just to explain to the listeners then. After Edelman, you worked for Nissan, you worked for Blockbuster, you worked for Apple as well, you are a contributor for Forbes now, and you are a contributor for advertising agency. 13 years ago you created Arcadia Labs, right?
Louis: Now you help brands to communicate better about innovation.
Jonathan: Yep, correct.
Louis: Can you remember how you got your very first customer?
Jonathan: Yeah, explicitly. I was working around the turn of the century at a systems integrator which is a big thing back then. It’s hard to remember but it was a different time. A lot of software tools, whether they were cloud-based or much more so than locally-based, there was a need to try to get them to work together.
Before there were sort of macro supply chain software platforms in the cloud, there were elements that commanded different parts of the supply chain. There was a first ever computer-based sourcing tool. There was a first ever computer-based product quality checker tool. There was a need to integrate these different software tools so that they talk to each other and literally translators that help them build up an enterprise wide technology solution.
I got involved with sort of a cutting edge one here in Chicago back around the turn of the century doing all the user experience design. I led a team of designers but arguably, we were marketers. What’s fascinating to me was to figure out how do you get a let’s say building contractor on site of a construction site, how do you get them or her to want to open a laptop and actually engage with this technology tool? This is even early, early days of CRM. We designed those and experienced those heuristics and analyzed them and designed them.
In working there, couple of the other guys there wrote a book about enterprise marketing management EMM, which was again an emergent idea of doing of the marketing supply chain, what the world was already seeing on the industrial supply chain; linking ad creative with market analysis with even sort of [00:19:02] and buying tools. It’s weird to think that it’s only 15 years ago but it really was like a different planet. Trust me, the story does have a punchline.
These guys were writing this book and they were like, “Hey, Jonathan. Will you write a chapter about the importance of customer engagement and not just hoping these tools were self-evident but giving people, looking at them as marketing communications vehicle so that you could build in usability?” Usability is a horrible computer word for loyalty and efficacy, efficiency and then benefit. I said sure.
I wrote a chapter for this book, promptly forgot about it to the point where I didn’t even buy it when it first came out, I’m embarrassed to say. I get a call from one of the authors who are friends of mine as well as work associates but whatever. A year and a half later he said, “Hey, Jonathan. This CEO read the book and he contacted us and he said he wants to do what you wrote about on your chapter.” I’m like “Okay, well good luck.” He said, “No, he wants you to do it.” I already had a job. The punch line being I talked to this guy who was the CEO of a company called Soda Club, which has brands Soda Club and SodaStream. They make compressed air canisters so that you put them in a little coffee-maker looking machine on your desk and it makes sparkling water or sparkling juices. This guy said he wanted to hire me. We came to a great conclusion so I said guess what? My consulting firm was just born.
I started out really with a client. Arguably, if I think about it, it was a content marketing success, right?
Jonathan: But I didn’t even think of it that way. There was no word for it back then. But that’s how I got my first client.
Louis: It’s really the best way to get your first client, isn’t it? You created the company because you have a client willing to pay you. That’s the best way to start. I really like your way of telling stories. I need to keep finding questions to make you tell stories. I have to rewrite every single question I have. Let’s drill down into marketing and the marketing BS out there.
Louis: I’d like to get deeper into the concept of marketing versus branding and all. The first thing, very simply if you can, let’s cut the through the BS, what does it really mean to innovate?
Jonathan: In a marketing scheme or just in a generic way?
Louis: Generally in a company we talk about innovation all the time or to innovate. What does it really mean in simple terms?
Jonathan: I think my definition, Louis, would be innovation first what it is, it’s not a synonym for change and it’s not a synonym for improvement. I think innovation is doing something that surprises you and/or your stakeholders, challenges the very premises upon which your services or products are based and demands that you think about both who you’re serving and how you’re serving them in fundamentally new ways. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s disruptive and in that I think there’s a whole bunch of problems with that theology. But I think innovation versus just simply improvement and change is really a step change. It has risk attached to it, it has daring attached to it, it has creativity attached to it. Innovation is not just new but truly different. That’s innovation.
Louis: It’s not incrementally, it’s more radical.
Jonathan: I think so. I think one of our problems as communicators specifically is that if every improvement or change is innovation, what isn’t innovation? You could almost argue that resisting change is a change, therefore, it’s innovation. I think if we’re going to talk about innovation, we got to talk about it in more clear terms. It is a step change. Innovation unlike incremental improvement has to make you a little upset in your stomach. If it doesn’t do that, it’s not innovation. It could be a great idea, it could be a profitable idea but it’s not really innovative.
Louis: Let’s define another three terms. I think there’s a lot of misconception about advertising versus marketing versus branding. Can you briefly explain the three? Because we’re going to use those terms in the next few minutes.
Jonathan: Yeah. I wish I could define it and then we could etch it on the tablets and make everybody read them. I don’t think there’s any agreement on any of the three terms, Louis. You’re absolutely right.
Advertising is the easiest. Advertising is paid commercial speech. The buzzword is paid media but I would argue own media is advertising as well. Social media posts by a company are advertising. Anything that company pays for to put in front of stakeholders is advertising.
Marketing, more broadly, is kind of a bucket for all the things a company does to communicate with the outside world and with its internal stakeholders for that matter. Marketing is, broadly speaking, not only the tools of the marketing department but it’s also in this day and age of internet, transparency and early availability. It’s really anything that a company does that affects its stakeholders is marketing. Whether they acknowledge it as such or not or whether they control it or not.
Branding is also the easiest thing to say because I think branding doesn’t exist.
Louis: Fair enough. Let’s stop and talk about something else. Why do we even need brands?
Jonathan: We don’t.
Louis: We don’t, right? Why don’t we?
Jonathan: We don’t. There are way too many people whose jobs are dependent on pretending that we do. It’s so funny actually. That was in December 16, I was quoted with this quote, a comment at a conference at the Wharton School of Business on Marketing. All the branding people on the panel then went about just ripping me a new one telling me I’m insane and I’m missing the point, of course people need brands.
Without getting into too much detail, brands were invented in the 20th century. Brands didn’t exist before then. Brands are a function of mass media and expansion of businesses. Back in China days, another ones were making plates and bowls or what have you, there were no brands. They were just businesses interacting with customers. The customers had opinions about the businesses but they weren’t separated out into something called a brand. It was their awareness and their exposure of and to the business. They learned about the business directly from their interaction. They learned about the business from others who had interactions with the same business.
But then the 20th century came around. Businesses, because of technology, could sell things over greater distances. That connection between business and customer or business and stakeholder, you could be working in a factory for a company that was based on the other side of the country or eventually the other side of the world. You didn’t have the capacity to have those interactions that you had directly with the business or directly with other people who had direct interactions with the business. Instead, what you were given was this mass media intermediary. You went from reading the local paper that said, “Here’s who stole the horses last week.” Or, “Here’s what the local silversmith is offering to customers.” You went to reading regional and then national and eventually global newspapers with global wire services.
You have these two things happening: businesses doing business across greater physical distances and media filling the gap virtually, the mass media. They’re not customized but filling the, if you will, gap. The idea of brand was invented to fill in that gap with meaning. Since I can’t interact with my telephone company because the office here in town is just a satellite office, the real people who really matter are 2,000 miles away. I’m going to interact with this idea of friendly neighborhood mobile. There’s going to be a character or there’s going to be an icon, a mascot that’s going to have all these associated benefit attached to it. I’m going to have a relationship with that instead of with the business.
That’s what gave birth to branding. It’s being able to use this new mass media to create these images and ideas with which customers could interact. That then grew. It took on a life of its own. Because once you can start inventing things about businesses, well hell, you can invent whatever you want. Then you could add things that you never could have added to claims about the business back when the customer actually interacted with and knew about the business.
The local guy who fixes your shoes or better yet the local pharmacist who mixes the cologne, if he or she works down the street from you and you know him or her, it’s very hard for him or her to make a bunch of claims that can’t be supported or substantiated. But once that chemist lives 2,000 miles away, you’ll never meet her or him. You’ll never hold them accountable. You’ll never know them.
But there’s this intermediary thing in the media called the brand. That chemist can say, “My cologne will make you irresistible to women.” It could tell me anything. It could tell you it will make you taller. It will make you happier. It will reverse the flow of time. Therefore, because I just had mass media, I have no way to test that other than my own experience. Or I could even discount it which happened over the years near the end of the 20th century and say, “Yeah, that’s just marketing. That’s just branding. I like it, who knows?” We almost learned to discount all those claims.
That’s kind of branding kind of turned in on itself and became sort of insane. If you think about all the branding claims that are absolutely unsubstantiatable, they have no reality underneath them. All these folks who make a living out of promoting them, that’s the 20th century.
What happens of course is I was talking about my job with the systems integrator. Then this thing called the internet comes around. What the internet enables is the same business model that happened before the 20th century. Even though that chemist is located in Indonesia, now I have the capacity, if I’m curious enough and I work hard enough, to learn everything that I need to know about him or her before I buy the product. Everything that the marketers put in between us is noise unless it helps me make those conclusions.
The internet fundamentally reorganizes and changes the role for marketers. But in doing so, I think it really blows up the concept of what a brand was because I don’t have to have a relationship with the brand anymore. I can go right to the company. I don’t need the brand. The brand is in my way. That’s why I say brands are dead.
Louis: I tend to agree. It’s a really great explanation. The history of business really gives us the insight that this branding is almost an anomaly in the way business is being done. Thanks for the internet where things are going back to something that is much more human and much more truthful, which is actually the next thing I want to talk to you about.
In your book Tell the Truth, you actually talked about the importance of companies to be truthful. It blows my mind, not that your idea is actually extraordinary. Without disrespecting what you’ve done, why do you think businesses have to be reminded that telling the truth is important? That should be obvious, right?
Jonathan: Yeah. You know what? My friend Seth Godin actually wrote a Blurb and he said something like, “I don’t know why this is a thing. But it’s still a thing.”
I think the reason that businesses need to be reminded is actually deeper than that. I think it’s businesses need to be taught. I’m not certain it’s something they know and forgotten, I think it’s something that they’ve just been sort of trained to disregard.
It was funny when I came out with that book and with Branding Only Works on Cattle back in 2008. Back to your question about definitions, the amount of word games I played with fellow marketers about what a brand was or wasn’t and what engagement mentor didn’t mean. It was just fascinating to me because what they really were good at doing was complicating a subject so that they didn’t have to do anything about it. It’s not that businesses know that the truth’s important, it’s that they don’t know that truth is important. Yet truth is the ultimate basis upon which customers make if not their first decision, their repeat decisions.
By the way when the book came out in 2012 on Tell the Truth, the amount of debates I was in with marketers who said, “But what’s truth?” We have that debater now here in America, in our political situation. But they were like, “What is truth? Your truth could be different than my truth?” I said no. My truth is acknowledging objective reality. I can have a different opinion about it, I can choose to care or not care about it but truth is a shared perspective on the way things are.
Then we can conclude whatever the hell we want. We could change our opinions. You can sell me that cologne and say, “Actually, it really won’t attract women.” I could then say well then, I’m not going to buy it. Or I could say that’s okay, I kind of like the smell of it. You know what? No cologne’s going to help me attract women so what do I care? Yeah, I’ll still buy it. You’d never do that as a marketer that bluntly but that is ultimately where your at.
I’ll give you another story. For that book, I did a college tour here in the U.S. thinking I’m sick and tired of talking to marketers about the truth. I’m going to talk to future marketers. It was great. I funded it out of my own pocket too which was insane. I went to probably 30 or 40 colleges and universities around America talking about truth. It was interesting because one of the examples I used was the women’s cosmetics industry. Talk about crazy promises. Even low end but especially high end women’s cosmetics, they’d literally promise to reverse the flow of time. Or they will generate new skin.
It’s amazing the nonsense that gets put in the marketing and branding for those products. To a tee, you ask a woman, ask your fiancé, my wife. You ask them do they think any of it is true? Their answer is well no, but on the off chance it might help or what else am I going to do? They know it’s all a lie but it’s almost resignation. A lot of these rooms are full of many more women than men which is a whole another topic. Which is why business marketing in PR field kind of skew feminine? I can’t answer that but I’d love to get your thought on that.
But I’m talking to these room fulls and I said let me test on this idea for you. What if instead of, I picked a brand for just arbitrarily, Lancôme. Great up high end, L’Oreal, it’s a great brand. I said imagine if their general branding position was this. Instead of saying we’re going to reverse the flow of time and make 60 year old women look like 14 year old girls.
How about instead the positioning in the marketing said this, not these exact words, you’re going to age and it’s inescapable. What we’re doing and what we will continue to do until the moment you give up on us is that we will innovate ways for you to look the best, the most confident and the most attractive as you possibly can. We will actually work to help you always be able to present yourself in the way you want to be seen in the world. We will be your partner in that journey. We will be your reliable partner because we care about you as an individual and we care and respect you as a human being. That’s our promise as a cosmetics company.
I’ll tell you Louis, more than one instance I had women in the room cry saying because I said it a lot better, they’re like, “Wow. I would totally buy that. I would be their customer for life if they did that.” You know what? We haven’t heard anything like that from a cosmetics brand ever. We probably never will. It’s not so much reminding them on the importance of truth. It’s really opening their eyes to how powerful the truth can be.
Louis: I don’t know what to say. I wanted to buy cosmetic products as soon as you finished your sentences. I just wanted to be beautiful again.
Jonathan: See? I did some work for L’Oreal years ago. I’m thinking about Catherine Deneuve and Helen Mirren, all of these aging women who are stunningly beautiful. Here we are, two guys talking about it, but I’ve talked to a lot of women and I’m married to one. We have a 21 year old daughter and she thinks the same thing. This idea of marketing and branding has to be based on selling you happy lies, that you know are lies and we know are lies but let’s just buy into it together is not sustainable. It’s not sustainable because the technology, the internet blows it up and because experience proves it false.
Louis: There is this brand in Europe once again called Dove. Do you have it in the U.S.?
Jonathan: Yes, that’s Unilever? Yeah.
Louis: Yeah. They’ve tried something similar. What they’ve tried to do is to stop showcasing models and actually showcase real women with curls or beautiful in their own ways. Normal women. I think it had a huge impact in Europe in terms of advertising and people really connected with it. But I think that after a few months, people realized that they were photoshopping their pictures even then. They kind of shot themselves in the foot.
I guess to come back to your point and I completely agree with it. Do you think it’s because they’ve always done it this way and they will never risk any move that will be innovating in term of marketing? Do you think that’s the reason why none of them have done it the way you’ve said it?
Louis: Fair enough.
Jonathan: Yeah. In fact, Louis, I’ve never thought about it this way. But you’re really challenging me to think about this which is great. I would argue that real truth, objective truth we shouldn’t have to qualify but let’s say truthy truth, the truth of truths, is the actual disruptive idea that will blow up marketing.
No slight to Lancôme or pick any brand, Maybelline, I don’t really care. Any of these cosmetics companies, they’re already getting blown up. They’re already getting disrupted by local small-scale organically or sustainably based products and services. They’re getting already blown up by a culture that is allowing women to be less made up and less perfect in work settings and certainly in social settings.
There are always different factors underway that are undermining these brands’ belief and these businesses’ belief in the power of branding and the sort of happy consensual lie that they call brands. I’m not certain they’ll ever change but they’ll just become marginalized. Think about it. Think about the power of Coca-cola as a brand or Procter & Gamble and their various products. The U.S version of Unilever and all the Tide dishwashing liquid or all the brands that they’ve literally written the book on how to create brands, how to create perceived value when none exists.
They’re all going to get blown up by the world, by cultural change and by technology change. Here in my little town outside Chicago, we don’t buy named brands for anything. We buy a local detergent that is sustainable and water soluble and doesn’t destroy the river. We buy all our produce at a local market instead of at the grocery store. We buy clothing that doesn’t have to be taken at the dry cleaners, which is going to transform retail.
It’s interesting that marketers, when we look about marketing changing and marketing growing, I think they’re going to be dead enders, they’re going to promote brands until the moment they retire or they’re fired but it will change. All those people in the rooms I was talking to in 2012, they’re all out there now. They’re into their first, maybe second jobs. They’re not going to take that shit for five seconds.
Louis: I love it. I wish I could contradict you because that’s what I do. I like to contradict people. But I actually agree 100%. My prediction and I think our prediction is that those brands will die, those companies will die unless they wake up and realize that just tell the truth to your customers. Just care about them and stop feeding them lies that are just nonsense. Be real. It’s amazing to see that there is a comeback of the local shops and the local products. It’s exactly because of what you said, the fact that people do want to connect with companies and people. They want to have this connection emotionally and in the experience in the day to day. They want to touch things, they want to see things. They want to be trusted. They want to trust in return.
There’s this good brand as well. I’m going to ask this third question, the same thought question. Do you know Lush? Is it in the U.S. as well?
Jonathan: Yeah. It’s the soap brand where they chop it off the block.
Louis: Yeah. To me that’s the exact opposite of all the L’Oreal and all those kind of brands because they are against testing with animals. They actually use local products I believe. They have a very artisan, very manual way to do things to their products. They let their employees in each store put the liquid in each bottle. It’s very much more an experience. You enter into the Lush store and you can smell all of the things. It’s completely the opposite of what’s going on in T.V. ads with L’Oreal telling you that you will feel beautiful again and you have a small print, 71% of 100 women agree. This kind of small ads and print advertising that are just lies. Sorry, I’m just kidding.
Jonathan: Indeed, that’s a great example, I actually got it. Lush is a great example. Let me give you another missed opportunity. Again P&G, big consumer products business here. We had soap operas here in the ‘50s which were the day time T.V. dramas for housewives to watch. They were called soap operas because Procter & Gamble was the sponsor and they made soap. It was always this drama brought to you by Ivory soap or whatever soap. They literally did write a book about marketing. They got a lot of positive coverage over the past couple years.
For a program they did along with the Olympics where they were celebrating the moms of Olympic athletes, and they spent, I’m making this up, I don’t know what the real number is but I think it was head or north of $50 million or $60 million more. Well done TV adverts. 3 second spots, 15 second spots during the Olympics. Blah, blah, blah is running the race or skiing the whatever. Then here’s her mom who woke up every morning and took her to practice. Here is the mom who took his baseball uniform and washed it before. Thank you, credit to the moms or whatever.
I thought to myself, does anybody know what Procter & Gamble's’ policy is for maternity leave for employees? Because to me, that matters more to me and it matters more to my wife and it matters more to my daughter than the $50 million they spent to celebrate some abstraction called moms. How do they treat moms who work in their factories? You tell me that and tell me you value moms. That could actually be enough for me to pick your soap. But I guarantee you, Louis, that thought never occurred to them because the marketers don’t think in that way.
That’s the way you differentiate. That’s the way, to your point earlier, you engage with a business, not just this artificial construct of a brand. What an idea. In that way, could a big global brand compete with a local artisan brand? Perhaps. Maybe because of their size and their strength, Procter & Gamble Ivory soap could do more for the women and its employee than that local artisan can do for the women who maybe owns the VAT that she’s making the soap but she actually has to work 18 hours a day to do it. Maybe they can make the case that we actually give our moms more freedom.
I could choose to ignore it, I could choose to disregard it, I could choose to reject it or I could choose to embrace it. But they don’t think that way. I thought what a missed opportunity. But the marketing trades, my advertising age they’re like, “He’s a genius? Wow. This is engagement marketing and all the other buzz words.” I’m like no it’s just a pretty lie.
Louis: I love this conversation. I think it goes back to, it’s not a trend, it’s going back to the truth of companies, like a website like Glassdoor showcasing what employees actually think of the business and they can do so anonymously. It can then rank companies based on that. I guess that’s one step in the right direction.
I never thought about it this way, the story like the example you just gave but it makes complete sense. I have plenty of other questions but I think there’s one question I need to ask first and foremost. Let’s get actionable here. Let’s try to give the listeners some actions they can make today or tomorrow in their job or as leaders in their company. How can they make people believe what they say? Not in making them, as you said, pretty lies but actually how can they tell the truth? What’s the step involved?
Jonathan: Right. Good question, Louis. I think there are two answers. There’s the what could you stop doing and then what could you start doing? They’re not one and then the other. They’re not linear but the stopping part is probably the more actionable one, which is if you look at the amount of BS that gets promoted by a brand in any given press release, in any bit of own content they’re creating for the website, sometimes I wonder how the marketers produce that stuff with a straight face. Or you read the four sentence quote attributed to the CEO in a press release announcing some incremental innovation. Our megahertz transmitter has gone from 33 MHz to 28 MHz. Then there’s the quote from the CEO saying, “We’re a leader in the internet of things and industrial 4.0 automated…”
The first thing you can do is start to challenge and slow down the crap that gets put out. Stop making the problem worse. If you’re a PR person, challenge yourself and challenge your CEO, your executive client, your customers to speak more honestly and more simply. Stop trying to dictate and narrate what the world is. Instead acknowledge it and allow it to be.
The first part is to just apply a litmus test of accuracy and truthfulness to the stuff you do. That could be a subtle change. Your task with editing copy for an ad or your task with creating social posts, challenge yourself to take a step back from a hyperbole. Challenge yourself to take a step back from not just putting out something that is on brand but is on truth. Trying to find other subtle ways you can improve the quality of what you’re already doing or at least avoid making things worse. That’s something you can start doing without any approval. It’s just simply could be how you edit and how you think about the content you create.
The harder one, the harder thing is to actually proactively start talking to the organization about ways to open up the door and being more transparent and more engaging with what the business is doing. That’s a harder path to hoe because there aren’t a lot of really natural internal advocates for that. But I think where that conversation starts is simply in opinion polling and other behavioral analytics that can tell you whether or not your customers are as loyal as you think they are. I think if you start serving and start researching not only how do customers and other stakeholders think about this weird construct called the brand. But if you start looking at other questions about that relationship and some of the MPS stuff is kind of crazy but generally it makes sense. Are you a willing recommender? Questions like that to your customers and stakeholders.
Then also looking at metrics outside of the marketing sphere. You can be doing a brilliant job on engagement on Facebook, yet your employee retention could be going down. But because those metrics aren’t marketing metrics, they're business metrics, the marketers don’t necessarily track them.
I think if you, as a marketer, want to start making fundamental change and make your business more truthful, you gotta open your eyes to some of those other metrics so that you’re really not just measuring what people think and how they feel because those are not necessarily predictive of future anything, but open your mind and open your reach to some of these other metrics. What else is going on in the business that you could reasonably argue is, if not a direct effect, at least an indirect outcome of what you’re telling the world.
Again, back to my former employer, Edelman does this survey every year called the trust indicator. I think it’s what it’s called. Trust perimeter. It’s a fascinating thing. It’s macrocosmic. It’s way too high level to be actionable necessarily but I still think it’s really insightful because what it’s saying most recently is that there’s this really horrible gap between the small number of leads who understand and if you will, understand the truth of your business. Then everybody else who's generally learned to be more distrusting, more cynical and less loyal. These are big macro issues.
If you’re Coca-cola you might think, “Well, we’re big. We’re a great brand. They’re not talking about us.” But yes they are. Or if you’re Lancôme, yeah this is talking about you. Open up your mind as a marketer to see these bigger trends and see where their impact is felt in the business other than just your own marketing sliver. As I’m saying that, Louis, I realized I gave you no answer. That’s the harder one.
The easier one is that you can change the way you edit. You can change the way you write. You can change the way you conceptualize. You can do that on your own this afternoon.
Louis: I guess let’s say for a marketer in a company where this person is not a leader, where he or she doesn’t have the power to change things right now, I guess one advice from what you’re saying would to literally send a survey to customers or even people outside of the customer and ask them with, maybe adding a paragraph of text or headline and say to what degree do you feel you trust this to be true, or something along those lines.
Louis: Is it bullshit or not, basically?
Louis: Then going back to the CEO and say, “Hey, 90% of people think what we say is complete bullshit.”
Louis: That’s a big way I think to change, to make change happen inside an organization.
Jonathan: Agree. But Louis, you could not just as easily, maybe more easily. You could go call up a friend in HR and say, “Can I see some data on employee retention or on our conversion rate for employee recruitment?” Or, “How our average open rate for unfilled position?” Whatever the metrics are in HR.
If you’re a marketer and you want to live and walk the walk and talk the talk, you can actually take that document. You could tee it up internally to your fellow marketers or even to senior executives and say, “This isn’t our job, we don’t recruit but we wonder whether or not there’s a connection between our efficiency and our success as marketers and as branders and as communicators and these numbers.”
There’s no direct line, we’re not testing, we’re not volunteering to be responsible for them but post the question what if these numbers and assuming they’re going down, if they’re going up take credit for them obviously, but if they’re going down ask the question, could what we are saying the customers or the other stakeholders be impacting this because our marketing numbers, we do the surveys and of course everybody loves what we do because that’s how you do surveys in marketing. You make sure you’re successful before you even run it.
We’re doing fine but we’re not happy with these numbers here. We wonder if we’re having an effect on it. Or you could do the same thing to your supply chain and you could say, “Okay vendor relations manager guy, how are we doing in terms of the quality of vendors that we’re getting applying to work with us?” Or “The net payables that we expect from the customers that we’re doing work for, are they paying us on time or is that slowing down or is that speeding up?”
That’s metrics business wise across the enterprise that I would argue are at least indirectly affected by your trustworthiness and your value as a communicator. We just don’t look. We don’t look there. I think simply asking the question I think can change the kinds of answers you start looking at them.
Louis: I completely agree. There’s a trend in marketing where a lot of digital marketers are in front of their computer all day and looking at Google analytics and their engagement in social media. I don’t blame them but it’s true that there’s one metric and one leading indicator that’s not measured, this is trust. I think if this trust question or element was in every single dashboard, in every single company, in every single digital marketing department, I guess TV ads will be a little bit less cheesy and all of that.
Louis: Two questions before we wrap up because we’ve been talking for almost an hour and I didn’t even see. It’s not a problem.
Jonathan: Oh, sorry. This is fun. You’re a smart guy.
Louis: It’s not a problem whatsoever, it’s a good thing. What do you know about marketing today that we’ll see between 10 years and what should marketers learn today that they would still be able to apply in 10 years or 20 years?
Jonathan: The fundamental point, Louis, would be that technology changes, people don’t. Any marketing solution that presumes to suggest or to know that consumers or people are going to make decisions in different ways for different reasons is a fool’s errand. I think the marketers who assume that decision making of a consumer today is more similar than not to the way that a medieval peasant made a decision about something in the 1400’s or a Victorian England barrister made in the 1800’s.
Those are the basis upon which choices are made. I don’t mean that this is a negative. I’m not talking down at consumers. I’m simply saying people are people. They don’t change. Any of these solutions that suggest people, they’re going to do things in different ways or for different reasons. I think this is driven a lot of our embrace of social media particularly.
I think in 10 years we’re going to look back and go, “Boy was that stupid.” It’ll get replaced by some other whacky theory that helps marketers avoid the reality that convincing folks to part with their money requires truth. Full stop.
Louis: It’s funny because that’s what I say in my team and that’s why I try to say to as many people as I can. Marketing for me, it’s all about understanding people so that we can provide them what they need. Therefore, by thinking with Pharaoh’s principles, what we know to be true is that psychology, human behavior, all these kinds of stuff are fields that marketers should know inside out.
I believe every marketer should study psychology or at least human behavior because that’s the basis of marketing. Knowing your technology or knowing your tools will change that. There are billions of years of evolution behind us. There’s a reason why we are the way we are. It’s not like in five years it’s going to change.
Jonathan: It’s beautiful.
Jonathan: If you want to be a successful marketer, you have to have an inherent love and respect for humanity. You can’t look at it as an audience or segments to be exploited or used or manipulated. You have to have a love of people. It’s empowering. I’d much rather talk about the poetry of marketing than the technology. Because I think ultimately it’s about life, not about things. Anyway, that’s another conversation.
Louis: Yeah. I think we need to schedule another episode with you.
Louis: Because there’s so much more. Outside of your great books that we will by the way share on the podcast notes and make sure that people can get access to, is there any other resource that you would recommend marketers to read today of you?
Jonathan: The short answer is no, other than don’t look at anything that has marketing in the headline. I’m with you, Louis. I try to stay updated on neuroscience and on behavioral studies. Truthfully, read a book on history and for that matter read a book on poetry. You’ll probably learn more about marketing and about people than you could from the latest and greatest marketing term.
I got to say I stay current but I stop going to marketing conferences a couple of years ago because it just got too redundant. I just got too busy listening to people talk about how they just discovered something the first time when again it’s like my old girlfriend said, “The Romans did that.”
I would say the best thing you could do as a marketer is open your mind to other activities and other professions.
Louis: That’s a great way to end this episode. The last question, where can listeners connect with you and hear more from you?
Jonathan: Three quick ways. One, my personal site is jonathansalembaskin.com, where I list links to everything I do, my agency work and also my creative work. I’m a musician too. I have enough guts to my light guy empowerment to actually post my songs and risk people listening to them, which is scary.
Professionally, my agency which focuses on communicating innovation primarily for large publicly-listed B2B companies is arcadialab.net where we do describe our methodology. We have a lot of free content on ways to think about and do PR differently. Primarily we’re focused on earn media.
Then thirdly, because our company is Arcadia Communications Lab, we do various experiments. Our latest experiment is a new site called innovationcommunicator.com where we’re writing stories and helping brands share those stories, businesses share those stories as a new service for other media and for industry analysts. It’s a place where the idea of big companies can and should innovate is supported and evidenced. We share examples. That’s a new site and that’s innovationcommunicator.com.
Louis: Fantastic. Do you use Twitter much or LinkedIn?
Jonathan: Yeah, I do. I’m on both. I’m on LinkedIn. My Twitter is @jonathansalem. I think I have something like 30,000 followers though I think a fair number of them are bots but be that as it may.
Louis: They’re probably fake. You probably bought them.
Jonathan: I didn’t but probably somebody did on my behalf so and so. If you’re out there, thank you.
Louis: Alright. I think that’s the perfect way to end this episode. Thank you so much for your time once again.
Jonathan: My pleasure, Louis. Thank you. Take care.
Louis: Take care.