Mindset as the Requisite to Alternative Contact Planning
A mindset that is conducive to innovative thinking is particularly needed in the environments on which we depend for fresh thinking.
Mindset is a powerful variable in any planning or conceptualisation process. It is the mindset of a business, a team, an individual, that shapes and defines the desire, confidence and ability to question the status quo, to push parameters, to discover and explore the unexpected, to develop and implement unconventional solutions.
Mindset in many ways determines the degree of innovation in business and the extent to which unique and fresh solutions to problems are conceptualised and implemented. Also, no planning tool, however innovative and revolutionary, can add much value to business if the mindset with which it is introduced and applied, fails to welcome innovative thinking.
A mindset that is conducive to innovative thinking is particularly needed in the environments on which we depend for fresh thinking. The advertising or communications agency is such an environment. Clients employ communications partners to engage creative thinking, to ensure that innovative solutions to communication problems are conceived.
The Brand Communications Challenge
As many argue, we are all competing to impact on audiences who have become jaded by traditional brand communications. Today’s consumers are time and trust starved and are erecting and fortifying their defenses against commercial onslaughts.
Consequently, clients expect of their brand communication partners or advertising agencies to develop campaigns that break through the clutter to create branded impact. In turn, agencies rely heavily on their creative teams to conceptualise creative messages that present these clutter busters. So, we encounter the current brand communications challenge:
1. Clutter levels are increasing.
2. Consumers are erecting and intensifying selective awareness and attention barriers.
3. Clients are demanding brand communication solutions beyond the traditional, the tried, the trusted and the expected.
4. Creative teams are expected to produce more arresting message concepts and executions that will break through clutter barriers to impact on consumers.
Given these demands we, as brand communication players, need to question the mindset with which we approach the brand communications challenge. Surely the following strategic questions must be put to strategic planners and agency heads:
• If consumers are erecting and fortifying their defense mechanisms against the daily commercial onslaught, is it wise to rely solely on the creativity of the expected advertising message to break through clutter barriers?
• Should we not be investing in creative strategic thinking before the so-called creative process starts?
• Should we not be disrupting norms to create unconventional and unexpected points of actual communication contact that, in total synergy with the creative campaign concept and execution, will achieve branded impact?
The Alternative Brand Contact as a Solution
If the vast majority of brand communication messages arrive in expected and conventional formats, for example the 30 second TV ad or radio spot, why not consider the value of utilising the medium in a form that will be experienced by consumers as unconventional or unexpected? Why perpetuate the norm and rely wholly on the creativity of the actual message to break through clutter? Can the point of contact itself not demonstrate creative strategic thinking and succeed in achieving impact through its unconventional and unexpected status?
The alternative brand contact is defined as a point of planned contact with the brand that is experienced by consumers as unexpected and unconventional. The alternative brand contact is by definition media neutral. It is not the medium that defines the alternative brand contact as unconventional or unexpected, as we so frequently tend to do in industry. In other words, the tendency to move from an inside-out industry perspective to compartmentalise alternative media into some or other below-the-line public bathroom intervention. It is the consumer’s experience of the point of contact as unconventional and unexpected that positions it as alternative.
Alternative brand contact planning is a planning process that aims to develop unconventional brand contact strategies that break through commercial clutter barriers to achieve branded impact. An alternative brand contact can appear in any form, in any potential communication space and is defined by consumer experience, not by media type!
The Research Study
The desire to investigate the role and nature of alternative brand contact planning and more truthfully, the frustration with the lack of creative strategic thinking in brand communications planning (strategy is strategy, media is media and the creative team must deliver the big clutter busting idea), spurred a recent qualitative exploratory research study among integrated communication agencies and companies in South Africa. This three year study culminated in 2003, in the design of a new planning model which aims to produce unconventional and unexpected brand contact strategies.
Of significance is that all integrated agency teams and clients interviewed, were in immediate agreement that creative strategic thinking and alternative brand contacts, in comparison to conventional traditional message formats, have greater potential to break through clutter to achieve branded impact. However, the greatest challenge was found to be the mindset of the players involved – the client, the agency, the media planners and the media owners. Many agency teams and clients argued for example, that:
• “We need a paradigm shift – from the staid and the boring to alternative, fresh
and innovative ways to capture attention and achieve impact”
• “Conventional media planning is a massive stumbling block” – “there should be a greater willingness to experiment and put ideas to the test”
• “It requires brave clients and open-minded communication partners”
The single most critical requisite to alternative brand contact planning, undertaking creative strategic planning and disrupting brand communication norms, is a fertile planning mindset. The study essentially unveiled that the mindset of the client and agency is more powerful than any creative planning technique, tool or model. In constructing a mindset conducive to alternative brand contact planning the following became apparent and in many ways remain open to debate, experimentation and further research:
• Branded Impact
Firstly, agencies and clients must embrace the planning mindset that a campaign strategy, whether based on the need to launch and support a sales promotion or to build a corporate citizenship profile and presence, is implemented to ultimately contribute to the process of building the brand. A mindset that is focused on the identity and the needs of the brand is foremost. There is no point to breaking through the clutter if we are not going to do so in the name of the brand!
• Planning Relevance and Planning Exploration
Secondly, both client and agency must have the confidence and desire to move from an outside-in, consumer oriented and a zero-based, media-neutral planning platform. We are referring in real terms to planning relevance and planning exploration.
Planning relevance suggests a complete and thorough understanding of what the target audience perceives as conventional and will experience as unexpected. Norms can hardly be broken if they are not firstly understood in consumer terms.
Also, moving from the outside-in, agency teams and clients argued that alternative brand contact planning is not only consumer oriented to deliver what will be experienced as unexpected but also, and critically so, to achieve positive brand impact. If the alternative brand contact fails in its consumer and brand relevance it will be perceived as an invasion, an irritation and erode the value of the brand.
Planning exploration on the other hand presents a zero-based and media-neutral freedom to not allow preconceived ideas to cloud the way, to not indulge the all too frequently encountered “we’ve always used billboards, so what’s you’re problem?” planning mentality. Planning exploration recognises the critical value and creative strategic potential of moving from a clean planning slate and not to be bound by enforced or induced planning outcomes. Alternative brand contact planning must be positioned and experienced as a planning philosophy that spans all media and communication spaces.
Thirdly, we meet up with a planning mindset that salivates to conceptualise strategic points of brand contact that are sure to break through the clutter. Jean-Marie Dru, author and Chairman of the BDDP Group based in Paris, advocates and applies Disruption in connections or contact planning. South Africa’s Net#work BBDO and media partner Nota Bene similarly work on high levels of creative and strategic integration with a “space planning” rather than a “media planning” model. As one of its planners reason “We think in terms of communication spaces rather than media”.
Engaging material and models are being developed and experimented with by a number of agencies and clients, both locally and globally. But quite evidently, it is the mindset and the desire of the teams, clients and individuals involved to produce unconventional solutions, that bring these innovative models to life, that make their planned outcomes possible.
• Integration and Ousting Turf Battles
It is fourthly quite clear that those agencies and clients that present the unconventional and unexpected contact strategies move from outside-in, zero-based and media-neutral planning platforms in highly integrated planning environments. Clients are encountered in planning and conceptualisation sessions and the agency planners are present in brand reviews and co-develop the communication briefs. Thus the brand identity and communication needs are clearly defined, planning challenges are identified and valuable levels of mutual understanding, trust and confidence in alternative contact planning evolve between client and communications partner.
Also, no turf battles are encountered within the agency, between strategy, media and creative – “the result is a team driven to look for opportunities”. And as another agency director argued – “You need a culture of creative integration. You can’t have a silo mentality. You can’t be protecting turf. You need cross-pollination across all avenues and you need the structure to support it”.
Integrated planning and brainstorming is pursued and the unconventional contact idea can come from anywhere and from anyone. After all, the integrity of the integrated agency is evident in its planning mindset and not in the array of services it has available!
• Media commission based = Media-biased
The final mindset requisite, like the need for an integrated planning environment, is a characteristic of the agency business model and its relationship with clients.
Unconventional and unexpected brand contact planning can not be pursued in a planning environment that is media biased and the traditional media commission-based remuneration platform is by its very nature just that, biased.
Zero-based and media-neutral thinking is a futile exercise in a planning environment and business relationship that dictates expenditure. As one of the agency directors interviewed put it, “No agency working on commission can function on a media neutral platform”.
Those agencies and clients that demonstrate high levels of alternative brand contact planning recognise that a mindset conducive to developing unconventional and unexpected strategic interventions, can only be shaped and developed in a fee and/or performance-based remuneration relationship.
In conclusion, alternative brand contact planning presents a planning philosophy that is committed to the development of unconventional and unexpected brand contact strategies that break through commercial clutter barriers to achieve branded impact. Although planning models, such as the one developed in response to this study, are of experimental and research value to clients and agencies alike, it is the mindset with which they are embraced and implemented that ensures potential success. Mindset is the equity value sought and much needs to be done to ensure it is successfully recognised, supported and cultivated.
Dr Carla Enslin
Brand Contact Navigator
@ Vega The Brand Communications School
Prof. Ernest North
Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences
@ The University of Pretoria