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A future not that far away…

Some people argue, quite rightly, the future is not the blank canvas we sometimes believe it to be, but is, in a sense, already full of the stuff we have today.

And so it is with the technology and tools that marketers, ad agencies, media companies and researchers have in their toolkits in 2012 – or what’s left of it.

Like the social and mobile revolutions that upended the traditional marketing paradigm, the changes expected to sweep across the industry in coming years will transform long-held ideas about what it means to be a brand.

Issues such as restoring the power imbalance between customers and companies; understanding the overflow of data; knowing how to track a mobile customer within metres of a specific location; areas like this are fast emerging and leaving big, multinational brands at risk of being superseded by more nimble, mobile and digital-friendly organisations.

So are marketers ready to take on this new connected world? Some say they are not.

“Any marketer who hasn’t picked up on this will be out of a job pretty soon,” says Basker Rangachari, chief marketing officer at Standard Chartered’s Hong Kong and Northeast Asia consumer banking division.

Rangachari argues marketers must move beyond basic research, gut feeling and focus groups, which he describes as irrelevant.

“Polling a very small group of people to represent a population of more than seven million in today’s individual society is not going to be representative,” he says.

“It isn’t just about understanding new technology … frankly I can buy that knowledge through my agencies, but a deep understanding of behavioural analytics mixed with real-time technology is, I believe, the real differentiator.”

For Mark Liversidge, chief marketing officer at CSL, digital and mobile have been responsible for lifting the CSL brand from the bottom of Hong Kong’s hugely competitive mobile market to the top, with record sales to match. How?

Three years ago CSL slashed its traditional marketing budget by 40%, and shifted it all into digital marketing channels.

“When I came in as CMO we were last in consideration, last in brand awareness, last in brand recall, last in brand motivation and last in sales. Over the last 12 months, I’ve sat number one in brand motivation and we are clearly ahead,” he says.

“I guess it was a bit of a gamble, but you have to gamble to get ahead sometimes.

“We now have 50% share-of-voice in a five-player market and I’m still spending less than everyone else and it’s all from digital.”

Big data’s big future

Another aspect of mobile and digital growth has been the explosion of data and the increased level of sophistication in the buying cycle.

The current scale of data being hoovered up by companies is unprecedented in the history of the marketing industry and is changing the way companies search, target and then direct messages to customers.

So much so that some say it is only a matter of time before companies know more about our desires, wants and needs more than we do ourselves.

Notions of predictive or intuitive marketing, driven largely by this data collection, is something big firms such as IBM, Accenture, Oracle and Adobe are heavily investing in.

Also referred to as a type of online stalker culture, the likes of Facebook, Google and Microsoft are going to great lengths to understand its potential for brands – and so far many are embracing it with open arms. But at what risk?

“Most of the big data talk lately that IBM is pushing, along with Oracle and a bunch of other companies, is based on a fallacious notion that companies know what you want better than you do and can make you want stuff better than you can do on your own,” says Doc Searls, author of The Intention Economy.

Speaking on Future Tense, a radio programme dedicated to future forecasting, Searls argues an emerging type of “vendor relationship management” will emerge, allowing individuals to control the data that they put online.

It’s a vision heavily weighted towards individual rights and also one in stark contrast to customer loyalty programmes which seek to lock in customers for the long term.

What this means is that people control their own data and signal their intentions to companies, rather than companies scanning their data and deciding when they think they should market to you, Searls says.

“If we have the ability to say here are my preferences, not only don’t track me, but give my data back to me when you are done and give it to me in this form, and I’m a reliable person and a good potential customer, you can find my credit history here if we have a relationship.”

With Do Not Track and ad blocking technologies emerging across the web, this newer type of customer relationship seems logical.

Buying to belong

What skills are needed to succeed in marketing over the next few years? Is a deep understanding of technology a necessity or is it enough to be genuinely curious about what your customers are doing?

Rangachari stresses marketers will need a significantly better consumer pulse to understand a new type of consumer that is impulsive and immune to traditional advertising.

“The new generation are born into privilege and they can indulge in impulsive much more than ever before. So more impulsiveness means more emotional-led advertising and to some extent, more peer pressure,” he says.

“On one hand they have the power to purchase at will, but they are also lacking an identity and will buy products to belong.

“They have a need to feel like they are part of a bigger ecosystem and have an important role in society. That leads to this peer-led and society-led buying behaviour.”

But what we have learnt from this new era of social media is that customer relationships are something which can not be courted lightly.

But many will move into the future with a canvass that is already well oiled.

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