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Prashant Agarwal_AIA

The Futurist: Hitting the ‘mark’ in marketing

“Everybody has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.” Mike Tyson’s view on boxing aptly underscored the importance of technique and fundamentals. A good parallel for marketing: it’s future lies not in its next strategy, but in applying the nuances of the craft 24×7.

After a career spanning several diverse industries, I define marketing as ‘Creating Want’. For decades marketing has been ‘over-engineered’ and driven by media. It is now returning to its core, but with more information and tools than ever before. The future of marketing will be driven by customers: be where the customer is, use the same tools as them, and co-create with them.

There are several sensible lists on trends for marketing in 2016. The usual words abound – content, collaborate, social, mobile, engage, integrated, omnichannel. I agree with them.

However, for me, the future of marketing goes beyond these techniques. It is going to be about ‘hitting the MARK’ in marketing:

Mindset-shift: We typically think of customer journey as a path to purchase. However, consuming is no longer isolated. It is an ‘always on’ string of moments converging on the customer’s ‘path to purpose’. The design of the experience is paramount, not of the creative. Customers are mobile: always on the go, willing to change their opinions and always connected.

Marketing, therefore, has to be omnipresent. It is all about multi: multi-channel, multi-media and even multi-faceted. For example, as concerns around junk food mounted, McDonald’s went beyond adding healthier items or disclosing nutrient information. Its online platform ‘Our food, Your questions’ took on real questions. 20,000 of them in the first 6 months alone. One of the most popular videos on it openly showed how food is ‘dressed up’ for menu pictures to make it look appetizing.

While there can be questions around the openness, it does reflect a shift in approach, and bringing the customer into the journey.

Anthropological: Marketing is shifting from being flashy and ad-spend driven, to human powered. We live in the age of ‘me’. Blending-in and conforming have been replaced by overt expression: people literally die trying to take unique ‘selfies’.

Marketing can no longer be everything to everyone. A clear focus on the human personas to target is a must. And then accompany these by clear brand personas. Cutting through the clutter will mean being innovative and bold. For instance, a few months ago, Campbell Soup weaved in pop-culture by evoking Darth Vader in their commercial.

It also depicted a same-sex couple and their bouquets were accompanied by a few predictable homophobe brickbats – ‘you make me sick!’ Several supporters jump into the fray on social media, to suggest excellent Campbell soup to nurse the sickness and warm a cold heart. Edgy. Risky. Memorable. Ultimately rewarded.

Real: Brands are now curated with customers – honesty and transparency is key. The world is hyper-connected, and people arm themselves with information with a single click. Tangible criteria is table-stakes. Marketers must craft compelling narratives to create memorable experiences that drive purchase. Media needs to be earned versus bought.

Microsoft and American Express are two examples of great models in storytelling. At first blush the link between their story and product isn’t obvious. Yet as people identify with the reality they convey, the marketing message sticks. Recently, AIA, a life insurance giant and my employer, used innovative voice restoration technology to tell a powerful story of a ‘Real Life Miracle’.

Using voice samples donated by over 10,000 people, sound engineers created a restored voice for Eunju Kim, a mother of three, with a speech impediment. Eunju’s story, where she sings happy birthday to her daughter, has 9 million hits on YouTube and Facebook in a couple months. It doesn’t attempt to sell insurance. But the celebration of life’s miracles are a fit for a category aiming to take care of those you love.

Knowledgeable: For the longest time, marketing got away with being about creativity and ‘art versus science’. No longer. Science now drives the art, and marketing must deliver measurable business impact. Data will empower but also confound: data-mining can offer highly targeted content but can also create a concern of lack of privacy.

Facts will rule, and marketers will confidently present fact-based and deep insight around customer motivations and requirements to the organization. KPIs will be welcomed. The focus on customer intimacy will create a natural convergence for marketing with innovation, and across functions like sales and technology.

There is no better time than now to be a marketer, and shape its new agenda and importance for the corporation. Marketing has commenced the journey from a cost center to driving revenue to ultimately being ‘resident-futurists’. Asymmetry used to be a source of advantage. Marketers have the power to channel their diversity of thought, skills and approach to change this dynamic.

The writer is Prashant Agarwal, director of innovation, AIA and managing partner at EDGE LAB.

This article was first published in Marketing Magazine Singapore’s Jan-Feb 2016 print edition. To read more views from senior marketers click here.

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