The Noodle

Romancing Your Brand

Social change agent Tim Leberecht on why romance still matters today

It’s alright to ask the question. Tim Leberecht has set himself up to hear it all the time. “Is the romance gone from today’s branding efforts?” Leberecht says no. In fact, the acclaimed author and founder of The Business Romantic Society says there is a new wave of smart and romantic marketers blazing the trail for passion-based messages. In his acclaimed book, “The Business Romantic,” Leberecht shows the captivating power that romantic marketing wields in connecting with today’s consumers. We sat down with the former CMO of global design and architecture firm NBBJ to get his thoughts on how small, everyday actions can help build a more humane economy and offer a glimpse into why brands that create such moments in their customers’ experiences are winning.

What are some of the key components that make marketing successful?

Marketing is an art and a science, and it is most successful when it balances the two. Obviously, with an unprecedented amount of data at their fingertips, today’s marketers are intelligent almost by default. They now know which half of their marketing budget is spent ineffectively, to paraphrase David Ogilvy’s famous adage. They know much more about their customers and their audiences at large than ever before, and they can use that knowledge to more precisely and more accurately predict customer behavior.

But that is a hollow pursuit if they don’t at the same time shape, cherish, and shepherd their brand and express it with a human voice. A brand remains an elusive concept that refuses to be exactly quantified or reduced to formulaic models. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that if you can engineer it, it’s not a brand.

So marketers must both dream and execute big. Rawness and rigor are equally important. Marketers must be novelists and air traffic controllers at the same time.

What are the most critical action brands must take today?

Truly understanding who they are and what they want to be. This may sound trivial, but nothing is more important than clarity of vision and intent. What makes you special? Is your brand promise based on purpose, superiority or uniqueness? What is the limit of your ambition? Everything else flows from there – the brand platform, go-to-market strategy, PR, demand gen and loyalty programs, and the capabilities you build in-house in your marketing organization. A brand must be interesting at all times, not necessarily always adding concrete value or being fully trusted, but it must always be interesting. You might call this quality “authentic.” I call it romantic.

When it comes to marketing and branding, is the romance gone?

I believe it is the opposite: I believe we’re witnessing the beginning of a new romantic era in marketing. Tomorrow’s marketers must be smart and romantic. In an era of big datafication, evidence-based decision-making and algorithm-driven interactions, more than ever, human connection, empathy and creativity are the ultimate differentiators. Precisely because it is so encumbered by the forces of quantification and automation, marketing can emerge as the great humanizer – the heart and soul of a company, and not just its robotic brain.

I believe marketing must always create a “meaning surplus” and bring some extra delight, enchantment, social capital and perspective to the world. Brands who do that – from Apple to Etsy to Patagonia, but also Airbnb or Facebook – are romantic in a sense that they strive to imagine and “make” different worlds. It is their bold imagination that is at the core of their appeal. It is their vision that makes them so relevant, more than anything else.

What truly makes branding romantic?

To see the world in a unique view and to create a marketplace of people who ultimately share your perspective. To oppose the ruling paradigms and conventions and insist on a subjective truth. True differentiation is always an act of opposition, if not rebellion. That’s why we love David Bowie, who was perhaps the ultimate neo-romantic popstar (and brand). And that’s why we are intrigued – across the full range of emotions, from love to outright hatred – by Uber. It’s a clever, data-driven business model, but it’s also a monolithic brand that is unlike any other and offers a unique worldview. This is why the recent rebranding caused such a stir. Whether we like it or not, Uber matters and it doesn’t leave us indifferent. That’s the hallmark of a romantic brand.

By Tim Leberecht