The Rise of ‘Advertility’

The notion of brands taking on more purposeful, useful roles in the lives of their consumers is nothing new. Nor is the belief that the Web, and technology in general, have turbo-charged the ability for brands to provide more meaningful value for their customers. So lately I’ve been thinking about why our industry has yet to fully embrace this phenomenon.

Deeper customer engagement, technology innovation, real-time marketing, social amplification. These are wonderful things to evangelize. I’m just wondering if we’re asking all the right questions about how we apply these many virtues of the digital space. Instead of starting with the typical question of “What’s our message and how does it tie back to our product and business goals?” perhaps there’s an equally important question we often choose not to ask: “What can we be doing to help consumers, and improve some aspect of their lives?”

Today’s consumer has been trained to expect more utility and value out of their digital experiences and, in turn, out of their exchanges with brands. This may be due to the burgeoning number of digital business models that are “service” oriented, replete with tools to improve their customers’ lives (think Trip Advisor and Kayak in travel, Mint and Wasabi in financial services, Yelp and Urban Spoon in dining, etc.). It’s also thanks to the huge adoption of the iPhone and the “app fever” it has spawned, where consumers have become accustomed to having really useful tools at their fingertips (in addition to plenty of not-so-useful, but nonetheless addictive games and gadgets. And if anyone wants to throw down on FS5 Air Hockey, game on!).

Brands that understand this phenomenon will increasingly adopt new interaction models where consumers are provided with tools, services and other meaningful content that add tangible value to their everyday lives — and which position the brand as part of that experience, without necessarily “asking for the sale” or demanding an immediate ROI.

Nike+ has been one of the most heralded Web sites of the past several years, and with good reason: It underscored a philosophical shift from how many companies still approach digital marketing. Nike’s global digital director of media said he viewed the Web “as a chance to build Nike’s brand by providing valuable services.” Two really important words in there: “valuable” and “services.” Nike+ built something additive to the customer experience. It filled an unmet need that was far bigger than any product they sold. And it sold lots of products because of it.

One digital experience we created for Charles Schwab is a tool for younger investors, who are intimidated by investing and worry they are “late to the game” compared to their peers. By having consumers answer some simple questions, we were able to show them how they “stacked up” relative to their peers on many measures.  It’s the most heavily used area of that Web site, arguably because it sought to scratch a real consumer itch as its primary objective.

The mobile space is clearly one ripe for the “utility” game, as evidenced by the 2 billion-plus iPhone app downloads to date. Kraft’s “iFood Assistant,” Benjamin Moore’s “Color Capture” and Barnes & Noble’s “Bookstore” apps are great examples of brands providing real value to their customers, while at the same time advancing a dialogue about their brand and products. Brand apps may never be able to compete with the most popular apps from a volume perspective, but by basing their apps on true consumer needs, brands stand a very good chance of seeing far greater traction in this space.

I believe we will see the rise of a new type of marketing in the digital age, which as a fan of wordplay, I’ll dub “advertility.” It’s a true value exchange, where marketing balances the brand’s goals with a higher-order purpose of providing some tangible value to the consumer.

This is not to say that unbridled creativity, with the goal of entertaining and engaging consumers online, has lost its luster. Recent campaigns and their viral success prove this, including Evian’s “Roller babies,” Cadbury’s “Gorilla” and T-Mobile’s flash mobs.  Every brand is unique, and has many ways of earning the time and attention of consumers online. Likewise, every brand has an opportunity — perhaps even an obligation, in order to remain relevant moving forward — to pay it forward.

Which brings me to the point. We know our consumers inside and out — their aspirations, desires, and unmet needs. Let’s take all of that insight and apply it more broadly and more generously.  Let’s think about what problems we can solve for our customers and how we can improve some aspect of their daily experiences. Successful digital marketing moves advertising from a message to an experience, which optimistically, results in a conversation. It’s a pretty good bet that providing consumers with a valuable service will give them something worth talking about.

It’s a thought as old as the Bible itself — give and ye shall receive — but one on which the Internet has shined a new light.

Jeff Brooks is co-CEO and chief digital officer of Euro RSCG New York. He can be reached at jeff.brooks@eurorscg.com.