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Ad Age


Empowerment is the Key to Growth

By Jeff Rosenblum for Ad Age

The advertising industry is filled with some of the smartest and most creative people in the world. But it's time for us to admit that we can do better—and not simply funnier, more creative, more emotional or more disruptive. Rather, we can do better for the brands that we represent and for the people who buy their products.

The goal of advertising is simple. We’re here to get people to admire brands and drive revenue. Thanks to digital technology, the creative canvas is virtually unlimited. But the industry remains addicted to 30-second spots, interruptions and superficial messages. We’ve built an entire reward system around it. Create a hilarious TV ad and you win awards, get promotions and an all-expense paid trip to the South of France. Get one placed in the Super Bowl and you’ll get written about in industry periodicals, even though the target audience won’t remember it a couple of weeks later. For the billions that are collectively invested by corporations in advertising, we can drive better business results.

The solution is for us to focus on empowerment rather than interruptions. We need to take all of the data, technology and creativity at our fingertips and invest it in improving people's lives, one small step at a time. Through that, we will not only gain customers, but build an army of evangelists.

Time after time, research shows that recommendations from friends and even strangers are fundamentally more influential than paid advertising. These evangelists trigger exponential growth because their conversations compound as each person shares positive feedback about a brand with multiple other people. Traditional interruptive advertising, by comparison, typically leads only to linear growth. This, ironically, proves one of the most important rules of modern advertising: The more evangelists you have, the fewer ads you need to buy.

Generating evangelists through empowerment doesn’t require a Patagonia-inspired public service initiative promising to save the world. People simply want their own lives improved in an authentic way. Orvis empowers its audience with education by creating content that teaches people how to fly fish. Restoration Hardware empowers its audience by making shopping more immersive by turning their retail spaces into experiential showrooms. 

Red Bull uses empowerment by making content that inspires us to understand the limits of human potential. Even relatively small companies such as 805 Beer are leveraging empowerment through in-depth stories that celebrate people who share the values of the brand.

And let’s not forget that one of the most important things that we can do is empower people to effectively invest their hard-earned dollars in the exact products that meet their needs. That’s one of the reasons that Warby Parker has become a billion-dollar brand. Over and over again, it leverages empowerment by investing in content and technology to make shopping easier.

Outperforming the Competition

The data is in. Brands that empower people fundamentally outperform brands that simply try to interrupt or entertain their audience. One of the most powerful research studies on this topic is called Firms of Endearment. The researchers found that brands that focus on empowering audiences, both internal and external, outperformed the competition eight to one over a 10-year period. There's nothing that we can do with interruptions and clever messages that can lead to that level of financial performance.

This isn’t about the death of interruptive advertising. People have been giving that false eulogy since the dawn of the digital revolution. Advertising is more exciting and important than ever. It still has a core role in generating traffic at the top and the bottom of the sales funnel. Creating an empowering experience without advertising to build awareness is like building a candy store in the desert. And empowering content creates behavioral and psychographic data that makes interruptive techniques much more effective.

"The key to success is actually being great, not saying you're great."

- Jeff Rosenblum

Traditional advertising no longer needs to tell the complete brand story; it simply needs to be a gateway to immersive content. When this content makes people’s lives better, brands can stop worrying about whether enough people are watching their 30-second ads or clicking on their 300-pixel banner ads. They can get fans to invest 30 minutes, or even 30 hours, with information that they actively seek out and share with others.

If we embrace this revolution, we no longer need to fight for incremental improvements to archaic metrics. We can focus on exponential improvements to the bottom line. The key to success is actually being great, not saying you're great. Behavior over messaging. Authenticity over image. Meaningful content over superficial interruptions. With this new approach, we can make a real difference in the lives of our audiences. We can make a dramatic impact on the businesses we represent. We can fundamentally improve our own careers. It's time to admit that we can do better.

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