Halo insight 14
September 2018
5 Mins
Paul Bailey Brand Strategy Director

Brands and The Changing Art of Persuasion

I recently attended a great morning session on strategy at the You Can Now (YCN) here in London. It included some fantastic insight from strategists who sit at different stages of their professional lives – James Lees (Sword & Stone) and Jim Carroll (ex-UK Chairman of BBH). Both made some great points, but the big takeaway from the talk for me was from Jim regarding ‘persuasion’, and that a part of our role as strategists remains to persuade.

Persuasion is not the most fashionable of brand P-words right now – that honor goes to Purpose.

Brand purpose can be positive

Purpose has become the phrase on every brand strategists lips, but unfortunately this is a phrase which I feel has become hijacked. Having a purpose for your brand is of course important, but how this is defined has become rather confused. For me, every brand should have a purpose or aspiration which they share with their audience. Whether this is a social purpose, such as minimizing plastic waste, or simply a shared aspiration, such as improving your fitness, this can encourage people to become interested and involved with a brand. (If you want to actually read some intelligent writing around brand purpose then try Citizen Brands by Michael Willmott, Beyond Branding by Nicholas Ind and Cannibals with Forks by John Elkington)

But is defining a purpose for your brand simply another way to persuade people that they should be interested in your brand, or want to join your brand ‘tribe’? I believe there is a danger that we feel that persuasion is what those Mad Men advertising execs of the 60s/70s/80s/90s did, and now we want to have ‘conversations’ with our target audience on what the brand means to them.

Yes a brand must be shaped around a meaning which is shared with people, and brand communications should now be two way conversations in some form (in that we must actively listen to what people are saying). But as strategists, and importantly the people leading a brand, it is our role to always seek to move the conversation on and constantly seek to shape the conversation that is being had.

A marketers role is to persuade

So is a part of our role still as persuaders? I may be wrong here, but I feel that many of today’s marketers consider persuasion to be beneath them. Talking about things like brand purpose help us make our role sound more worthwhile, and make us feel better about ourselves, but is there anything wrong with seeking to persuade?

I shared the topic of persuasion on LinkedIn recently and was challenged by Merlin Duff (strategy consultant at Venturethree) whether we seek to persuade or influence? Merlin’s delineation between the two was that ‘everything we do is about influence but not necessarily about persuasion (if by persuasion we mean persuading people to do/think/feel something).’ Although we agreed that there are semantics at play here, we did discuss the interesting difference between the two terms of persuasion and influence.

Personally, I question whether some strategists, marketers, etc might feel a little unnerved by the thought that they are encouraging people to do/think/feel something. If we are being tasked by a brand owner (whether as an external or internal expert) to help them with a specific challenge for their brand, surely we have to accept that to seek to influence is not enough. We need to be increasing awareness and affiliation, but with the ultimate aim of encouraging desired actions – which fundamentally is persuading isn’t it?

The changing tools of persuasion

For those Mad Men ad execs mentioned previously, their tools of persuasion were the ‘megaphone’ media of advertising, in its various forms. I believe that the role of persuasion does remain, but the tools may now be different. In our networked world, persuasion doesn’t have to come directly from the ‘mouth’ of the organization. Harvard Business Review recently featured an article on the role of online peer-reviews in persuading people, finding that it is actually moderately positive reviews that are the most persuasive. We’ve also mentioned influence, and so can’t omit the ‘persuasive powers’ of those social media influencers who seem to be so popular with some marketers these days. The ethics of some social media influencers may be questionable, with the recent claims of some beauty influencers offering to give negative reviews of competitor brands for $75k, but the fact that they are simply another way by which to persuade should be beyond doubt.

Encourage people to want things

In rather apt timing, Tom Roach (Managing Partner BBH London) shared a tweet recently reminding me of the, admittedly very catchy, idea that it is now about ‘Making things people want’ rather than ‘Making people want things’. His point was that, although ‘Making things people want’ is important, we are in danger of forgetting how to ‘Make people want things’. I agree, although I don’t believe we can ‘make’ people want things, but surely it is incumbent on us to accept our role as persuaders. We obviously would like our clients or bosses to think that our work is encouraging desired actions, as if they didn’t then our jobs would surely be in question.

Of course, if we are persuading people to engage with or be interested in specific brands then I feel that we must believe that there genuinely is some value and benefit in the brand to people. As the excellent strategist Faris asked in a tweet when discussing this subject, is there ‘an ethical boundary to persuasion’?. I say that yes there is, but what is ethical to one person differs to what is ethical to another. What we are willing and prepared to seek to persuade people to do, or buy, or join, or believe, or share in, is a personal decision and should be guided by our own personal ethics.

The tools of persuasion may have changed, but the art of persuasion remains an essential role for strategists.

Article originally published in

Branding Strategy Insider