Utility and empowerment must be the future for Irish advertising

Originally printed in Marketing Magazine 

Post World War 1 and the ravages of war, American society faced a crisis of a different kind. The great conflict had mobilised the American economy to produce a tremendous amount of material goods, employing millions and revolutionising industry. The old adage of war being great for businesses was true. But this prosperity was also in danger.

The economics of an increasingly urban American depended on demand. Yet with peace, demand stopped suddenly. So the U.S. government turned despairingly to marketers to re-create it, offering Madison Avenue a power it’s since never relinquished. But of course, the most effective way to bridge the demand gap was not by telling people the truth. Ad. narratives were purposely designed to instill fear within the audience – a fear that they don’t quite fit in, that others were better adjusted, smelled better, looked better or were better people because of the products they purchased. Of course, the magic cure for this dissonance just happened to be the product the advert happened to be pushing.


This type of ‘inadequacy marketing’ ruled the airwaves, while brands pushed their message out through mass media. With choice at a premium, advertisers could also afford to essentially shout at consumers from on high. And for decades, this was a happy marriage between brands, advertisers and consumers. But the walls are crumbling in the digital era.

The Havas Meaningful Brands Index is a yearly examination of the power of meaningful brands. Incredibly, this year it found ‘73% of consumers wouldn’t care if most of the world’s brands didn’t exist’. That’s a slightly frightening statistic for the ad industry. Indeed, it’s perhaps one most of us would prefer to ignore, but the message from consumers is clear. From advertising being a force that shaped our identities and became part of popular culture, we’re reaching the stage where our industry matters less and less. Part of this is a reflection of our shortened attention spans because of technology. But a major part of it is cynicism towards advertising. Consumers are waking up to this ‘inadequacy’ approach and getting more annoyed at irrelevant advertising that interrupts.

Stark Reality

Meanwhile, recent research from online advertising company Page Fair illustrated another stark reality for digital. The number of people with adblock software installed on their browser has increased 69% in the past 12 months to approximately 144 million active adblock users. The unfortunate reality is that, even in the incredibly targeted digital era, many of our ads are hated, skipped and ignored. As consumers, we get inundated with around 3,500 marketing messages a day. But how many do you remember from within the last 24 hours?

So what’s the answer? Perhaps it’s a re-focus on value creation, providing utility and empowerment of consumers. Brands need to stop presuming they’re actually relevant, and start showing why they deserve consumer attention. Irish companies in particular need to re-focus on pull marketing, and mve away from the ‘shouty’, annoying practices of the traditional broadcast era.

There are only three relevant ways to act in marketing these days – either enlighten or empower me as a consumer, entertain me, or give me something useful. People value brands that understand them and make their lives better in some way. That’s what the groundswell behind the ‘utility marketing’ theory is all about. Giving people something they value and thus gradually building trust is a far more effective way to market. It’s about marketing with so much intrinsic and inherent value that people actually want to be exposed to it -something which makes you go ‘Ah, what a clever idea/handy innovation’.

Smart Ideas

There are numerous smart, simple examples worldwide. Virgin Atlantic are using iBeacon technology to create an app which simply opens your boarding pass on your phone automatically as you walk towards airport security in Heathrow. Nivea for Men are participating in the life hacks phenomenon by creating a series of YouTube videos offering tips like the easy way to iron a shirt in 10 seconds. A Peruvian university has illustrated its expertise by creating the world’s first advertising billboard with the ability to make drinking water out of thin air for drought hit locals. While Ikea, masters of the space, have created branded, furnished sleeping pods dotted along busy French motorways for weary drivers.

All of these are simple, smart ideas that are more attention grabbing and likely more effective at creating resonance than another 30 second T.V. spot designed to simply sell or create fear.

In an era when your fabled brand voice is being drowned out by thousands of others shouting at the top of theirs, utility and empowerment should be an important tool. Good advertising is about persuasion and building trust. We seem to have forgotten what marketers knew after World War 1 – brands can be powerful change agents and improve everyone’s lives. It’s a huge responsibility that as an industry, we need to remind ourselves of. But this time around, let’s emphasise empowerment and value creation. The other option might just be a long slow march to irrelevance.