The majority of a company’s value is intangible, so a strong brand is a significant competitive advantage. As Philip Kotler wrote, “The art of marketing is the art of brand building. If you are not a brand, you are a commodity. Then price is everything and the low-cost producer is the only winner.”
Brands and communication have long been intertwined. From TV ads and press releases to events and endorsements, the way consumers view a brand will influence their decision making, so crafting and reinforcing a brand image has long been a top priority for marketers.
Yet historically, brand images were often only skin deep, the result of careful messaging and slick production values. Today, however, digital technology allows brands interact directly with customers and they, in turn, now expect more than talk. They demand positive brand experiences. Marketers need not only new strategies, but to adopt new mindset.
Awareness Is No Longer Enough
It is a coincidence of history that the post-war consumption boom and the rise of TV as a mass medium happened at roughly the same time. Marketers could suddenly reach a large portion of the population with a single ad spot and consumers were eager to buy new products. A brand with the right message would see their product fly off the shelves.
So, it’s easy to see how marketers became obsessed with ads and awareness. Although they understood that other things, such as in-store promotions, brand delivery and service, came into play, the basic thinking was that the more people knew about your product, the more they would buy. It was a simple idea—maybe even simplistic—but it worked, so marketers stuck with it.
Later, cable TV fragmented audiences and more emphasis was put on targeting. Marketers now needed to research the market to identify valuable segments and adjust the product mix and messaging accordingly. Still, because those market segments remained enormous, things worked largely the same way. Awareness mattered above all else.
Yet today, digital technology has broken that model. Now, when you craft a message that creates awareness, it doesn’t lead to a trip to the store, but to searching behavior online. This behavior, in turn, will be tracked by your competitors who will then retarget those same customers with new offers.
In other words, by relying on awareness, you will essentially be providing a lead generation service for your competitors. We need to shift from grabbing attention to holding attention and the first step is to change how we look at data.
The New Data Opportunity
Traditionally, marketers have tried to better understand consumers through research surveys in order to target messages. They would commission a study, collect data and then analyze the results in order to derive insights. They would also use statistical techniques to determine confidence in the results and reject possibilities that the data didn’t fully support.
This approach, however, had many flaws. First, in the months it took to commission the study and analyze the results, derive insights and act on them, facts on the ground could change. Second, anyone who didn’t like the results could attack the study itself by questioning how the questions were asked or whether the sample size was sufficient.
Another problem is that the process was highly focused on average behavior, discarding those data points that don’t conform as “outliers” to be ignored. Yet everybody is an outlier in some way, so this approach almost guaranteed that all of us would be poorly served.
Big data allows us to do things differently. Rather than collect data in intermittent chunks, we can do so continuously and update insights in real time. This more Bayesian approach is opening up worlds of new opportunity because we can now not only use data to target messaging but also to enrich experiences.
Rethinking The Consumer Decision Journey
Because messaging has always been a primary marketing function, marketers still tend to think in terms of connecting to consumers at the optimal time and place. Various frameworks, such as the purchase funnel, the path to purchase and, more recently, the consumer decision journey, shape the direction of marketing programs.
Essentially marketers acted like traffic cops, directing data flows to predetermined silos of demographic and behavioral characteristics, and then applying those insights to place messages in front of consumers at the appropriate stage of their journey. Yet, that approach ignores the fact that today’s digital tools allow us to do so much more.
We need to rethink the customer decision journey.
Today, consumers can interact with brands through web sites and mobile phones as well as in a traditional retail environment. From virtually any place at any time of day, they can collect information, ask questions, indicate preferences and make purchases. As they do, they are giving us the opportunity to serve them better, make suggestions and offer new options.
So, we need to shift our mental models from that of crafting messages to creating experiences. Instead of carnival barkers, we must begin to think like concierges, helping and assisting customers as we collect data in real time.
Optimizing For Mission, Not For Metrics
This new digital environment offers exciting possibilities, but is also fraught with peril. We can, for example, allow our customers to instantly connect with customer service personnel, but if those people are poorly trained—or worse, rude—then the consumer journey grinds to a halt.
Another common problem is that the digital tools themselves offer a poor experience. All too often, web and mobile sites are designed to highlight marketing messages and slick videos, rather than to provide friendly and effective service. Or, after a customer makes a digital purchase, banner ads touting similar products follow them around for days. Clickbait headlines undermine trust and so on.
To be effective in this new era, marketers themselves need to see their jobs differently, rather than focusing on metrics like clicks, video views or social media shares, we must successfully integrate with other business functions to create entire brand experiences that serve the customer all the way through.
We can do better. Much better. But first we need to stop seeing ourselves as crafters of clever brand messages and become creators of positive brand experiences.