Content Marketing World Keynoter Warns, ‘Brands are in Trouble’

2013-09-11_09-11-13_914It’s no small feat to deliver the keynote presentation at a convention at 8:30 am, especially when participants have attended a bopping House of Blues party just hours before. But Don E. Schultz, professor emeritus-in-service at Northwestern University, certainly knew what he was up against when he took the microphone at Content Marketing World this morning.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time, and one of the things I’ve learned is that if you are the speaker on day two, there are three things you have to be careful of: talk softly as many people have some kind of chemical imbalance in their system; avoid any loud noises; and don’t wake them up. If you accomplish this then they will think you have done a hell of a job,” he explained, eliciting a round of laughter from the packed room.

While I can’t say that Schultz adhered to his own advice—with his bellowing, commanding voice—it didn’t matter because what he said was truly captivating. Within seconds he had the entire room eagerly anticipating his every word.

Simply put, he began: “Brands are in trouble.”

If you don’t believe Schultz, just consider the following: market research indicates that consumer preference for brands has declined at an average of -1.68 percent a year, meaning that brands have become commoditized and consumers no longer understand—or care about—your chief differentiators and core competencies.

The results of a 10-year Northwestern University study, which polled over a million customers, found that brand preference is going down. Specifically, consumers today are going into stores and choosing the selection that the retailer has aggregated instead of going out and looking for brands. Moreover, they are no longer enthused about brands or brand categories.

“Whatever we are doing and however we are doing it, is somehow not penetrating, breaking through nor differentiating,” Schultz warned. “That’s a major issue because you cannot get any type of premium pricing, you can’t demand premium location in stores and, more importantly, you can’t demand anything if consumers say they are all the same.”

“We as marketers have walked away from what we should have been doing all along,” he added. And what we should have been doing all along is telling stories.

According to Schultz, it is more important than ever before that brands tell stories and get consumers to fall in love with companies all over again, instead of focusing on the “gimmicks, gizmos, apps and deals.” While we as marketers have fallen in love with technology, we have forgotten the critical fact that people buy brands because of stories, not because you have the niftiest deal or discount.

I couldn’t agree more. As a consumer, I can’t recall the last time I saw a gut-wrenching advertisement, commercial or visual (aside from the incredible ones I saw at Content Marketing World this week; thanks Coke!).

In fact, the AT&T “It’s not complicated” commercials are probably the only real story-telling type of campaigns that I can remember lately. But as a consumer, I still search for a connection with a brand. I want to understand what the brand is all about. And, apparently, I am not alone. Schultz argued that consumers are still craving this type of feeling and it is up to marketers to share their story arcs once again.

“We have a very sophisticated consumer who has access to incredible amounts of information,” he explained. “Your job is content; your job is stories; your job is to overcome technology. I am not saying to walk away from technology. I am saying technology is not your friend and not the friend that you think it is.”

Schultz encouraged audience members to remember some of the most iconic branding images of all time—from Tony the Tiger to Ronald McDonald to the Energizer Bunny. He also garnered some laughs when he put some of the most popular marketing slogans on the screen from “Where’s the beef?” to “Fly the friendly skies.”

The problem, however, is that today’s companies are no longer focused on developing these memorable marketing strategies. That’s because most brand theories and concepts that are implemented today date back to the 70s and 80s, a time when some of the first brand strategies were introduced.

The keynoter challenged audience members to rethink traditional branding technologies in order to address the needs of today’s consumers. And it all starts and ends with content marketing.

“You may be holding the future of brands and branding in your own hands today because I believe that content marketing is the future of all marketing,” Schultz advised. “It’s about telling stories, creating images, engaging, and building communities. It’s all about how do we engage with people not with markets.”

Thanks for waking all of us this morning, Mr. Schultz. And, perhaps more importantly, thanks for giving each of us that extra degree of confidence that our work has merit and that our content marketing strategies will bring brands to the forefront of consumers’ minds once again.

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