News & Views

Opinion / Brand Marketing Redefined: The Frame is the Game

by Contagious Contributor


Marcus Wenner of Prime PR discusses the importance of a "frame story" in creating positive brand perceptions.

A long time axiom in the world of political communication is that the candidate, who succeeds in getting the public to embrace his/her view of the world, is also the one who gets the votes in the election. Owning the public's perception of reality through a strong 'frame story' is thus a key factor for political success. Today, this is also increasingly true for brands and corporations. In order to play a role in people's lives, brands must be able to connect to a bigger context. Marketers need a new playbook - and have a lot to learn from the spin-doctors of politics. 

Politicians have mastered the skill of describing and addressing problems in society. In politics, it's problems - rather than solutions - that matter. Possessing the initiative to point out a problem that citizens can relate to is more critical than political solutions (which all too often are vague promises and un-proven ideas for an unknown future)  

This is why 'framing' has been such a popular tool in the political campaign toolbox. It's a battle to win the perception of reality. Are you 'Pro-Life' or 'Pro-Choice'? Do you support 'inheritance tax' or are you against the 'death tax'? 

The famous 1984 Ronald Reagan commercial 'It's morning again in Americais a true classic of the discipline. A frame story based around a metaphor for the US being on the right track with President Reagan in office. (He carried 49 of 50 states in the election...). 

A recent controversial attempt to 're-frame' an issue was the National Rifle Association's (NRA), reaction to the Newton tragedy where a school shooter killed twenty children and six adults. In a time when most of us see stricter gun control as a natural consequence of this, Wayne LaPierre of the NRA commented: 'The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.' Totally un-empathic, tone deaf and insensitive? Absolutely! But also most probably an effective way to turn the table on the issue, and the horrific truth of the matter is that NRA got 250k new members in the month after Newton.

Through a couple of iconic commercials, Chrysler has redefined car advertising, tapping into the post-crisis patriotism of the US, with the frame story 'Imported from Detroit.  This is advertising in the form of political communication, where the phrase It's halftime in America would work equally well as a frame story for the Obama administration (many Republicans claimed it was pro-Obama, which lead GM managers to protest to the GOP)  

For this year's Super Bowl, both RAM (So God made a farmer) and Jeep (Whole Again) followed in Chrysler's footsteps, focusing less on the actual car, and more on a frame story describing the brand's role in society. 

For Facebook, the decision to locate a new datacentre in the north of Sweden was initially regarded as something relevant only for a specialist tech-audience. But with an understanding of the increasing global sustainability challenge in storing huge amounts of data, Facebook realised that this was part of a bigger story. Locating a datacentre in a really cold place (rather than deserts, which has often been the case), means less energy required to cool the servers. Going with this frame story, the launch, received massive global media attention and strengthened the Facebook brand's sustainability credentials. 

As Umair Haque of Havas Media Lab has demonstrated, we are now entering the world of meaningfulness. According to Havas' research only 20% of brand noticeably improve people's quality of life. And people wouldn't care if 70% of brands disappeared. To be relevant, brands must be able to create meaning - either for us as individuals, or 'collective wellbeing for society. We must basically go beyond positioning brand values and attributes, and focus on the meaning for people and society. 

For brand communication, this means that it's simply not enough to deliver a differentiating brand story. To compete on a bigger scene than the brand image ad, brands must re-focus communication towards a 'frame story'. 

This must however start with an understanding of the bigger context and a true corporate commitment to contribute. Following numerous reports on the negative impact of soft drinks on health, Coca-Cola recently launched a couple of much discussed anti-obesity ads on CNN, MSNBC etc.,aiming to set a new frame story in which Coca-Cola is part of the solution, rather than the problem. The jury is still out, as to whether this is a dramatisation of a wholehearted mission, or just a defensive move to lessen its responsibility for obesity and diabetes.   

The Nike brand is a great example of the new marketing landscape and the need to connect to a context outside the brand-consumer relationship. What used to be a sound-bite and brand visual, is now an organism of initiatives and innovations, with an increasing focus is on the 'Better World' frame story, where Nike in a many ways demonstrates how sports can be a force for good.  

A new paradigm for brands and advertising is emerging. CMOs and agencies must now have the ability to see the bigger picture. From the conventional brand platform approach, with a micro focus on the consumer, to a holistic perspective that adds the macro context, addressing a broad range of stakeholders in society. In practice, this is challenging the traditional agency profile, and we can now see agencies recruiting people with backgrounds also in politics, journalism, finance and sustainability.  

The most progressive marketers and brands are already seizing the opportunity in staking the perception of reality, through a frame story demonstrating how the brand creates value and meaning for consumers and society. 

Today, it is no longer about positioning the brand in the right place on the market map. It is now time to re-position the map itself. 

Marcus Wenner is the Head of Planning at Prime PR, Stockholm
.