Marketing goes in search of the soul

IT MAY not be causing many sleepless nights in corporate Britain, but the advertising and marketing industries are in something of a crisis.

Much of this is to do with a reduction in big companies' adherence to traditional advertising; direct mail, sales promotion and leafleting are all doing better instead. But it is also connected with the public's disenchantment with a lot of marketing.

In the words of Paul Southgate, of Wickens Tutt Southgate, the marketing services company, "Consumers know the game these days."

Just as they have been "ad-literate" for years, so they are now "truly marketing-literate", and, because they are able to decode what is going on, they are often dismissive. Even when they admire a marketing campaign, they do not necessarily convert that into admiration for the brand.

Mr Southgate and his colleagues believe this dualism is occurring because too much conventional marketing activity is separate from the brand. Instead of being rooted in what marketing folk like to think of as "the unique essence of the brand", too much of it is "bolt-on marketing" that is seen for what it often is, superficial.

They feel this explains why marketing based on consumer research can be particularly prone to failure: the public takes the view that the company is just pandering to it in its search for sales and does not really mean it. In today's parlance, consumers are not sure that such companies are "for real".

Since the marketing business is fond of giving brands personalities, this means that the consumer-led company is seen in the same light as the person who will do anything to please, while those that win trust are likely to be seen as those with integrity. The former group includes any number of products that are given a big push and disappear just as they have made a dent on the collective consciousness. The latter group is more select, including the likes of Marks and Spencer, which over the years has created a reputation for decency and value, and Virgin, which basks in the cuddly, committed underdog image of its founder, Richard Branson.

In an attempt to find out what puts a brand in the latter, heroic group, Wickens Tutt Southgate claims to have carried out extensive research in a variety of disciplines and come up with the idea of "brand soul". Combining as it does, actions, values and passions, it is seen as the basis for "new marketing".

Although the company is backing up this finding with talk of "transactional analysis and voices", it boils down to an idea that, when you think of it, is obvious: brands will appear more real if rooted in reality. In other words, if they do as the management gurus say and "walk the talk".

The link with management is not accidental. If Wickens Tutt Southgate is right, basing marketing on reputation will require the successful modern marketer to become much more closely involved with the client. Mr Southgate even suggests that there is a case for marketing people and human resources specialists to work together to build something that is more than just image.

On the other hand, they will not be able to project an image of integrity if substantial numbers of people know the company does not live up to such ideals. Similarly, if the public accepts this closer link, it must be realised that a misjudged campaign can undo in moments what has taken years to build.

So, yes, Mr Southgate and his team may have found a way of making themselves more effective, but they have most definitely not eliminated the risks. If anything, the stakes could be even higher.