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In Dire Need of Hope
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

Brands Should Make Time Slow Down By Giving Us Things Worth Remembering

Have you noticed that time passes more quickly the older you get, and milestones don't seem so milestoney anymore?

There's a neurobiological basis for it that has something to do with expectation and habit: we get more familiar with the ebb and flow of experience as we get older so there's less likelihood that we’ll be truly surprised (and thus any individual experience will stand out). An 8 year-old is far more hopeful for a novel holiday season her parents, generally speaking. The acts of living shift from active engagement to semi-somnambulant routine; undifferentiated moments becomes unmemorable experience, and we're left wondering where the time went.

From a marketers' perspective, I think this tends to make older people more cynical, distrusting, and difficult to convince. We've see it all before, quite frankly, whatever it is you're trying to tell us, and we've probably been disappointed by it. Oh, and it used to cost less. It's easier to market to younger folks because they're still engaged with experience and hopeful that it will reward them...and they're more willing to spend money on that bet. Milestones are still events to look forward to, and not repeated rituals to be endured. But even today's most willing young consumers are on an inexorable path that will mean they'll see and remember less as more time passes.

How do you break through this condition, whether it's in full leave-me-alone bloom or a sprout of second-guessing?

The easiest answer is also the most common: shock and awe. The cure for the ills of routine is to make marketing louder, dumber, and all-around more everything, in an escalating competition this time to top what was loudest and dumbest last time. You can see this phenomenon on YouTube as each successive wave of videos seems to at least mimic if not endeavor to surpass the stupidity of the prior wave. Even the innocuously entertaining stuff coming from major brands can't tell us things better, faster, or more creatively as much as it has to be somehow more than the last campaign. Check the devolution of TV reality programming for another example.

Three reasons this approach doesn't further the purposes of brands:

  • Startling consumers isn't the same thing as engaging them
  • Shock gets harder to pull off with each accomplishment
  • "Laugh" and "care" aren't synonyms

I'd like to suggest a different tack: I think we’re in dire need of hope.

No, not the faux nostalgia nonsense of using Boomer soundtracks to market old-fogey cars or hype investment products. No fond imagery of a glowingly remembered past or fantasy present. We certainly don't need brands to tell us about a better tomorrow. We need branding that gives us reasons to pay attention to whatever tomorrow will bring. We need for tomorrow to matter.

This is the genius behind the E.D. products like Cialis and Viagra, which are effectively marketing tools to make, er, exceptional things happen. There's an investment firm ad campaign on the air right now that talks about middle-aged folks making plans for their second, mostly crazy careers. It's what good destination travel marketing can do, like some of the stuff out of Las Vegas tourism over the past few years. It's all about hope...not just in a vague sense, but as specific, actionable experience.

How does a mobile phone carrier do it? I have no idea, but you can't get it done by presenting some fake family sitting around the kitchen table comparing contact lists. Nike did it with "Just Do It." I think Apple does it. These brands approach products and services as tools for making things matter happen. Making time slow down. Making memories, only not the silly Hallmark or Kodak kind. Simply the living kind.

Brands converted into moments, and branding the tools by which we are made aware and interested in those experiences.

It would mean that we marketers would look at "consumer experience" as interactions in life, not experience of our brands, per se. Our products and services would enable events and milestones; they could provide us things to which we can legitimately look forward, and will want to remember thereafter.

Don't occupy my time. I don't really pay attention, and I won't remember what happened anyway. Make it matter.

Added: 12th August 2010

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