HONG KONG—Earned media is no longer just an effective tactic for brand builders, according to Rupen Desai, executive vice chairman, Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa, at Edelman, who told attendees at the In2 Summit in Hong Kong that the new challenge is to put “earned attention at the core” of the way brands interact with consumers.

Leading a discussion entitled “Welcome to No Brand’s Land,” Desai—who spent the past 20 years of his life in the advertising business—said, “I come from a world where attention could be bought, where we discussed deep brand engagement, fans and loyalty, even though none of that connects with consumers in the top-down model.”

As evidence, he pointed to a study by the World Federation of Advertisers, which found that people would not care if 74% of the brands they use today disappeared, and found that 60% of the content marketers create is just clutter.

“It’s GIGO, it’s garbage-in garbage-out,” Desai said. “Consumers don’t really care about brands.”

That has created a shift in the balance of power, and means that the top down approach no longer works.

“It’s not just that media has changed, but the media have changed how consumers relate to brands. It’s all about attention. Attention is the scarcest and most valuable resource in the world today. If you don’t get attention, everything else is talking to yourself. That means brands can no longer talk about themselves.”

The focus on earning attention led to some pushback from panelist Sursesh Balaji, regional head of marketing for HSBC: “I don’t believe earned attention should be at the core. What should be at the core is customer insight. We looked at our purpose and HSBC was built on the idea that bankers could help people achieve their hopes and dreams. The question was how do we do that, not how do we get our brands in the minds of our consumers.”

“People engage with what is important to them, and we need to help consumers at the point that is most relevant to them. The narrative needs to change to put consumers at the center.” He pointed at Uber, suggesting that the brand’s success has been driven by constant innovation driven by consumer needs, delivering an increasingly positive consumer experience, improving the customers’ lives.

But Amanda Groty, general manager of global corporate communications, at Nissan, suggested that understanding people’s lives and experiences would lead companies to better brand stories.

“We need to give people a reason to care about Nissan,” she said. “It’s more than just delivering a great product. What we are working on is looking at what is our narrative. And our narrative is defined by what’s in our DNA, but it’s also about attaching ourselves to the conversations that matter most to our consumers around the world: the future of urban living and what does that mean for cars; safety issues. We are going to be looking much more at these issues. 

“If you can do that, you don’t just earn the attention, you deserve it.”

Melissa Brown, head of marketing for Telstra, took up the same theme: “We now have proactive engagement with the brand. That’s where the importance of building a narrative and telling a story is at the heart of engagement, because that’s what you need to earn attention.”

The company’s recent rebranding had helped to create an environment in which “the entire organization is connected to the brand narrative,” rather than relying on both the marketing and communications department, or outside agencies, to deliver that narrative.

At the same time, she said "there is much more opportunity for PR to take the lead" if they could find a seat at the table with the CMO as well as with the communications department. "Be bold, and muscle yourself into the ring."

Balaji, on the other hand, suggested that the lead role will go to the firm that could deliver the greatest insight, regardless if discipline.