Sex, flies and naked apes

Like a sea anemone and clownfish, brands need a value exchange with consumers. Both will then benefit from having the other around

Toby SmeetonManaging Director

I struggled with biology at school. I never really understood the classification of organisms, or fruit-fly respiration, and my biology teacher was more a figure of fun than someone who commanded the classroom. The teacher, ‘Wetty’ Wallis, explained human reproduction at such high speed and with so little projection, that it was an education in toe-curling embarrassment rather than sex. As a result, reading Desmond Morris’s book The Naked Ape in the science library, was more useful and more interesting than anything going on in the science block.

With a bit more digging, the library yielded other gems – fabulously gruesome pictures of dangerous reptiles, tropical diseases and parasites – specifically 20-foot-long tapeworms. These held a particular fascination – an organism that feasted on its host, before eventually killing it, and therefore itself. This seemed to be rather self-limiting and not very ‘survival of the fittest’.

Years later, the self-defeating behaviour of parasites seemed to me to parallel what was going on in marketing. In traditional marketing, brands inserted themselves into their host media and grew fat on the results. Adverts broke up the pages of print advertising, or interrupted TV and radio programmes.

The internet brought its own biological language of parasites – worms and viruses. But it was a similar intrusion into the medium that became most irritating to the consumer – pop-ups, junk mail and pre-rolls. All unwanted, and all feeding off the richness of their host content.

Unrestricted programmatic advertising felt like the final roll of the dice as brands chased weaker and more unsuitable hosts, not caring where they ended up, until finally, they realised that this was not a numbers game, and that specifically, this game was up. Nor was it a one-way battle. Consumers started to hit back, actively screening brand communication (spam filters, ad blockers), demanding legislation (GDPR), or simply sub-consciously ignoring the commercial messages.

This last point is important. If the average UK consumer is targeted with 3,000 commercial messages every day yet only remembers a handful of them, then not only is most advertising irritating, it’s also a colossal waste of money (David Trott explains this well here). As attention is harder to get, then more considered models are needed.

Of course, parasitism is only one part of this particular biology story. Less gruesome is mutualism – a biological barter system in which two organisms rely on each other for co-dependency. Think sea anemones and clownfish, or oxpecker birds and rhinos. In marketing terms, this isn’t about feeding off (and degrading) the host media, it’s about mutual benefit. Brands can sustain themselves without interrupting, bombarding, or shocking, but the relationship with consumers needs to be one based on a value exchange.

If brands are going to connect deeply with consumers, then how are they making these consumers lives cheaper, easier, better? What role can they play to be useful and entertaining? Owned media has become increasingly orientated around the consumer – rather than the brand. Look at Lego’s success in cinema, how Maybelline teaches us how to ‘get the look’, or how professional service businesses debate the key business questions of the day.

Of course, this mutualism has been going on for a long time. In 1900, the Michelin brothers published 35,000 copies of the Michelin Guide (despite France only having 3,000 cars on the road). Packed with useful information about the location of petrol stations and decent hotels, the Michelin guide encouraged the fledging car-owning public to explore regions of France. The result was a richer, more satisfying experience for the tourist and, by extension, an increase in demand for the Michelin brothers’ tyres.

This value exchange is possible in all brand communications. How is our product or service enriching consumers’ lives? How do we play a valuable role? If we start with our audiences needs and desires rather what the brand wants to say, then the result is a more mutually rewarding one. We hold their attention rather than embark on a one-way feasting to oblivion. As Jerry Seinfeld said: “People have an infinite attention span if you’re entertaining them.”