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Brands are small. But not all the things we buy are.

A few weeks ago the APG ran a conference on Contrarianism. It was excellent. The day both ‘zigged’ and ‘zagged’ through a series of speakers as diverse as the maverick human rights lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith (think Baroness Chakrabarti meets John McCririck), and DS (S for superhuman) Tor Garnett who’s shaking up the Met like Simon Pegg in Sandford.

Amongst the many insights that rang true came from the ever-bilious Mark Ritson (between serial ‘f**ks’ and describing his daughter as ‘sub-average looking’). He contended that brands are really very small things in people’s lives. ‘Little, little things’ in fact, that mean very little to the people who interact with them. He compared the indifference people have with brands to the importance they place on their ‘pension, mortgage or career.’

That shouldn’t be news to anyone working in agencies or marketing departments. But to those who specialise in marketing products and services that do have discernible impact on lives and livelihoods (like personal pensions, health plans, education …), it should come as a call to arms.

The day after somebody buys an Aero when they nearly bought a KitKat they won’t care or probably even remember. It doesn’t matter if KitKat just did a CSR campaign with War Child whilst the Aero CEO was lobbying to repeal women’s suffrage. In the mind of the consumer the brand is small, the product is small. Once the purchase decision has been made, especially in the FMCG world, there will be little thought afforded to that decision.

But choosing the wrong pension, or advising someone to choose the wrong pension, is far harder to shake – it’ll follow the decision-maker around. It’s a big decision after all. And unlike some other major purchases in life, it’s a decision driven by necessity rather than discretion. And in order for brands and marketers to positively influence those big decisions, they must come armed with equally big ideas.

So when the stakes are as high as this, are there special rules for marketers building big ideas? No – the rules of the game are very much the same. Though the opposition may be a little different.

We must be credible. Life insurance, pensions, loans – the promotion of them is rightly, highly regulated by independent authorities. But regulation only gives us a structure, an outline. People need to buy the right one for them. We can’t over-promise the upside, nor obfuscate the downside. This extends to targeting as well as messaging. We need to target the right people for what we’re selling – people who should buy what we sell, not just those that we can convince to.

We must be loud. No matter how credible and proper we are, there will always exist less scrupulous products promoted by less scrupulous marketers. There is a responsibility on the part of the marketing to be louder than Wonga or ‘Bransfield University’: to let the customers know that there are more suitable alternatives to the quick and dirty bright lights. Therefore, the marketing needs to make an impact, and resonate both emotionally and rationally. Serious products and services shouldn’t necessitate dull and dry marketing.

We must be clear. These products, services, ideas tend to be complicated. They are usually long-term commitments, sometimes bespoke, and often feature multiple parties and payments. But that complexity is no excuse for bamboozling the customer into submission with impenetrable language. We need to work with absolute clarity and simplicity. Because the cost of the inappropriate life insurance leaves a far more bitter taste than a bottle of Merlot that was purchased under the influence of verbose tasting notes (‘nettles, loamy soil, smashed minerals’).

So yes, most brands are ‘little, little things’. Because most products are ‘little, little things’. And when it comes down to it, people care more about their lives and their families than their things. Which means that if we’re lucky enough to be selling stuff that does influence lives, we better be sure of the size of the task.

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