Focusing on long-term brand building at The Gathering

—Tara Hunt joined The Gathering in Banff in mid-February, where she explored how some of the world’s most popular brands have generated cult-like followings. She filed this special report for The Message

There was a clear and unmistakable theme running through last month’s The Gathering in Banff, an industry conference that celebrates brands with cult followings.

From the opening keynote by Douglas Atkin, former global head of community at Airbnb, to closing statements by event co-founder Ryan Gill, people were talking about intentionality—which is more than just another industry buzzword. As defined by The Gathering, it represents an important reaction against the defining trend of the industry for more than a decade.

If you’ve been working in marketing long enough, you know all too well that the rapid rise of digital in the early 2000s ushered in an era of efficiency-focus that put all sorts of new pressures on marketing departments. In the past few years, that focus has escalated into full-blown obsession.

This pressure led to what we see today: a focus on targeting and efficiency in the short-term, often at the expense of brand building in the long term.

According to a survey conducted by U.K. advertising and marketing associations IPA and ISBA in 2018, short-termism has become rampant, with only 5% of agencies reporting that their clients have “long-term” plans of one to three years. This has led to calls for a shift from efficiency (focus on real-time metrics) to effectiveness (tracking brand value over time); the brands at The Gathering were there because they have believed this for some time.

“Brand value is more important than ever. If you look at the top companies listed on the S&P 500, around 80% of their value is intangible,” explained Tracy Chong, brand economist and president of Toronto-based Strata Insights, in her presentation.

That intangible value is not easy to measure, nor is it only affected by marketing. As an example, Chong and Strata co-founder Mark Radha cited United Airline’s forcible removal of a passenger in 2017— video of which went viral, leading to a sharp decline in its stock price. According to Chong and Radha, it was a decision by finance and operations to allow overbooking, something beyond marketing’s control, that led to this fiasco.

“Why, then, is marketing 100% responsible for the value of the brand when they don’t control 100% of the experience of the brand?” asked Chong.

Douglas Atkin also spoke of the importance of company-wide accountability. Though Atkin focused on the importance of building core values that drive brand loyalty, rather than brand building in and of itself, he stresse that every decision made within an organization, no matter how insignificant, needs to align with those values. In his Inner Sanctum session (a unique feature of The Gathering, where a small group gathers in a moderated discussion), he recalled several decisions made by non-marketing departments—such as product design and HR—that damaged brand loyalty.

“Something as simple as the default settings on a form can shift the entire experience of the brand,” Atkin told the group.

This attention to detail was woven throughout the talks. From Tom Herbst of The North Face encouraging the audience to measure ROE (return on emotion) rather than ROI, to S’Well’s Kendra Peavy talking about transforming their customers from accidental activists into an army ridding the world of plastic bottles, to Mindy Hamilton calling for marketers to “raise their periscope” on a regular basis to listen to and grow with their customers, the message was the same: incredible brands are not built by a/b testing messages or hyper-targeted ads, but through a long-term commitment to creating passionate customers.

The how of getting peppered the lessons delivered from the stage, as well as the many conversations people were having in the hallways about the “cult brands” honoured at The Gathering

All of these lessons and conversations suggested that becoming a cult brand comes down to four key steps:

  • You need to start with a purpose;
  • This purpose needs to be clear, specific and attainable;
  • Everyone in the organization and every decision needs to be accountable for this purpose; and
  • This purpose needs to come before everything else, even profit.

After many years of watching the industry becoming increasingly obsessed with efficiency and metrics, it was refreshing and inspiring to listen to this call for a return to the emotional side of marketing. Even better was the fact companies like IBM, Hootsuite and StrataInsights were also involved in this conversation, demonstrating that the future isn’t necessarily a return to the past. There is no need for a tug-of-war between creativity and data, but rather a marriage of the two.

Though short-termism has led to considerable brand inconsistency and dysfunction (not to mention the spreading of terror throughout the agency world), the pre-digital era of “creativity rules above all” was not the utopia many make it out to be, either. I’ve been around long enough to recall the hollowing of research teams to make way for the dominance of the creative director. I believe that we need a balance of both the intangible and tangible, long- and short-term, community and commerce, and art and insights.

I can only hope that the tone of The Gathering—with its openness to art and insights—is a signal that the pendulum is coming to a happy resting place, or at least a place where balance is valued as an essential part of the process.

Tara Hunt is the CEO + founder of Truly Inc., an award-winning strategic marketing firm in Toronto. She has been writing on the subject of market research, consumer insights and strategy for more than 20 years. Her LinkedIn Influencer column is followed by over 200,000 people and she was named one of the most influential women in tech by Fast Company.