With the fetishization of data so prevalent these days, a lot of decision-making has been put on autopilot. Not so long ago, there was a time where we had to make the tough decisions, using little more than our instincts and on occasion, a dash of common sense. It’s much easier today, though, to mitigate the risk of ownership, to circumvent the discomfort of accountability that comes with trusting your gut. These days, there’s a practical and pragmatic alternative, a much safer and easily measured surrogate for making those difficult choices — data. Believe me, I get it. For all intents and purposes, it makes sense. Who’s ever been ridiculed for recommending a data-driven approach to decision-making? Numbers don’t lie, right?
I don’t want to sound ignorant of the power that great data has to offer us, but I just worry it’s becoming more of an excuse than an enabler. At a time where we need far-reaching ideas, divergent thinking, something outside of the norm to break through the fragmented clutter and to differentiate our brands, an obsession with data isn’t going to be of much use. After all, nothing truly new, unique or innovative has been proven in advance by data. I guess what I’m getting at is if we want to do groundbreaking work, both brands and their agencies must accept there will be clear as well as unforeseeable risks involved — that nothing’s guaranteed. But above all, in order to produce something truly remarkable, I think it’s imperative that, on occasion, we take a step back from the chaos of now and reacquaint ourselves with the unpopular and rather old-fashioned idea of trusting our guts.
The obsession over data also poses a considerable threat to our work as brand practitioners. While the debate over what is a brand is a topic deserving of its own post — or many for that matter — I’ll throw my hat in the ring. To me, a brand is the amalgamation of many elements and associations. The brand idea is the connective tissue that binds all of these constituent parts together into a memorable and believable story. Each tiny piece standing alone holds little to no value. Rather, it’s the totality of all these things, when brought together as one combined entity, that makes a brand authentic, desirable and valuable.
Here’s another way to look at it. Think of a song you really love. For example, Radiohead’s “The National Anthem” (an incredible jam in my humble opinion). Now imagine if you were just listening to the song’s bass line. As much as I love Colin Greenwood of Radiohead, the bass line for “The National Anthem” is rather repetitive standing on its own. However, when paired with the other elements of the overall composition, it’s perfect. Much like a brand, a song is the sum of all its parts. No one piece is built to stand on its own — each element is inextricably linked to the others.
(If you don’t like music, it’s reasonable to believe you’re a heartless monster who shouldn’t be thinking about brands in the first place. Suffice it to say, though, this same analogy could be applied to food, writing or sports to make the same point.)
Either way, it’s become common practice, to test and research the individual components of a brand to death. How does this color make you feel? What does this slogan make you believe about our product? Does this sans serif font increase brand affinity amongst Millenials? So on and so forth. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think research and testing is critical. I love finding the small changes that make a big difference in our work, and despite what the creative team might believe, we’d be foolish to assume every swing at the plate is going to be a home run. But I think there’s a time and place for this sort of thing. That’s because testing the individual elements of a brand, without a strong understanding of the brand itself is not optimization — it’s stepping over dollars to pick up pennies. What I’m trying to say here is that there’s a pecking order that must be upheld, or in some cases, restored. Testing, not anchored in a thorough understanding of the brand, is like an untethered spacewalk. The possibilities are endless, but altogether frightening.
Ultimately, for all of these things it’s not one or the other. It’s not either or. It’s about a balance. It can’t be all gut, all instinct and no truth or fact and vice versa. It’s finding an equilibrium between the two — the long- and short-term, the big ideas that make for powerful brands and the nimble agility needed to exploit that value, to not just exist but thrive within a rapidly evolving marketplace.
Today, as a people, we are constantly connected, exposed to more people, ideas, communities, memes, case studies, brands, messages, baby pictures, opinions, media, listicles, gossip, white papers, click bait, etc. than ever before. We’ve grown accustomed to being inundated, so much so that we’ve slipped into an almost comatose state where we work to ingest all of this information. However, inside, our minds are working overtime to sift through, synthesize, categorize and organize this constant onslaught — to make connections amongst and between the deluge of digital detritus that floods in. To me, it’s this very dynamic that makes the case for building brands grounded in strategy and codified by a single idea or purpose that is bigger than the present.
In a world of constant noise and chaos, brands who can find a way to evolve while remaining cohesive at their core will be the ones whose message will stick and stay, each interaction clinging together, with a uniform clarity and purpose, like a beacon of light for our foggy minds. As humans we crave things that make sense, things that can be rationalized. We’ve been programmed to try and find order in the madness, which is what’s so magnetizing about buoyant ideas, concepts and constructs that are able to float to the surface of our flooded lives. Engaging just to engage — one fragmented piece at a time — does nothing in the service of the future of a brand or the people who want to believe in it. So while there’s no denying it’s great to have all of these new advancements and opportunities at our disposal, what really makes now a time of unbound potential is not so much in what they bring to us, but rather in what we can bring to them.
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