How to cut the mustard—in brands

“No one wants a relationship with their mustard.”

Kara Swisher uses this quote (from an ad agency exec) to begin her post, Social ads not cutting the mustard? She examines why widgets and other forms of “social advertising” haven’t (yet) lived up to their billing.

She continues:

This odd but spot-on observation was about why big packaged-goods advertisers–who are the really big spenders of the ad business–might be less than interested in leveraging social-media advertising and its promise of deep engagement with consumers.

No one wants to interact over mustard or mayo or ketchup or most products that pay the rent up and down Madison Avenue.

Brands and the big picture

In a narrow sense Kara is quite correct: we don’t need to chat with our jar of Grey Poupon, or have it update our Google calendar, or follow us around on Twitter. But no one really expects that, either. Such a focus on the jar or the tin is myopic. In the big picture of things—where brands play—relationships with products like mustard are very important indeed. They’re the essence of brands. What counts is the context of the relationship, and the ability of the brand itself to make that context sustainably engaging.

In brands, context is king

From a brand perspective, the blanket statement that, “No one wants a relationship with their mustard” is self-limiting. It precludes brand opportunities. Consumers can be open to such relationships—if they’re meaningful. Using mustard as an example, mustard brands have been designed to be very rich in relationships for decades. They certainly want relationships with their customers, beginning with brand trust and brand loyalty. And they certainly want their customers to have relationships with them—beginning with the brand experience of a consistently tasty product. These relationships are money in the bank.

A context for mustard?

The most straightforward context for mustard is to partner with customers in the discovery of taste. The brand is a guide and adventurer, rather than a mere purveyor. This opens up multiple opportunities in the desired brand journey.

Building the brand enthusiast

Customers who use a particular mustard will often swear by it, testifying to their relationship. If they also use it for marinades, sauces and dressings, the mustard will play a significant role in their recipe repertoire and cooking lifestyle. This places the mustard in the brand Nirvana of the enthusiast, and believe me, in that space will be a relationship. Weber understands this quite well, for example. And would Weber ever think, even for a second, that people don’t want a relationship with their grill?

How potent is your brand?

The issue, then, is the context of the brand relationship to be fostered, and the (many) meanings that might brighten and sustain that relationship. Using our mustard example, it’s the customer potency of a mustard brand that comes into play. Does it just sit there in a jar or tin as a mute yellow paste or powder? Is the brand boiled down to a static identity, slogans and packaging. Or does it reach out beyond the package to make life more interesting? If there’s imagination behind the brand, the answer can be “yes.”

Brand engagements are not sales pitches

Of course, no one “wants” any kind of new relationship—until that relationship comes to them with a unique engagement proposition. That takes brand initiative. If you treat the product as a commodity—purely to be sold—then your brand “engagements” will be little more than sales pitches, and there’s not much engagement in that.

It’s doubtful whether “social advertising” will make that much of an impact. It still carries the baggage of an advertising agenda, and that limits its brand potential.

Let’s define “brand engagement”

An engagement is a bringing together to create new action. The engagement of a marriage sets the marital union in motion. Gears engage, and off we go. A “brand engagement” gets the customer moving forward, toward more proactive modes of being and doing. It’s a long-term engagement, for company and customer alike.

See also: How to define brand engagement.

The limits of widgets

Kara’s point—and it’s one well taken—is that most of the “interactive” features of “social advertising” have yet to demonstrate any real and unique value to mainstream manufacturers. They’re still, in Kara’s words, “much more gimmicky and lightweight than innovative and deep.” (I’d venture that most users feel the same way.)

In their present incarnations, most widgets inhabit a no-mans-land between quick code, basic utility and cheesy ads. The best ones are useful, but struggle to extend that use-value into anything approaching an engagement or relationship.

From widgets to “personal brand applications”

I see the current crop of widgets as mostly dead ends in terms of building brand value. They’re a species that has no long-term future. However, they do foreshadow something bigger and better, which I call personal brand applications. It is at the application level that companies, brands and customers can forge new relationships that are indeed innovative, and deep.

Photo: McBeth — Flickr

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