How urban brand-utility can reframe advertising and reconnect people, brands, agencies and governments


Urban brand-utility could be the approach that meaningfully and profitably reconnects people, brands, agencies and local governments, writes Sérgio Brodsky.

The advertising industry is a catalyst of knowledge, talent and opportunity.

Nonetheless, strategic communications agencies are struggling to innovate and counter the growing threat coming from management consultancies, start-ups and savvy corporates.

Innovation is desperately needed and having guts is just as important as having brains, but top-down short-termism and sluggish processes pose serious limitations for braver thinking and doing.

An exceptional customer experience, especially against the more sophisticated foreign companies that enter Australia, is where marketing needs enlightenment. As evidenced by the 2016 SMG Media Futures research, “51% of Australian businesses believe customer experience is their most exciting opportunity, but only 6% of marketers feel they are successfully implementing it”.

When it comes to advertising, a shift from interrupting people’s moments to enhancing them, specifically in the context of cities, marks a turning point for the industry.

The urbanisation megatrend wholly underpins other forces shaping the way we live, now and in the future. As a consequence of increased demand for ever more comfortable lifestyles, the existing urban infrastructures have been feeling growing pains for more than a decade. From energy to education, health, waste- management and safety, cities’ services are struggling to keep up with their populations.

The strategic opportunity is to reframe advertising from the promotion of conspicuous consumption to becoming a regenerative force in the economy of cities. That means using brand communication touch points to deliver public utility services. I have coined this ‘urban brand-utility’, an approach that can meaningfully and profitably reconnect people, brands, agencies and local government.

For example, Indian energy company Halonix installed LED billboards that lit up at night, making streets safer. In fact, following explicit requests, the campaign is rolling out nationally. By creating new meaning, Halonix decommoditised energy and exited an enduring price war.

Australia has had a few interesting executions, but none inclusive of the same bigger problems affecting the general population.

Telstra’s repurposing of obsolete payphones into Wi-Fi hot spots was a great way to resurrect an owned asset, but the benefit is exclusive to customers.

On the other hand, Sidewalk Labs has done the same retrofitting, through its LinkNYC totems, inclusive of New York residents as well as visitors. Besides supplementing New York’s broadband network, LinkNYC also shares its ad revenue (from OOH digital screens) as part of the terms of a 12-year contract projected to bring US$500 million to the city.

It may seem a no-brainer but, according to Jon Holloway, who ran R/GA in Australia and is now co-founding start-ups, the industry is its own worst enemy. “I have done a lot of work and research on smart cities and the underlying framework to create networks for connecting physical spaces to technology and, more importantly, people.

Opportunities are boundless, but the marketing and advertising industry are protectionists not revolutionists. Urban-brand utility could be a killer application of marketing and data science. It will, however, have to be done outside the echo chamber of traditional agencies.”

Fabio Oliveira, Kmart’s head of innovation, foresees a light at the end of the ad industry’s tunnel vision. “Urban brand-utility means business transformation, where branded social innovations become agencies’ main product and communications their by-product,” he says.

The urban brand-utility framework addresses people’s ever increasing ad avoidance behaviour and, more broadly, the cities where they reside by optimising municipal budgets when supplementing utility services or creating new income streams (such as Sidewalk Labs).

In this brave new world agencies would partner with cities through the use of open data, aligning brands with specific urban challenges. New skills and radically innovative propositions would emerge from the frictions of brand strategists working more closely with urban planners, ‘agency suits’ with policy-makers and creatives with landscape architects.

Interestingly, in September 2016, the City of Gainsville, Florida, and design firm Ideo co-created the Department of Doing, aiming at creating a more competitive economy and becoming more citizen-responsive.

Brand utility does not mean creativity will be killed by utilitarianism. On the contrary, new paradigms would push it to its very edge. For example, in 2014, the University of Technology of Lima, Peru deployed air-purifying billboards, each claiming to be as effective as 1200 trees, which also enhanced brand health and drove enrolments.

Much more is required to address air pollution, but, according to the 2015 World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Cities, while cities will always need large infrastructure projects, sometimes small-scale projects can have a big impact on an urban area.

Urban brand-utility can provide the conditions for ingenious advertising to step up from eye-catching stunts to semi-permanent infrastructures of creative, urban resilience. To enable a virtuous circle, cities would then arrange for tax breaks, rebates, R&D contributions or other incentives. This way, marketing budgets are effectively turned into investment funds where returns can be measured in brand, monetary and societal metrics.

The University of Melbourne has already confirmed that the impact assessment of Urban brand-utility programs is possible and would inform new revenue models and policy-making efforts.

Dr Savvas Verdis, infrastructure economist at Siemens and senior research fellow at London School of Economics, is equally convinced: “I am sure that urban brand-utility will provide some much needed expertise and transformation [in the marketing communications industry]and particularly in generating new business opportunities.”

It’s no longer a matter of thinking-outside-the-box, but reinventing it. Posing with the safe answer to protect shareholders and personal reputations is a great frame for a ‘Kodak moment’. Thus, before being disrupted, it’s time brands and agencies review their roles and scope.

Are you going to just sit and watch?

Image copyright: finwal81 / 123RF Stock Photo

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About Author

Sérgio Brodsky

érgio Brodsky is an internationally experienced brand marketing professional having worked for some of the world's greatest strategic communications agencies. Sérgio is a proven thought-leader, speaking at industry events, lecturing and regularly being published worldwide. He is passionate about cities and culture and the role of brands and technology in society. Sérgio is multilingual and holds a BA in IP law and an MBA in global brand strategy and innovation.

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