Okay, before you accuse me of being a pedant, let me explain. After seeing, reading and analyzing consumer behavior for over three decades, I’ve noticed an increasingly aggressive dismissiveness of the institutions that for so long felt like pillars of society.
About a week ago, quite by accident, I read a piece on a postmodernism. While I was aware of the phenomenon, I really didn’t understand its impact until now. Britannica defines postmodernism as a “broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology. in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.” Here is my definition – Postmodern basically means turning your back on authority figures, relying on yourself and your peers and living in a world where everything is fluid. Starting to sound familiar? I’m not going to venture into the political waters or any of the social debates. I’ll stick to commercial communications.
There are two campaigns that are good examples of postmodernism in commercial communications, and they offer some lessons for those of us in non-profits, education, government and health care. The first is the Progressive Insurance campaign featuring Jon Hamm. If you haven’t seen the campaign, here is a link to it. Watch it before you keep reading.
So, why am I making a big deal out of this? Rarely, if ever, does a brand pay big bucks for a celebrity spokesperson and then make light of that person. The traditional approach was to have Jon Hamm’s brand identity rub off on your brand, usually by putting him on a pedestal so his positive brand standing magically transfers to yours. Now what Progressive has done is signaled to its audience, with a “wink and nudge” that they get that celebrity endorsements are bogus, and they know consumers are looking for more substantive content before making a purchase decision. In an industry where it is so hard to differentiate oneself – one that relied on spokespeople and mascots to distinguish one company from another – this is a big shift. If you don’t believe me, check out NJM insurance, which openly mocks it competitors by saying that their initials stand for “No Jingles and Mascots.”
But this isn’t the only example. Check out this spot about Hulu’s new service. I love the casting and art direction, but what puts it over the top is that it acknowledges that a catchy product name won’t convince you to switch to a new service. The service will be the reason you switch. And, to get that point across, they chose a “stupid” name. One more in this vein: Liberty Mutual’s commercial with teenagers having fun – here’s the link to it. Yep, another traditional communications tactic cut down at the knees.
The point is that this self-deprecation is meant to show today’s consumers that companies and their brands want to connect with consumers as equals. No more selling some unrealistic utopia based on bigness or heritage or superiority complex – no more commercial mansplaining. They get it, so you can get that they aren’t the usual “take themselves too seriously” company.
So, how do we, the education, non-profit, government and health care sectors, exist in this postmodern world? You can’t use self-deprecating humor like an insurance company or cable service can. And, it isn’t showing a lot of smiling people in your communications, either.
So what should you do?
1. Build facets and components into your product and/or services that are absolutely unique. If you are a “me-too” organization, then you need to build that differentiation into upcoming upgrades. Otherwise, you will undermine any brand promise you make. If you are asking a person to choose you and promise them you will deliver a superior product or experience for them, the promise is more believable if you are distinctive. In other words, what makes you unique is what makes you a better choice for them.
2. Most consumers want to know you sincerely care about them. Not being a “number” means being sincerely open to them. Have you made it as easy as possible for them to interact with you? Do you respond in an appropriate fashion when they reach out to you? Do you show sufficient flexibility in dealing with them? Trust me, it’s more than scripted dialogues, it’s honesty, transparency and being helpful.
3. And finally, and as always, all your communication needs to be an “Unforgettable Conversation with a Friend.” If you treat your consumers as friends and speak to them about things that matter to them, they will be open to your messaging. This will never change, even in a post-modern world.
If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.