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Transparency Makes the Facade an Illusion



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The taxi sped up. Crossing this crowded city of twelve million people was no Sunday drive. Despite driving fast on the superhighway, the urban sprawl didn’t seem to end. I passed skyscrapers that looked as if they were built on other skyscrapers.

People were everywhere, and they came in all shades – white, brown, black. This rapidly growing metropolis is the largest city in the Southern Hemisphere and the world’s eleventh largest city by population. It’s a city of great contrasts – rich and poor, traditional and progressive, boastful and reticent.

I noticed that there were no billboards, the shop signs were small, and the taxis were not covered with advertising.

No billboards – but in the sky above me swarmed countless helicopters. São Paulo is a city with an incredible number of helicopters.

In my quest for answers I thought I too would take a helicopter, for a great view. Well, at least metaphorically speaking.

I was en route to a meeting with Professor J.C. Rodrigues, who teaches at the most famous business school in São Paulo. Besides lecturing, he works for the Walt Disney Company in their Brazilian office.

An assistant ushered me into the Professor’s office. It looked like a kid’s room, with lots of different Disney toys and a Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal. He had three computers turned on. Sitting there smiling and welcoming me, he looked like The Nutty Professor.

After some small talk, I went directly to the big question: „What’s the future of marketing?“

He leaned back in his chair and thought for a moment. „Good question! Since I started teaching at the university eleven years ago, I’ve been trying to find one common mindset for marketing. Today, the issue is not the migration away from mass marketing – there’s still plenty of that – but the migration from interruptive to non-interruptive marketing. „Five years ago, we were discussing the difference between online and offline. But look at YouTube. Now you have the pre-roll or introductory video before the video itself. That five or ten-second advertisement is an example of old-fashioned interruptive advertising. That’s the cancer of the offline media spreading to the online media.

„In my opinion this strategy is a throwback. We should not take the worst of offline advertising and try to apply it online. Instead, both online and offline should use the best forms of non-interruptive marketing. The billboard ban in São Paulo is interesting because there were multiple discussions on what would happen next, so there was not only the billboard ban and who would be losing money on that but what would come next. I want to communicate, but how can I do that and build my brand when I’m not allowed to interrupt anymore?

„In the past there was cable TV, and it did not have advertising on it. You paid for the cable TV because you didn’t want adverts. But then they added the advertising, and people migrated to Netflix. Then there was a movement of people cutting their cable TV subscriptions, at least in the United States. Consumers decided to choose on demand services, because then you don’t need to see adverts.

„That’s a behavioural change, and it’s related to the São Paulo ban on billboards. And after all, it all comes to the same end. Interruptive communication is no longer working.“

I told the Professor that I had spoken to a local businessman in São Paulo who works in marketing, and he had said they really wanted the billboards back again so he could start to promote his products. I asked him if he had measured the effects of the billboard ban, and how many new sales he would generate with billboards. He looked at me as if no one had asked him that question before. He admitted he didn’t have a proper answer for that.

It’s actually a story we have heard before. As John Wanamaker said more than one hundred years ago, „Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is, I don’t know which half.“ He was considered by some to a proponent of advertising and a pioneer in marketing.

The Professor smiled and leaned forward in his chair. „Initially, the agencies had a lot of concern about this, because they would be losing this part of their marketing. I don’t believe personally that a brand or an agency has missed anything on this. It was a change, a shock, a mindset change.

„It would have happened anyway. Even if we didn’t have the billboard ban, the investment would have migrated to one-on-one, less interruptive forms of media. So it is kind of killing something that was already old and outdated.“

Business-to-Business

„What’s your perspective on business-to-business selling versus business-to-consumers in relation to the future

of marketing?“ I asked the Professor.

„What is interesting is that B2B does not really exist,“ he said. „It is people buying from other people, even if you are buying as a company. As a purchaser within a company, it is still a person buying something.

How you market to other businesses isn’t that much different from how you market to the general audience. „You have perceptions and expectations, and you may or may not believe what the brand or company is saying to you. In our digitally connected world, consumers talk to each other; consequently brands are increasingly exposed and cannot rely on advertising to hide their failures or enhance or prove their benefits. They need to be more real and communicate what they

are, and they need to be what they’re communicating. „If you consider that this is the premise for how you do business, once you have your foundation, your DNA, and it is not all marketing speech but a way of life, the way you do business and the way you talk to your customers and offer them benefits will turn from a one-way marketing communications speech to something that’s a conversation. One additional benefit, by the way, is that your employees will be more deeply committed to the brand essence.

„It’s a different form of marketing. You’re not enhancing your benefits or hiding your failures. You’re showing the people what you really are, and with that you bring forth the perception of the company itself. „That’s what they’re trying to do by becoming more of a people-to-people rather than a business-to-business company. The businessman doesn’t change his personality just because he returned to his family at five o’clock and takes his tie off.“

We live in a world that embraces logic. In our professional lives, we think we use only reason. The latest research has revealed that the part of our brain that makes decisions about money and trade is the part whose primary task is to manage emotions. To make economic choices, we use a part of the brain that’s designed for a different purpose. In many ways, the B2B and B2C distinction is completely outdated.

„When you talk about business people,“ continued the Professor, „trust is something that can trigger an emotion. For example, I need to feel secure that the company from which I bought a service or product will respond if I have problems, and that they will make me successful and make me look good in front of my colleagues. Trust will bring happiness, because you don’t need to worry. It’s an emotion, and companies and their people can create it. Maybe it’s not the same emotion that you get with Disney movies, with people crying and laughing. But it is an emotion after all, and it creates the same value for the company. You’ll continue doing business with the company because you trust them, and by trusting them you become happy because you don’t have any issues to deal with.“

Why Are We In Business?

„Let’s change the subject a little,“ I said. „You’re a teacher at the business school here, and if you read all the classic business books and the definition of a business, it’s always about the shareholders and making money for the shareholders. Aren’t those definitions old-fashioned? And what is the new definition?“

„I conduct an interesting experiment with my students,“ said the Professor. „I ask them, ‘Why does this company exist?’ The ultimate answer to that is, money! Of course, all companies exist to make money; that’s obvious. But the difference is the question you get right after that: Why do you want to make money? It’s not because the shareholders will make more money; that’s too simplistic. But why do you want to do that? Why exactly do you exist? What is your purpose? If you are a person, why are you alive? How do you describe that? How can you help people?

„Here in Latin America, an Apple computer costs twice as much as a PC. Why do people pay the high price? Because the brand essence helps them to define themselves. There is meaning, there is a why. So it is more emotional than rational. They offer you something more than just the product. Ultimately, people will pay for that.“

I said that it’s funny that most companies seem to be afraid to talk about that. They hide themselves and use words such as „mission“ and „vision.“

The professor nodded. „That’s a problem with business today. The mission/vision concept is really strong, but it has lost its real value. It has turned into a plague at the president’s office. They are just words. It was strong once, and then when you put that in a beautiful frame, it does not represent what they are and it does not guide their decisions. So it is sad that the mission/vision concept is really strong and not necessarily something that is outdated. But they need to be what they initially intended to be.

„It is essential for any company to have this mission or vision. You can call it whatever you want: some brands call it ‘brand essence,’ others call it ‘company DNA.’ But it’s something in which you must really believe; it cannot be merely fancy words in a fancy frame. What a lot of companies do not understand is that they have the slogans and other forms of advertising, and they may have the mission/vision, but these are not things that help them to make decisions. To have any meaning, their mission/vision must do that. It must help the company decide what to throw the money at and what to cut.“

Humanising Business

If I said that we should humanise business, what would be your response?

„Humanising means merely dropping the mask of the brands, of the companies,“ said the Professor. „So humanising is something that is naturally tied to the exposition that we are facing nowadays.

„There is another metaphor that I use: In the past, when people used to go to a restaurant, they’d sit at the table and eat their food. The kitchen was hidden. Now the kitchen is in the middle of the restaurant. We see what the chefs are doing, how they are doing it, and where our food comes from; so that is a way to humanize the restaurant experience.

„Humanising means taking the mask away from ourselves and being real. The problem is that in the past, advertising helped a company to create a mask. With this mask an opaque wall was built between the reality and the perception.

„Advertising in the past was about creating perceptions, and the perceptions may or may not have been the truth. Nowadays you don’t have the wall to hide behind. Advertisers are lost because too often the reality is not as beautiful as they are communicating. The communication no longer has value.

„The problem is not that marketing has changed; I believe that companies must change. Good marketing will just tell the truth. Marketing will change so that they are no longer lying or hiding their failures. They will tell the truth. They will be transparent.

„When you look at the whole company, traditional marketing has lost its importance because they are not creating or fabricating, anything. It’s more important to be something that is real than to communicate something you are not.“

The Question of Money

I asked the Professor to go back to his students and the question of why we are in business. It seems like the upper levels of management are obsessed with focusing on the financial part of their company and tend to forget why they got into business in the first place.

„You cannot forget that you need to make money, because that is the essence. I am not saying that all companies should turn into NGOs. But after all, if you think only of the money that you are making, you will be selling or providing a service to the money and not to the people who give you that money. The fact that people pay you is a compliment for something that you are serving them. And if you provide something that is either rationally or emotionally strong enough, they will give you money. They will pay you.

„Money is a consequence of good business. It’s not the essence of it.

„If you only focus on the cost and the financial aspects of it, it’s not sustainable in the long term. Of course, it may be easy to think that you have to achieve your goal this quarter, and then make a number of poor decisions in order to make that money quickly. But at what cost? It’s not sustainable.

„On the other hand, if you understand your essence and know that you are solving problems and providing good things or meeting your expectations, your business model is sustainable. Money is a consequence of this, and it’s enjoyable. You’re working because you see the value you’re creating for people. You are creating emotion – it could be happiness, it could be any positive emotion – and then you create a positive cycle where you want to do better and you want to do more. Money is the consequence of this well performed job“.

I mentioned a clothing store in United States. Their sales were not going very well, and the sales manager decided to make a sales competition to see who could sell the most. But it didn’t motivate one of the employees.

Instead of being the best sales person, she decided on her own to be the one who offered the best service and the best customer experience. For her it didn’t matter how much time she spend on helping and advising her customers. Her colleagues, on the other hand, didn’t have time for that, because they were busy selling to as many people as possible. Who ended being the best performing salesperson? Of course it was the woman who decided to offer the best customer experience. Sometimes in our twisted minds we turn things upside down.

„This story illustrates that marketing will no longer be a part of the company,“ he replied. „It will be the company itself. I don’t believe we will see marketing departments within companies. The company will be the marketing, because you can only communicate what you really are.

„Fusion needs to exist between business administration and marketing. How do you balance the financial results you need to achieve and at the same time do things in a way that is expected by the audience or your ‘guests,’ as I like to call it. So the marketing won’t only be communicating what you’re doing; the marketing will be about doing positive things rather than merely communicating them. It will need a different mindset.“

It was late, and the Professor needed to prepare for his next lecture. He bade me goodbye and I left his office to reflect upon what we had discussed.

From the taxi window on the superhighway I saw the results of the city planning that ceased to function back in the 1980s. To build a highway, the river that had once run through the main square of Vale do Anhangabaú had been directed into a concrete tunnel; and as in so many BRIC nations, rapid development had resulted in random urban sprawl.

I paid the taxi fare and started to walk to the city center, also called the Central Zone of São Paulo. Many historical and important sights of town are in this area.

São Paulo’s exploding traffic has driven people and businesses out of the city centre, leaving empty buildings, discount outlets, and parking lots. The main square sits above a highway and is bypassed by pedestrian flyovers, and there’s nothing to invite people to come down to the square. It’s run down, there’s nowhere to sit, and very little to enjoy.

Since 2008, the city administration and the local population have been working to revitalize the area that suffered degradation from the urban renewal. They’re using the Danish architecture firm Gehl Architects, an urban research and design consultancy based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Founded in 2000 by architect Helle Søholt and professor Jan Gehl, the firm addresses global trends with a people-focused approach based on the human scale – the built environment’s effect on activity patterns and interaction between people.

The lesson? It’s not the façade of the building or the company that’s important. Maybe in the past, the façade – or the advertising – could impress people. But not anymore. Transparency makes the façade an illusion.

It’s the essence itself and how well it works for people that counts. It’s something that’s made by people for people.

Buildings don’t make a city. Advertising doesn’t make a company.

Transparency makes you naked. A company and its marketing have to be indistinguishable.