The communications industry is at a disorienting crossroad, with two concurrent models competing for minds and resources. The first is a timeless "top-down" approach rooted in generating broad awareness of a unique selling proposition (USP) through broadcast media. The second is a morphing, shape-shifting "bottom-up" model, fueled by digital technology and one-on-one engagement.
"Big data," the algorithmic aggregation of multiple data points from different platforms into predictive behavioral modeling, has enhanced our ability to target with great precision - for example, to runners who also like heavy metal music or theater aficionados who love European travel. This new power has, in turn, made media buying and planning sexy again, while unhelpfully deemphasizing creativity. In fact, the eclipse of the creative department began several years ago. Many communications professionals rue the day media buying and planning functions were taken out of creative advertising agencies and aggregated into powerful media holding companies that control where and when ad dollars are invested.
Then came the emergence of a new industry - the high-tech, low-charm "marketing as a service." These vendors help companies manage marketing-intensive activities such landing page creation, campaign design, lead scoring, lead generation and marketing analytics -- capabilities often given short shrift in traditional sales management systems that focus on sales force automation and customer service. Marketing as a Service providers, sporting names such as Eloqua, Primo and SilverPop, operate in the cloud, hosting "applications" that ensure integration with existing customer relationship marketing (CRM) systems.
Thus quantitative rationalism might appear to compete with ideation and inspiration as drivers of behavior change.
There must be room for both.
Data informs, and can increasingly predict, the decisions consumers make along their paths to purchase. But statistics don't exist in a vaccum. The underlying concepts are the connective tissue that brings these tactics together into a cohesive selling idea.
Advertisers and marketers need not only be fluent in both but also to find new ways to reconcile the two. This divide is often exacerbated by intellectual and culture gaps. For example, digital agencies tend to celebrate entrepreneurialism and technology-led invention. Experimentation and design are obsessions, traits of a workforce with honed analytic and technical skills. On the other hand, advertising agencies tend to nurture conceptual precision and communication of abstract ideas.
Marketing in a Digital World
Clive Sirkin, Kimberly-Clark's global Chief Marketing Officer, neatly expresses the reality of needing to reconcile two paradigms: "We don't believe in digital marketing. We believe in marketing in a digital world, and there's a huge difference." In other words, we must permit consumers to participate with brands without surrendering the ability to manage the message and what people say about their products.
Engagement that changes behavior is now the imperative--so let's agree on a proper definition. Most north Asian languages have no equivalent for the word engage. Whenever I have to explain it in China, I use the context of an engagement to be married. As Jim Stengel, Procter & Gamble's chief marketing officer, said back in 2007 at the 4As Media Conference and Trade Show: "It's not about telling and selling. It's about bringing a relationship mind-set to everything we do." Engagement must be a long-term connection that blossoms over time. It is a behavioral commitment between two parties--the brand and consumer--to remain together and withstand challenges over time. It must be dynamic, capable of responding to change and a variety of different needs but also consistent. Engaging consumers is not achieved by discrete messages aimed at holding their attention. It is a lifelong relationship.
New technology presents a breathtaking, yet overwhelming, array of combinations. Many marketers have become intoxicated by the sheer scope of what's possible, reassuring themselves that doing something is at least better than doing nothing--How many times have we heard, "Let's create an app" without first asking why? While all brand leaders need to experiment, it's not enough. Marketers need to wield technology to build brand equity and strengthen consumer loyalty. Too often technology does neither.
Losing the Plot
Mercedes Benz, for example, established dominance in the luxury auto segment by owning "engineering perfection," a fusion of mechanical performance and sensuous indulgence. In a typical ad shot in Taiwan in 2005, the dashing owner of a 700 series Benz celebrates his birthday with colleagues. He is unable to blow out the candles on his birthday cake because he has nothing left to wish for. The message is clear: once a driver has a Mercedes, nothing--or no one--else measures up. However, a few recent high-tech initiatives have done little to reinforce the brand's role as a statement of ultimate arrival in society. And it is worth noting that back in 2005 Mercedes lost its leadership in the luxury segment to BMW. Audi now ranks second.
To promote Mercedes' zero-emissions fuel cell technology, Jung von Matt, the Hamburg advertising agency, created an animated light-emitting diode clock that made the car invisible. The technological innovation turned heads but was inconsistent with Mercedes' aspirational image. A year later in the United Kingdom, Mercedes attempted to "move brand perceptions away from 'sedate luxury' as well as drive 50,000 leads" with YouDrive, the world's first "audience-driven commercial." According to Maxus Global, Mercedes' media agency: "Our young audience hates being passengers. They're used to driving content and conversations. So we gave them power over something they'd never had power over before--the world's first real-time audience-driven TV commercials."
While the series was designed to promote a new A-class vehicle to younger consumers, plot options had little to do with Mercedes' engineering craftsmanship. Even if this effort managed to boost short-term sales amongst young car buyers, it probably did little to strengthen long-term equity.
In our role as strategically led idea pioneers, we must be better at navigating between what can be done and what should be done to achieve set objectives, from brand engagement to sales, in order to build the brand and business. We achieve this by knowing--through superior analytic capabilities made possible by the era of 'big data' and technology--and fusing it with an idea.
Brand stewards should avoid the temptation to deploy technology in a manner that dilutes long-term equity in exchange for a short-term sales fix. In 2013 several McDonald's franchises in Spain took advantage of their powerful wi-fi network signal to hijack customers who were eating in nearby establishments. By changing their signal name into a message--for example, "Free drink with your McMenu," or "Come eat with us and have a sundae on the house"--the McDonald's franchises lured people into their restaurants. The local stunt was clever and generated a burst of incremental sales. But the fast-food chain missed an opportunity to combine hard-hitting discounts with reminders of why people love McDonald's--that is, its reputation for quality food and family friendliness.
Sometimes even the best brands succumb to high-tech expedience. Uniqlo is one of the world's most inspired digital marketers. The Japanese apparel retailer sells stylish mix-and-match clothing so even fashion-challenged individuals can create their own style. Ahead of the reopening of its UK e-commerce site, Uniqlo ran a "Lucky Counter" Twitter in which more tweets yielded deeper discounts. A temporary web "micro-site" displayed ten items. When users clicked on an article, a tweet appeared with the hashtag #luckycounter that users could personalize and send. Prices dropped in relation to the number of tweets elicited by each article. This exercise in unabashed discounting lacked even the faintest brand message and as such did nothing to enhance brand equity or strengthen loyalty.
Timeless and New Tools: Beautiful Harmony
Compare the debasement of virtual discounts with the inspiration of "Project Re: Brief," rolled out jointly in 2013 by Google and Coca-Cola. The breakthrough initiative captures the spirit of the famous "Hilltop" advertisement from the early '70s in which all colors of humanity bonded on a mountain with a Coke. Internet users can record a message and send it with a Coca-Cola to someone on the other side of the world at a specially designed vending machine. And the receivers can then send a thank-you message back to the sender.
In one of my favorite campaigns of recent years, Oreo celebrated its 100th birthday in a way that beautifully aligned long-term idea consistency -- "Liberate your childhood spirit" -- with consumer-driven engagement. In the "daily twist" initiative, cute images released across social media linked cookies to trending world news. There was a Gay Pride Oreo, a Psy Oreo inspired by the eponymous Korean rap sensation, a Shark Week Oreo, even a Mars Land Rover Oreo. Across all channels the campaign filtered the world through Oreo's distinctively playful imagination. By the time the 100-day initiative ended, Oreo had achieved a 280 percent increase in Facebook shares, 433 million Facebook views, and 231 million offline media impressions. It had become part of the conversation.
Technology, properly deployed, can strengthen engagement between people and between consumers and brands. If not, brands and their relationships with consumers will be degraded and ultimately become commodities.