Is "Below The Line" The New "Above The Line?"

It started while riding the elevator to work, reading one of those fast facts of the day that flash across the info-screen.

According to Forrester, only 18% of people trust brand communications in social. That may already sound bad, but then consider that less than half of people trust any type of advertising/promotion. The full report — The Power of Customer Context — concludes that advertisers need to rethink the way they market themselves. Relying less heavily on the the traditional advertising campaign model, and more on developing a data-driven, interactions-based value exchange platform. That’s a mouthful.

Like so many other case studies in forward-thinking marketing, they use Nike FuelBand and Nike+ as an example. Nike+ is an interactions-based platform that creates a cyclical value exchange. People run with Nike and feel accomplished. When people run, they give data to Nike, who uses it to optimize the platform and improve the experience; thus making people want to continue running.

 One of Nike's biggest successes in recent history wasn't an ad campaign, slogan, or the horizontal expansion of new shoe lines. It was Nike+. A customer interaction platform that is greater than any one product it manufactures or markets (Nike FuelBand, iPhone, Apple Watch, etc.). Have we moved beyond ad campaigns as the greatest influencer on consumer consideration?

One of Nike's biggest successes in recent history wasn't an ad campaign, slogan, or the horizontal expansion of new shoe lines. It was Nike+. A customer interaction platform that is greater than any one product it manufactures or markets (Nike FuelBand, iPhone, Apple Watch, etc.). Have we moved beyond ad campaigns as the greatest influencer on consumer consideration?

That said, whether it be web, mobile (especially mobile), social, or an engagement platform like Nike+, the old way of thinking would relegate all of this to “below the line” marketing. They may be able to tell a compelling story, or provide a valuable utility, but they’re not splashy television spots, print campaigns, or billboard carpetings. And thus, tend not to get those budgets.

The height of commercial storytelling was always found in the hallowed :60 second spot. And in a lot of ways — when done right — that’s still the case; but we know the landscape has fragmented beyond recognition. There are many more ways to tell your brand story; and more and more often, it’s those alternative methods that are changing people's perspectives of the brands they know.

Made-for-web video — like Johnnie Walker’s The Gentleman’s Wager — or something entirely new — such as Old Spice's Choose Your Own Adventure — are finding ways to tell stories with greater relevance and impact than the old methods. While utilities like McCormick’s FlavorPrint — another example from the Forrester report — reveal a useful dimension to brands that simply don’t come across in a commercial.

Don’t get me wrong, TV still accounts for the lion's share of ad spending. But the growth of dollars for digital is continuing to climb, with no signs of slowing. When that scale tips, who remains in the driver’s seat? The innovation, reach, and accountability we’re seeing below the line call into question the disproportionate investment being made above the line.

If we’re to believe people’s trust in the traditional brand building methods is waning, then it’s fair to say that the future of marketing rests on our ability to elicit meaningful interactions while brand storytelling is used to support those engagements. Not the other way around. You're probably already exploring new — "below the line" — ways to tell your brand's story, but consider how you can use your brand to create functional value for its customers. As people diversify their media consumption habits, that one-two punch is where marketers stand to gain the most ground.

We Need to Rethink "User Experience Design"

Having spent the majority of my career subscribed to design thinking principles, I’ve become especially sensitive to the way the term “user experience design” has been misused. There still seems to be a large contingency of folks who confine “UX" to the digital on-screen experience.

 Wozniak: "You can't write code. You're not an engineer. What do you do?" Jobs: "Musicians play the instruments. I play the orchestra."

Wozniak: "You can't write code. You're not an engineer. What do you do?"
Jobs: "Musicians play the instruments. I play the orchestra."

I’m a staunch believer in integration. The notion that people don’t view brands in discreet channels. It's all one experience. This is an idea I believe most people can subscribe to without issue. But until we elevate the application of user experience design to a higher plane, it will continue to be misappropriated.

I think there’s something to be found in a line of dialogue from the trailer for Steve Jobs, where Michael Fassbender, starring as the late Apple founder, explains his role to Seth Rogen (Steve Wozniak)  — “Musicians play the instruments. I play the orchestra."

User experience design should be viewed in largely the same fashion. Rather than playing just one instrument (digital), a user experience designer should be tasked with unifying the ensemble and shaping its sound. Thoughts of “transmedia storytelling” come to mind.

So, if everyone can agree on a universal user experience that cuts across channels, why do "360-Degree” programs too often fall short? Simply put, cross-agency cooperation. Everyone is so consumed with impressing their clients with standout ideas — and sometimes one-upping their agency partners — that they end up pulling in slightly different directions for the sake of their own gain.

The result is an end user — who didn't have the benefit of seeing the pitch deck — experiencing a disjointed brand journey. We — as marketers — understand the strategic thematics that tie everything together because we’re mired in the work every day. But the average person may not connect the dots between the headline he sees in retail, a vaguely similar activation online, and a story being told on television. 

When various agencies are focused on creating kick-ass work in their own right — and not achieving one universal creative pursuit — they’re not exercising the full-strength of the creative.

One way to solve for this would be to cut the agency roster down to one. That’s neither realistic nor advised — at least yet — because there isn't any one agency that can do it all well. Nor should there be. But perhaps looking on the agency-side for a solution isn’t the best approach.

This guardian of the consumer journey may be best situated at the intersection of all the work: the brand. Instead of putting the onus on the agencies, there should be someone on the client side — separate from the disparate marketing directors — who keeps all parties honest. Someone looking out for the end user, and has the authority to overrule his or her counterparts and agency partners.

On the flip-side, I understand that many have simply resigned to the belief that we live in a world of soundbites. That no one ever really sees — or is interested in — a multi-channel brand experience. But even if you were to subscribe to that belief, cross-channel planning can still clearly be cut from the same cloth. Coca-Cola’s Share A Coke campaign is a prime example of a tightly controlled narrative experienced across television, out-of-home, social, and retail/packaging.

We need to rethink user experience design to encompass what experience design truly means. The path-to-purchase may no longer be linear (was it ever?), but it should be consistent, artfully crafted, and drawing from the same insights. Given today's proliferation of marketing channels, the need for a people’s champion is just a real as it has ever been.