AHA talks with brand strategist Ed Cotton

Ed Cotton has spent over three decades helping brands develop effective marketing strategies. His agency experience includes account planning roles at McCann-Erickson and Lowe and 20 years as chief strategy officer at BSSP. Ed serves as chair of the 4A’s Strategy Committee and is host of the Inspiring Futures podcast, where he interviews marketing leaders on emerging trends. AHA caught up with Ed while he was quarantining in Brooklyn for a far-ranging conversation on the state of brands, marketing and sustainability.


Based on the folks you talk to in marketing land, what are they saying the impact of COVID-19 is going to be on brands and marketing?

Ed: It’s a big change because the model isn’t working anymore. We’d become so reliant on automated marketing built on predictable consumer behavior. We knew exactly what was going on. We had protocols, procedures and systems, and we simply depended on those systems to drive sales. And suddenly, you have this wrecking ball come in and crash it all down. I think it’s forced people to be much more present.

There’s a lot of introspective examination, and there’s a lot of questioning. You know, why did we do this this way? Why all the marketing machinery, the always-on pummeling? Why didn’t I spend as much time with my kids as I am now? Marketers and professionals everywhere are asking really big questions—and they’re right to. It’s a moment of questioning. People are feeling really challenged. And I think their expectation is that brands need to understand that.

If the old relationship was about meeting the consumer’s every need, all the time, what’s the new relationship between brands and consumers about?

Ed: The axis of the relationship has moved to health. Every brand is in the public service business now. It’s all about health, safety and society—and what you are doing to support that. And it starts with your employees. Consumers are thinking twice about every choice, saying, “I don’t feel like buying things and potentially putting employees or myself in danger.” It seems to me that the two forces that are really paramount for companies right now are: 1. Do they have the finances to survive the near term and 2. Are they treating their front-line employees well and ensuring they’re safe? Then there’s a broader question about purpose. Where does purpose fit into the whole thing?

Before the pandemic, it seemed like the idea of brand purpose was devolving into a marketing exercise. It was about managing perception. What’s changed?

Ed: The stakes have changed. Now, you really have to understand what business you’re in and if that business has a direct role to play in the world that we’re in. Is it inextricably linked to health, is it inextricably linked to family, is it inextricably linked to entertainment, is it inextricably linked to education and learning? Is what you do, make, think essential? We see a world now where there are specific roles for brands, and you need to speak to how you help people. For example, “We’re Lego. We’re here to help you educate your kids.”

I think what you’re saying is that the number of roles that brands can play in our lives has narrowed. That raises the question of the role of marketing moving forward: Will it still be about demand generation and image curation? How does marketing adapt?

Ed: I think brands have to put the social contract first. The social contract is now about: What are you doing in this war? How are you keeping people healthy? How are you helping the economy recover? How are you going to market? Are you being responsible to our citizenry at a local level and delivering on their needs?

It sounds like the marketing function and the sustainability function are heading toward some type of merger.

Ed: The smart marketers understand that they can’t just exist in their silo, playing around with marketing day to day. These times require substantive action, and to achieve that you need to work across the organization and outside your organization. Look at the recent collaboration between Adidas and Allbirds to create the world’s most sustainable shoe. Two competing brands combining forces to do something substantive for the world. That’s what marketing is now, and understanding sustainability is at the center of it.

What advice would you give sustainability executives on how to proceed in this moment?

Ed: Recognize that these multiple crises have shattered a lot of the old lenses. It’s a new day, and the balance has swung from finance or marketing to sustainability as the lead.

Companies desperately need leaders who can speak to the moment. That takes empathy and a broader understanding of people and planet, which is what sustainability is about. Somebody’s got to start taking responsibility for the whole and speaking to it. What silo you’re in doesn’t matter. What matters is whether you’re addressing what needs to be done.

Sustainability people need to stand up and say, “We are central to the business now,” and start claiming their place. For a long time, sustainability has been looking for external sources of authority. It shouldn’t be that we did a survey, and guess what, 70% of Millennials say they would rather buy from a brand that has a smart policy on social responsibility. The market shouldn’t be the impetus. The employment brand shouldn’t be the impetus. The survival of the business is the impetus.

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