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Why serving the progress of people’s lives is the future of brand marketing

“I really believe that marketing is a wonderful profession and necessary tool of the way the world needs to work in the future. If we really believe that corporations have a key role to play in driving social economic and environmental progress, marketing has a big role to play.” – Marc Mathieu, Senior Vice President, Unilever, quoted in ‘Marketing needs to be noble again

In the real estate industry, we tend to focus all of our efforts and energy around the concept of selling. It occupies us through our marketing, our interactions with clients, and discussions with each other. Everything in our industry is geared towards the growth of business as focused through the lens of the sale. But recent developments in brand marketing have called for a return to marketing’s traditional roots, by not focusing on selling for selling’s sake, as happens all too frequently, but for a restoration of the era when marketing was conceived and perceived as a conduit for social progress. The sale of a home is in the DNA of this idea.

Chrysler: ‘Halftime In America’

Many advertisers now take more of an emotionally-driven, storytelling approach, designed to heighten awareness of a particular social issue (such as Chrysler’s ‘It’s Halftime In America’ campaign with Clint Eastwood), or to throw light on an otherwise long forgotten issue or time, now framed by a modern product (as illustrated by the Budweiser Cydesdales). Brands which are beginning to take the approach of bringing services and products into people’s worlds in order to create progress and genuinely enrich lives, are not only seeing the most emotionally-driven types of campaigns being generated, but also finding that the digital versions of these campaigns are allowing those ideas, through social engagement, to truly come to life in ways that perhaps traditional media such as television or print advertising might not.

European laundry detergent brand Persil, and their ‘Dirt Is Good’ campaign is one such forerunner of the idea of crafting a brand around a specific life decision, and one which uses the idea of cultural contradiction to solidify the idea of brand connection in the prospective purchaser’s mind. Such campaigns are based on the premise that the strongest type of marketing is that which skillfully balances and articulates both logic and magic, and this idea, as implemented by Unilever (the parent company of Persil) is reinventing the way brands approach marketing. I believe there is a huge, fat fertile space of innovation here for real estate marketers to work with the same concept, by taking the contrary approach to traditional real estate marketing discussions, and removing mention of the consumer, in favor of replacing it with the concept of putting people’s lives at the center of everything you do. Consumers are people first.

Persil: ‘Dirt Is Good’

Persil’s approach is predicated upon driving social, economic and environmental change in the real world, no small challenge, but one which espouses the idea that the best form of brand marketing is the one that improves people’s lives. It’s more than being aspirational or exclusive, it’s the genuine notion that by using a product, you stand for something special, and meaningful. To you. Your purchase decision is informed by your values, and the alignment of those same values with the brands you choose to buy (into).

Specifically, Persil decided that the traditionally perceived arch enemy of detergent advertising, is actually its best friend. Dirt isn’t something to hide, wash out, or something that ruins clothing. It’s evidence of creativity, adventure, exploration, endeavor and curiosity. Dirt is proof of fun. Dirt is something to be celebrated, and represents a return to the child in all of us, where play was central to our lives. This works by completely inverting the traditional ‘washes whiter’ advertising of comparison tests, doorstep challenges, or soft flowing bed sheets airing out on grassy mountainsides. It’s an increasingly overcrowded product category, with individual detergent brand sales in overall decline as the aisle in the grocery store offers more and more niche choice. Hundreds of different brands, dozens of different scents, different softness compounds, and many other confusing and unclear elements fabricated in a sea of sameness. The Persil brand philosophy embraces the idea that ‘children should be given the freedom to be creative, which leads to learning and development, without worrying about getting dirty’. This positioning aligns Persil with that of facilitating learning through play, a powerful association for a brand. Parents who buy into this idea, also buy into the notion that Persil is helping them succeed as parents. Dirt is to be celebrated, and Persil takes all the worry traditionally associated with dirt, away from us.

Roli, Growth Stays, Dirt Goes from ‘Dirt Is Good’ by Persil

Persil has created a large number of television commercials to promote the brand idea, as well as driving awareness through online microsites and substantial print advertising. They’re currently running a wonderful series of testimonials from parents on their YouTube Channel describing how outside play is leading to stronger developmental and learning skills in children. The tone is playful, but Persil is strongly positioned as something which helps parents to be better parents. With this focus on social responsibility as supported by the product however, television has not proven to be the most effective form of marketing for Persil (as beautiful and touching as the creative might be), and there’s been mounting criticism from within the advertising community that the campaign has not worked in driving sales in volume. Online has driven much more brand awareness (and sales) for Persil, as the specific type of brand campaign this relates to speaks much closer to social engagement, storytelling, and the kinds of sharing you get from a platform such as Facebook. Interestingly enough, they have taken a regional, country specific approach to developing their Facebook presence (rather than one consolidated brand page), and also run parallel presence through the main corporate Unilever pages. This is an interesting, unusual, and somewhat unique approach to the growth and presence of brand marketing using social media.

“Dirt is a natural and positive part of embracing and experiencing life, growing up, and learning.” – Jay Liwanag, Persil Brand Manager 

One of the reasons a campaign like this resonates so well with us is because it uses a deliberate strategy of semiotic inversion – using two phrases that aren’t supposed to go together in our minds. Decades of detergent advertising has conditioned us into thinking that what we really want from our detergents are whiter whites in ways that won’t ruin our clothes (this translates to lower temperatures in product advertising). ‘Dirt is good’ (Persil), ‘Imported from Detroit’ (Chrysler) or ‘Australian for beer’ (Fosters) all work with this same semiotic inversion idea. As described brilliantly on the culturemaking blog, brands draw on myths in order to resolve cultural contradictions – they often take two opposing thoughts that have strong relevance to the product’s category, and pair them off against each other in order to create ‘cultural norms’ and ‘cultural contradictions’. The contradictions provide brands huge spaces of opportunity in which to engineer creative resolutions which transform the category.

While specific in timeframe, let’s take a look at such an example from the real estate industry, in 2005, related to a topic on many marketers’ minds this year – data transparency and syndication. In 2005, the cultural norms were for the brokerages and individual local boards, as well as exclusive agents, to control and distribute the information, which was small-scale and essentially agent to client, in comparison to today. Transparency was something relatively new to real estate professionals, and online real estate content was embryonic at best. The idea that the customer would be allowed to potentially know more than the agent was terrifying to many, just as it remains currently for some. There was no Zillow, Trulia, iPhone, YouTube, iPad, Twitter, Foursquare or Google Street View – all things we perhaps take for granted today. But, if we look at how seven years of disruption to a semiotic inversion graph would look for this today, it might be something like this:

Today’s picture is radically different from 2005. Having disrupted the online real estate category for the past seven years, the big syndicators are now very much the cultural norm, especially if you buy into their often questioned visitor metrics. However, looking at where the cultural contradictions lie on the same graph, reveals some interesting, and perhaps controversial areas of open innovation. It raises the question of syndication’s value, and proposes that complete transparency is not always a good thing, as well as offering up the idea that overwhelming the potential customer does not solve some fundamental questions they may have about the home buying process. The spaces of innovation in disrupting the real estate category center around exclusive, original, and tightly distributed content.

One such area of cultural contradiction faced by syndication is how it connects with people. Not customers. Not buyers. Not sellers. People. And specifically how that level of connection drives genuine and meaningful progress in people’s lives. This is a very different proposition from simply more and more localized information. I believe this approach for the real estate industry, as offered and beautifully executed by Persil, is something we can learn a tremendous amount from. Who knows? Perhaps the future of our industry’s most innovative marketing and product design lies in what we learned from a detergent.