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The Rise of the Scratch Card Brand

Chipotle's beloved "Back to the Start" ad conveys the alignment of the burrito chain's image as a responsible company with its embedded values, mission and efforts to provide "food with integrity." | Image credit: Chipotle

We're living in The Age of Scratch Card Brands — social networks have closed the gap between brands and the businesses that deliver them to the extent that businesses now sit immediately beneath their brands. Social networks have rendered the factory and boardroom walls in glass — a rude employee or a river foaming with effluent can be captured on a phone camera instantly, be on YouTube in seconds and viewed by millions shortly after. Potential health and safety violations tolerated by out-of-sight factory workers are no longer out of mind to the consumer activist buying the brand promise four thousand miles away.

In the world of the Scratch Card Brand, the average Jane and Joe can now easily scrape the shiny surface of a brand to reveal all manner of things beneath — either the gold of product and service experiences, rewards, community and a purposeful and authentic conscience at work to mutual benefit, or toxic shockers, rights abuses, dodgy ingredients, shabby operational impacts, abdication of responsibility or, worst of all, corporate indifference to the suffering or injustices of others involved in their pursuit of profit. And the consumer activist will act upon those things either with vehement advocacy and love or equally vehement rebuke, retribution and hate.

The lottery nature of the Scratch Card Brand world is informed by the varying degrees to which businesses have a clear line of sight along their supply chain and in turn to what degree they can compel those suppliers and partners to adopt particular principles, practices, processes and regulations. And to anyone who still thinks that a clear line of sight in the supply chain is not critical to the promises that brands make elsewhere, all I can say is, “Horsemeat.”

So if in our new world brands stand to gain and lose so much from joining the dots or not, why is there still a marked absence of this kind of top-to-bottom storytelling and the unlocking of budgets to realise it?

Well, let’s start with the storytellers, the brand people — keepers of the mythological key to the brand mojo, and those tasked with knowing how best to turn it to creating and capturing value to fuel a greater business and a further ascendant brand. First startling fact: It’s still an arm wrestle and a game of twister to get a brand person to discuss “S” stuff and even then, are they really present? To be fair, the standard brand person’s disinclination to want to engage in a world as rigorous and seemingly impenetrable as that of the supply chain strategists, engineers and managers is not wholly surprising. One problem is, it’s not just the brand people’s reticence or discomfort in working in this space that queers the pitch and suffocates the conversation. The agencies that advise the brand people are also uncomfortable in this ‘joined-up’ space, possibly to an even greater degree — and have little experience repurposing the DNA of the brand story to seamlessly include the CSR, sustainability and social dimensions.

The other problem is a deeply ingrained sense of ‘otherness’ around the mythology of brand and brand people. Brand has long been was a shiny thing floating through the ether, unscathed by the trials and tribulations of real life. In its rarified world, life was simply gorgeous, and every problem however great or small was swiftly dismissed with a jolly smarter/sweeter/whiter/brighter/happier/hand-holding/sing-along/bite and smile/go-faster/never-alone experience, delivered by one of the many super-brands perched on the glittering shelf of our retail Olympus. And millions and millions of the company’s profits could be safely turned to keeping them up there, shining and untainted.

But with the advent of social networks and technology comes the rise of an effusive, highly vocal, very active and emerged virtual constituency, and the cat’s cradle of joined-up oneness delivered by those new mobile technologies and platforms have put an end to all that ‘otherness’ that brand people used to enjoy from their business counterparts. These days, mess up in the toxic shocker or the community impact department and you’re a YouTube share away from breaking the unimpeachable brand promise you spent all that money making  and your NPS suddenly looks a little less chirpy than it did last time you looked.

Luckily, the business side realized that to rumble on with some ramshackle idea of ‘doing the right thing’ wasn’t going to cut it. And the old world of having one pyramid/onion/odour eater architecture for the business and another slightly different piece of architecture for the brand, with different language and seemingly unaligned imperatives, visions and missions, was just not efficient or coherent in the newly converged world. Business has also realized that by aligning the views of the business and the brand around one goal, vision and purpose, there were efficiencies and economies to be had, removing, mitigating or redirecting previously multiple and overlapping agendas and budgetary overlap or duplication.

But the business part of the brain used business reporting and operational speak to tell the world that they were trying to be better. And the world wasn’t really interested — it was all Greek to them. So the brand side said, “See? Nobody cares and we only care about what people care about.” And the Mad Men and Women of sexy brandville used the arcane (and to be frank) unsexy aspects and language of the operational supply chain world as reason enough to not engage or sully their glittering storytelling.

This mishit between what the brand and the business seem to find compelling either to themselves or for their audiences is still remarkably prevalent. There is one must-do that is not discretionary. In a Scratch Card Brand world, any misalignment between the brand and the business will leave the brand in question vulnerable to a lose-lose outcome — where both consumer advocacy and engagement are dented through a break in brand promise, purpose or delivery and impacts on the business register in dents to reputation and potentially market value.

If one simply need scratch the shiny to reveal what’s underneath the brand, surely the strategic modeling and the brand storytelling should reflect that? The story written through the foil of the shiny should be the same as that written through the benefits, rewards, experiences and revelations that sit beneath.

In the Age of the Scratch Card Brand, strategies for engagement, activation and advocacy, and the storytelling that inspires them, must be constructed in such a way as to seamlessly join the top of the brand to the bottom of the business without losing either authenticity and integrity at the supply chain operational end or attraction, engagement and differentiated character at the brand end  and both must be focused on driving advocacy in all stakeholders at all times.

A few “do”s to start you on the journey:

  • Plumb lines: Define the common spirits, actions and signatures that run from the brand persona through the supply chain — rooting out the stories or actions that set the business and brand apart — anything from an innovation, provenance or source story to a living philosophy or guaranteed end experience.
  • Purpose: Review the brand and business, the storytelling, integrity and differentiated nature of their substance and content, and set a purpose that reaches through them both to a point beyond profit — a purpose that single-mindedly draws in the dimensions of the business imperative in regards to shared value, stakeholder modeling and mutuality; the social dimensions of the brand and business; and of course the sustainability signatures and landmarks in the business.
  • Reframe? Reset? Or preset? A brand and business could review the existing constructs of communications, active social networks and operational capacity and capability and decide on one of three approaches:
  1. If all is reasonably aligned already, it may just require a reframe approach — simply re-illuminating the text of the existing communications model and how it drives advocacy through the business with joined-up, top-to-bottom storytelling and activation.
  2. If the multiple architectures are misaligned, consider a reset strategy — creating a singular, fixed architecture that draws both business and brand into one shared vision and value that the communications and activation drive from the inside out and ground up.
  3. If the ambition or need is there, take a preset approach, where you view the whole organization as a potential social/entrepreneurial train set, pre-setting a vision or purpose for it that utilizes the operation’s reach, impact, product and service set, delivery and distribution networks, human constituency, partners and suppliers.

Unfortunately, this is all still seen by some as discretionary … a choice. This just feels at best like a naive inability to grasp the blunt truth, and at worst a disingenuous evasion of an increasingly pressing issue with destructive and far-reaching impacts for the business and its brand, suppliers, partners, investors and most importantly the communities in which it thrives.


Julian’s career in advertising and communications spans 25 years working across most sectors – delivering communications campaigns and strategies in his tenure at Saatchi, Leo Burnett and for his own agency EBP across FMCG, Financial, Media, Technology & Retail brands… [Read more about Julian Borra]


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