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Utility Blindness

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On my last flight to Dallas for a pitch, I was inspired by a large, blank piece of paper: my at-home computer-printed boarding pass.

I had printed this piece of paper, put it on my desk at work, put it in my briefcase, checked it on the way to the airport, checked it again as I approached security and then, when looking for my group number, looked over it again.

That's six exposures. How would a media company talk about this highly targeted, zero waste, high-reach media opportunity if they were selling it? It would be extremely expensive, but currently it's just underutilized owned media filled with flight information and disclaimers. Some airlines might clutter it with a coupon or two. Instead, it could be a brand experience: restaurant recommendations in the destination from the airline's head chef, dotted lines that turn the paper, like origami, into the plane's logo, or good business travel advice from the airline's CEO.

A boarding pass is an opportunity -- an opportunity to do something different. To stand out among the pedestrian utility that is the invisible world of boarding passes. For an aggressively competitive industry such as the airline business, this would seem to be a communication opportunity missed. So why has nobody grabbed hold of it?

Brands and consumers alike suffer from this syndrome: repetitive everyday actions eventually become invisible to our conscious minds. Take the daily school run. Our brains become accustomed to the journey to the point that we do not remember the section in between starting the car and waving the kids goodbye. People are wired to complete everyday tasks without fully engaging in the inquisitive parts of their consciousness. Whether it's grabbing a grocery cart at the supermarket or standing at an ATM for the fourth time that week, our brains are wired to complete the task with the minimum of cerebral effort. It's all about conserving processing power. Unless something out of the ordinary interrupts the program we are unlikely to fully notice the journey.

This "utility blindness" presents innovative brands with a unique opportunity to capitalize on the huge reach of otherwise ignored everyday mainstream behaviors happening while consumers are experiencing the product or service. There are myriad underutilized spaces where brands could be creating valued experiences -- packaging, buildings, brand Web sites, receipts, tickets, invoices, staff. This is especially true for any brand that has a physical space and service experience such as airlines, hotels, restaurants and retailers. 

Every time we walk into a store, visit a Web site to find a particular crumb of product information or wait to check into our hotel rooms, we are susceptible to be surprised into engaging with relevant "of the moment" brand experiences.

Wherever the brand's audience regularly comes into contact with routine, there's an opportunity to stand out by subverting the status quo experience. Essentially, what we're talking about is disrupting, engaging and then involving our audience -- a rare combination. Paid media often disrupts and sometimes engages (Nike's "Write the Future"); earned media sometimes engages and often involves (Burger King's "Whopper Sacrifice"). Owned media is the unusual position of being able to do all three (Amazon recommendations and users review innovations). 

Marketers can disrupt the norm by using elements in unexpected places where the consumer doesn't expect them. Therefore, we're able to engage individuals with an on-the-spot incentive and then involve them with our brands.

There's a need for this type of thinking in the marketplace -- thinking that cost effectively builds deeper relationships with brands and enables the most of pre-existing high-traffic "free" assets. 

These assets present a lot of underutilized value. Advertising in the U.S. generates about $170 billion. The average American consumer sees 3,000 marketing messages a day. This means that the average cost per thousand impressions is 51 cents. If you are having, say, 12 daily utility moments -- for example, four "journeys," three meals, two purchase experiences and maybe three unbranded Internet page visits -- then these tasks equate to $680 million of brand opportunities.

With media becoming more fragmented, it's comforting to know there's still a place you can count on to reach the right people: your customers and potential brand activists. They're the people who already visit you, use you, or may already be in the aisle staring right at you. By awakening the consumer into seeing in a new way, we have the rare gift of making people feel more positively about us while our brand is in their hands.

Clayton Ruebensaal is CEO of BMB NY. He can be reached at clayton.ruebensaal@bmb-nyc.com.