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Following in the Footsteps of Bhutan and the End of Advertising

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Have you ever been to Bhutan?  It’s a beautiful and disconcerting place.

Beautiful for the mountains, the rivers, the history, the people: disconcerting because it is a deeply tranquil place.

One kind of expects the home of the Gross Domestic Happiness Index to be, well, a happier place. For a hyper-connected, Westerner exposed to constant commercial assaults on my psychic apparatus (http://bit.ly/ei6rAG), the country made me uneasy at first for some reason I couldn’t initially put my finger on.

There are no shortage of possible reasons for this feeling of tranquility… the relative equality of incomes, the general calm and dignity of people, their modest and constant good humor…. But something was affecting my Western sensibilities so shockingly so that I didn’t consciously notice it at first.

Then it dawned on me, there was almost no outside advertising in Bhutan. Bless their souls, public billboards are not allowed and shop advertising was limited to the same sized, blue background, white lettered signs.

Visual tranquility! No constant yap of the sell. Nothing telling me I needed something, or needed to be someone wiser, happier or hipper. My id, as it were, was not wrapped up in an all-consuming vortex of commerce.

Peace.

This realization took me some time to make, in fact not until I got on the plane for the long ride home to Mexico. And it got me to thinking, what if by some miracle all advertising was banned, outlawed, made illegal.

Leaving aside massive personal, social and cultural implications, a thought experiment occurred to me:  if all advertisements was banned how would companies sell their wares?

The only response I could imagine was word of mouth (WoM).  Without advertisements, without billboards, without magazine or television spots, no promotion of any kind, the only way consumers could decide what to buy or not would be by the advice of others.

How radically this would change the nature of brands and brand management (amongst other things)? Instead of being made attractive (or at least presented attractively) a brand would have to fully satisfy a need and not, as (most) advertising does today, appeal to some crack in our personal psychology (e.g., I’m not beautiful enough, I’m too fat, I need a car to be cool, a phone to be productive, drink this or that to be unique…. etc etc ad nauseum).

In this thought experiment world a product would simply have to be good to sell. Impossible?  Maybe, but there are real life examples of companies who do just this with very little or no advertising at all -  Doc Martin and Costco being among the most famous.   Other companies advertise some but rely on WoM is a primary brand value and sales driver, of which can you think of a better example than the Harley-Davidson Harley Owners Group (HOG), or, on the sustainability side of things, Natura?

While these examples are exceptions, perhaps they prove the rule that even in a world crowded to excess with hopelessly uncreative, ineffective and wasteful marketing (see my blog entry – Benetton: the Bad Boy Singing Peace on Earth http://bit.ly/srlSPD), the most powerful way of building an exceptional brand is to a) have a quality product in the first place, and b) facilitate/encourage WoM.

Just 20 years ago, expecting more companies than not to employ a WoM strategy may have been too much to expect. Today, not at all, and, in fact, the power of WoM is being massively facilitated by no end of consumer rating web sites and tools on the internet.  Happily, market scrutiny focuses not only on quality, but increasingly on sustainability performance as well.

Many companies try hard to create client relationships via the internet and most fail utterly  because their effort typically amount to not-much-more than a non-stop and annoying barrage of thinly disguised sales emails asking for “input” on this or that aspect of their product.  This is a form of electronic bill boarding just as, or perhaps more upsetting to our inner peace than external kind.

(Question: does anyone know how to block these incessant emails” Answer: don’t sign up for them in the first place).

I mused somewhat misguidedly that perhaps it’s harder to make products so useful and of such high quality that they don’t need promotion than it is to convince us to buy stuff we don’t need and often can’t afford.

As I landed in Mexico City endless hours later, I decided advocating the end of advertisement might make my inner-Bhutan swell but a more practical, adaptable, and responsible real world response would be to vigorously support corporate sustainability transparency, voraciously defend freedom of speech, and ensure immediate and breathtakingly monumental market and regulatory punishment for advertising omissions, lies, or half-truths.

A tall agenda but only through honesty can marketers help to refocus a wasteful and often hurtful economy on what really matters to us personally and to sustainability efforts.  Mark my words, those products and services that give lasting joy and comfort without all the noise and waste will be the big brands of the 21st Century.

May we all follow in the footsteps of Bhutan.

PS the blog article was inspired by and dedicated to the folks at Ashoka Mexico who delivered a first rate workshop on measuring social impacts (held in Mexico City, January 30, 2012). See http://mexico.ashoka.or or www.ashoka.org.

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