Consumer Republic

Planners jilt consumers for union with brands
Looking at the standing-room crowd in the ballroom of a San Diego Sheraton for the Account Planning Group-U.S.’s annual conference, one wouldn’t suspect planning is a profession in crisis. Yet despite its obvious success–or because of it–planning is plagued with doubts about its practices and fears that the discipline is losing its edge–the worst thing you can say about an ad professional. In 10 years, planners have gone from young turks struggling for acceptance and understanding to sufferers of a midlife crisis.
Indeed, the conference, with the theme “Is Planning Over-Prescribed?” had the feel of an establishment event, symbolized by the transformation of the ad hoc APG-U.S. into a nonprofit corporation, complete with administrator and board.
Yet however mature American planning may be, it’s apparently not mature enough to have developed American leadership. Of the half-dozen Americans on the conference program, not a single one was a planner. There are too many British accents at the podium and too many British planners still being imported, declared Goodby, Silverstein & Partners’ Jon Steel in a charmingly self-deprecating performance that was, ironically, quintessentially British.
Urging revolt, Steel displayed the U.S. immigration service number for Yanks to call and complain, though he seemed more indignant about the Brits’ lingering dominance than the native audience, which seems to take its colonial status for granted.
In the general sessions, the Brits delivered a remarkably consistent message. Last year’s planners’ conference focused on inspiring, celebrating and championing consumers; this year’s seemed like a convention of self-esteem counselors, the consumer is now out. The brand (surprise!) is in.
Steel worried that planning had become “too consumercentric,” while John Hegarty and Bartle Bogle Hegarty/NY planning director Emma Cookson, echoing him, called for an approach that was “brandcentric” instead.
Adam Morgan, of the London planning consultancy eatbigfish, spoke of “challenger brands” being “idea-centered” instead of “consumer-centered.” Such brands, Morgan explained, have a “lighthouse identity,” meaning they “do not navigate by the consumer. The consumer navigates by them.”
For attendees who still hadn’t gotten the message, there was an afternoon training session given by Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners’ Nigel Carr entitled, “Don’t Start With the Consumer, Start With the Brand.” A new orthodoxy is born.
Now, a midlevel planner listening to this mantra could be excused for feeling a little like a loyal party member who, after years of hearing Trotsky extolled as a hero of the revolution, opens the Soviet Encyclopedia one day to find his image gone and Stalin standing in his place. True, planners have chafed at the label “voice of the consumer” almost from the day it was coined.
Still, the founding rationale of the practice has been the belief that in an age when most products are commodities, the only exploitable distinctions are the ones that exist in consumers’ heads. To be experts about consumers is to be experts about brands because consumers are brands’ ultimate authors.
This year the message was different: Brands now exist a priori. They’re not inside our minds, but beacons on the horizon. The new orthodoxy suggests that brands possess inherent traits: truth, authenticity, vision. That is, brands are imbued with such virtues as friendliness, warmth and trust, qualities once reserved for mere mortals.
Thus, it seems the death of virtue and authority so feared by conservative William Bennett has been highly exaggerated. Perhaps he’d take comfort in knowing that planners are assigning brands attributes we once claimed for ourselves.
In practice, I’m not sure this change in rhetoric means much. Focus groups–sneered at by several speakers–are not disappearing any time soon. Besides, this is business, not graduate school, and in the end it all comes down to being smart about your client’s business–however you get there.
But if ideas are as important as planners say, there’s surely meaning in this shift from planners as consumer avatars to priests of the cult of brand personality.
For years we have been hearing about the relationship between the brand and the consumer. Now that important relationship has taken a peculiar turn: It is one between leader and follower, authority and acolyte, idol and believer.
As Jack Rooney, former vice president of marketing at Miller Brewing Co., reverently put it, “We’re always students, never the master. The brand is the master.” I didn’t know whether to applaud or get down on my knees and pray.