2023 will be the year of practical marketing
Throw out your other predictions, this is all you need to know
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Let’s start here:
I get it; it’s December. You’re pushing non-essential decisions to January, downloading 2022 recaps and 2023 trend predictions to PDF to maybe open later, praying the gifts you ordered for family arrive in time to wrap before you hop in the car, on the plane, or wherever else this holiday season will take you. The specters of continued economic uncertainty, the cultural rollercoaster that will unfold in the lead-up to the 2024 election, and RTO memos demarcating January as a line in the sand have you focused on the essentials. And rightly so! There are times for the esoteric, theoretical debates that give us some of our share of stimulation throughout the days that fill a year, and then there is December: a time for practicality, a time for what is most necessary, a time for what is most valued.
And so, to be as understanding as possible, as my unsolicited gift to you I will bestow the point of this piece at the beginning, frontloading it like the inverted pyramid from journalism school taught me:
In 2023, treat your brand’s marketing like you treat your personal December: practical, to the point, focused on what really matters. Anything else will be a waste of time, money, and resources. The hunt for branded virality is over, and for most brands it never should’ve started.
2023 will be the year of practicality in marketing, a year in which the bells and whistles are stripped away, and consumers will be asking “what value does this hold for me?” and “where does this actually fit in my life?” more than ever before. We have reached an inflection point for brand storytelling, and all the evidence of what we need to get away from is strewn around us like the wreckage of Icarus after he flew too close to the sun:
The branded metaverse is largely a collection of repackaged technologies no one is adopting at nearly close the rate to justify the spend
Brand Twitter, perpetually post shark jump, is now telling jokes at a party no one even wants to be at anymore
TikTok, perpetually potential national security and brand risk, has convinced every brand it can be famous if it just self-references its own community management policies enough and looks the other way on rights management
Collab culture has made launching a project without a “x” or “by” or “with” or “+” feel practically quaint
Web3/NFTs are still far too niche to create real implications for most brands which has forced overeager agencies to draw down their aspirations
To be clear, everyone hasn’t necessarily lost in all of this. In fact, many brands can only gain from an environment where clickbaity tactics cover up bad products, and many agencies are happy to take that money and run on the vague success of launching in spaces no one has figured out how to measure success in yet. And yes, some brands & industries thrive on telling stories in the realm of the theoretical to inspire, excite, and engage. BUT (big “but” necessary here) we have spent the last few years conflating brand fame with relevance, when only one of those is necessary for a brand to succeed.
For better (or usually worse), Twitter has been the brand fame machine for most of the last decade. Twitter’s new M(m)usk (owner and scent) is exactly why it’s been well-documented over the last few weeks that we are at a turning point for the experiment of social media, but that conversation isn’t actually new. As I noted back in January, advertisers have likely been producing more content than consumers want for some time, pumping it into social media in the hopes of harnessing some fleeting virality. In that piece, I noted three major barriers to social media for brands looking to make a plan for 2022:
Only a quarter of Gen Z and millennials think social media is good for society.
Over a third of Gen Z says they spend too much time on social media already.
Almost 40% of Gen Z said they spend too much time on their phone in general.
Based on how 2022 has gone, it seems that most advertisers would prefer to acknowledge those barriers by simply making the content shinier and more whimsical, ignoring the role brands play in generating what Ryan Avant calls the “large social costs'' that deserve our moderation. For example, how much hornier can brands get on Twitter in the hope of some tiny blip of earned media recognition versus dealing with the friction that will come from having to try literally anything else?
All of this effort was being placed on Twitter because it had become a cheat code to brand fame. Even though its users didn’t necessarily reflect every brand’s audience, it had enough of the right types of folks there to drum up some earned media with a well-placed quip or comment. In 2022, many brands copied and pasted that playbook to TikTok with varying degrees of success (most with little to none because they didn’t want to deal with figuring out how to make actually good TikToks - again, we hate friction).
That friction - the “it was easy to stay put and the costs of preparing for the worst is high” energy as Brian Feldman wrote - is entirely of our own making. “At the end of the day, the core of Twitter was a box you could drop stuff into and then the stuff would get flung out to a bunch of other people,” he wrote. “Countless boxes similar to this exist elsewhere on the internet.”
It should be of no surprise that there are countless boxes we could be showing up in for consumers to be relevant to them, but advertisers don’t like those boxes as much because they don’t have a Fast Pass™ to brand fame. Building a community on Geneva or Discord or even BeReal may help solidify the foundational relationship with a core, engaged audience, but it won’t slingshot you onto the Today Show via a funny screenshot.
So let me Be Real for a second - that era of marketing is over, and for many brands, it never really existed in the first place. Brands writ large set themselves on a mission to build increasingly complex creative narratives, creating theoretical and often whimsical stories that reflected attempts to matter more in the lives of consumers than just your typical product attributes. Most of these brands wasted massive marketing budgets trying to be the next viral sensation, and in 2022 “new shiny syndrome” reached its fevered peak. I know a hype cycle when I see one (I even wrote the formula for them) and it’s over now.
Quite simply, the novelty of virality is gone. Countless boxes to fling content into means countless communities with their own codes, systems, and definitions of “good.” Consumers are too spread apart to recreate the monocultural fame of early viral brands. But, perhaps more importantly, in times of uncertainty people care more about tangible benefits than relative ones.
Make no mistake, uncertainty remains the cloud looming over culture post-COVID (a phrase I hesitate to use since we’re really more of a society that’s decided to accept ongoing COVID than a transformed world where it doesn’t exist anymore). On his blog, Venkatesh Rao posited that “something is going on that has temporarily shut down our ability to access a sense of the timeless in order to construct stable notions of ourselves in relation to it.” He comes to this conclusion because “it certainly feels like there are typical kinds of historic things going on, but it is hard to talk about them in an appropriately timeless way” (timelessness being defined as something that has “immortal relevance”). Things are thinging in such a way that all are fleeting in relevance, shooting stars that flame out before they latch onto something concretely immortalizing.
Take the economy, for example. The narratives of inflation vs growth dueling for headline space ahead of the midterms with the energy of a bad game of “yes but” - “Prices are higher, yes, but more people have jobs, yes, but…” Closer to home, we see this in advertising’s continued layoffs, but also continued hiring. Rightsizing agencies for new opportunities after overextending departments on the promise of crypto or web3 gold in the hills just yonder. Everywhere we look, people are taking stabs at things but not many are really getting their hooks in. Might this “tit for tat” just be the nature of the moment? A symbol of the transitional nature of our time?
We’re already seeing the signs of this uncertain balance between the practical and theoretical play out. Earlier this fall, I wrote about how when it comes to clothing, people will almost always choose quality & fit over cool or “good”. How my butt looks in these jeans is simply more tangible than the betterment of the environment that comes from how these jeans were produced. Yes, BUT! There is also a huge rise in second-hand and thrift shopping, signaling that people who do want to do “good” with their clothing choices can sometimes have their cake (in this case cake is a nice-looking butt) and eat it, too (eating being that there is now some level of sustainability in their clothing’s lifecycle).
Even Gucci is in the middle of a yes, But! Alessandro Michele created an identity and brand fame that filled the moodboards of jealous creatives globally with his “magpie aesthetic”, yes, BUT it struggled to continue to appeal to enough consumers to move the sales needle at a level that pleased its stewards. Being “popular” or everyone’s “favorite” doesn’t always equate to sales, even for the strongest of brands. So now Gucci’s new leader will be faced with the challenge of balancing both theoretical and practical realms if it wants to create some new energy that turns that popularity into results. Seeing one of the most hyped Houses, one heralded for its transformational creative storytelling, trying to figure out how to dial in its balance should make it clear to far more practical brands with little whimsy at their core that they should probably start reconsidering that TikTok mascot idea.
A great example of how practicality sits at the core of a brand is Liquid Death. Premium water is an incredibly competitive category where branding tends to mean everything because most people don’t care about the difference in pH balance or what nutrients were added. Liquid Death has exploded off the back of fun creative, and it would be easy to say that’s why people love it. In fact, that’s what they do say. “At the core of Liquid Death is that we're a brand that wants to make really funny, entertaining stuff on the internet,” said co-founder and CEO Mike Cessario to Bon Appetit in November. But digging deeper, it’s actually the unspoken practicality of the cans that is creating relevance for young people. Put simply, its aluminum cans are just better. They’re better for recycling, a topic young people care about as a nice to have when making purchases. They’re better for keeping their contents colder longer, something many online reviews note as a lift in their consideration. And they’re better for making people feel like they fit in if they aren’t drinking, something a sober curious generation has taken note of and embraced. At the end of the day, Liquid Death has done well to make its product a more practical choice, and then they’ve taken that product and amped the story around it up to 11. But strip it all away, and the functionality of the product still stands.
So what steps should you take to embrace the year of practicality?
First, ask less of your consumer. Not every brand is suited to be running a deep community or to have complex relationships with its audience. Rabbit holes and hoop-jumping are fine for some Jordans, but even Nike fans are showing lottery fatigue. Sometimes a product is just a transaction, and that’s okay! Studies show that if you’re authentic about your role in the life of your consumer and consistent with your product & its messaging, the trust will grow and you will only become more relevant.
Second, hone your story to its core essentials. For too long we have let messaging hierarchies and reasons to believe balloon into overwrought language that doesn’t feel human and overwhelms caption copy. Do yourself and your consumer a favor by simplifying what matters most and making your key differentiator(s) obvious. Remember that it’s okay to leave some stuff off the table for later and that less is almost always more.
Third, having a contextual channel plan is key. The classic channel strategy needs a rethink so that it’s truly oriented around the consumer, not achieving virality. It’s okay to admit there are some places you just don’t need to be, and experimenting with new ways of telling stories to better sync with how your audience wants to consume them is essential. Most importantly, context in placement is crucial. Know what you show up in the middle of, at the end of, before. Know the mindset of your consumer going into that interaction, and use it to help feed your creativity.
Finally, none of this means you can’t have fun or creativity in your advertising. In fact, if we can get over the fact that the old playbook of brand fame = success is dead, there will be so many more avenues of play opened to us. But fun needs to live within functional, not alone on an island for RTs and clicks. It needs to serve a real purpose, provide some real value. Otherwise, the only uncertainty will be how long your blip of fame will last.
So that’s the long version of it all. In a time of cultural transition, the playbook for brand fame is outdated and overused. A growing discontent with theoretical applications and connection building hints at a deeper uncertainty in the world at large. The key trend for 2023 will be practicality, a pragmatic approach to telling your story that is rooted in usefulness and function. Without it, your brand story risks being DOA.
The Other 90 is written by me, Rob Engelsman, a former baby model and now Cofounder & Strategy Partner at Quick Study. To get us involved in solving your problems, email email@example.com. You can also find me on Twitter (for now), Instagram, & LinkedIn.