Table-setting

I’ll have my lamb without the lecture on the side, thanks

What is it with brands these days? What makes them think their customers want to be lectured by them on gender politics, asylum seekers and race relations?

What is it with the Meat and Livestock Board, presuming to edify us on immigration policy and the politics of Australia Day? Do these matters fall within the purview of its advertising to us? Has it occurred to the board that the broad base of potential lamb consumers may not agree with their positions? It appears not. If the marketing and advertising teams’ self-congratulatory media interviews are anything to go by, selling lamb has taken a back seat to creative vanity.

ANZ is another example. Does it  feel that the Australian public is more likely to bank with it after enduring its re-education campaign on gender income disparity? Is it really qualified to do this? We all know the men at ANZ earn more than the women. CEO Shayne Elliott recently faced calls to justify his $6.1 million salary in light of falling profits and lower customer satisfaction. Here’s an idea, Shayne. Instead of speaking down to your customers, why not stick to providing them with better banking solutions and communicating them effectively?

That’s what Mark Ritson, Adjunct Professor of marketing at Melbourne Business School, recommends. “It’s not that consumers don’t want equality or diversity. It’s just that they don’t want to be lectured on equality or diversity by giant, hypocritical corporations. Consumers don’t want a relationship with their bank or advice from their coffee company. They want good services delivered with flair.”

It’s telling that on ANZ’s YouTube channel, dislikes of its gender-pay campaign outnumber likes by a factor of seven to one.

These are not isolated cases. Westpac, Telstra and Qantas are all putting serious marketing dollars behind politicised social justice campaigns. The AFL is trying to outdo all of them, bewildering footy-goers by devoting every second round to yet another fashionable cause. Why doesn’t it   just try to run a football league instead?

Part of the explanation can be found in the prevailing marketing landscape. These days, brands are flailing around trying to lure consumers in a world where the old-fashioned notion of a unique selling proposition has all but evaporated. As they search for new means of differentiation, advertising agencies, more focused on their own ROI than their clients’, are selling a new marketing paradigm: brand purpose. This states that consumers are no longer satisfied by having their immediate needs met by brands; they want to know that those brands are serving a higher purpose, and that that purpose concords with their own world view.

If this seems to you to be asking a lot of a lamb chop, you’re not alone. Mark Ritson again: “Over the last 10 years I have watched in horror as marketing directors have fallen for the siren song of brand purpose while ignoring the far more important and effective challenges of brand positioning. Too many marketers have climbed the benefit ladder all the way to the top and leapt off it into an ocean of bullshit below.”

Brand purpose has a legitimate role but some marketers, receiving flattery from too many quarters, have clearly jumped the shark. They’ve been seduced by the slanted social media consensus, by the prevailing media orthodoxy, by the plaudits of fellow professionals and by opinion within their social groups. Award juries also give them confidence.

Doubtless, too, part of the answer lies in the politics of the organisations themselves. To businesses of a certain size, earning the imprimatur of government and the media elite has overtaken consumer sentiment as an imperative. This is certainly true in the AFL’s case.

But assuming that businesses still care about sales, it’s surely time to get real and recognise the yawning gap between their world view and that of average consumers.

Remember them? They’re the people who live quiet lives, who don’t tweet their political views, and are too concerned with the day-to-day to get fired up about the issues that are obsessing highly paid executives in big businesses. They want simpler things, like lower interest rates from banks; good-quality, affordable meat on the table; a pie at the footy without being lectured about their supposed racism, sexism or homophobia.

So, marketers beware. Social media ripples are trending in one direction on the surface, but the slow, silent tide of popular opinion often pulls the other way.

All of this is a manifestation of the popular revolts that are upending political leaders worldwide. Everyday people are tired of being told what to think and what to say. They’re discarding politicians as a result. Just think of the short shrift they’ll give to brands – who have far less licence to lecture them in the first place.

At the cash register, as at the ballot box, they will have their say.

Read the original article in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Listen to the podcast aired on 2GB Thursday 19, 2017.

Richard Ralphsmith, Executive Creative Director and co-founder, DPR&Co