What do Robin Williams, the World Cup, and Ebola all have in common? They were Google’s three most searched terms in 2014. Not a single for-profit brand found itself in the top 10 because of its marketing campaigns. Wondering why? Well, it might surprise some marketers to discover that consumers are not likely to go to the Internet for advertising.
Brands and agencies that are committed to finding ways to enter their consumers’ always-on worlds have a special sort of bravery. They see in new technologies and media a call to step away from the familiarity of “trusted” messaging and media strategies, and to start experimenting with new, nontraditional marketing initiatives that thrive in the digital environment. Responding to that challenge means that they must welcome digital’s unique opportunities versus simply repurposing existing assets from traditional channels.
Brands that treat the Internet like a traditional advertising medium often irritate, rather than engage, people.
As with the launching of any new medium, the first instinct is to adapt current media successes to the new channel. This “horseless carriage” thinking is why we still find YouTube pre-rolls (reformulated TV commercials) and banner ads (reformulated print ads) all over the Internet. But brands are slow to admit that these placements do not always work as well as they had hoped. Accepting disappointing returns on time, creative, energy, and media investments is not the brave course to follow.
In a summer study of online ad viewership, more than 50% of viewers--across all age brackets--found both targeted and non-targeted ads to be equally intrusive. Also noteworthy, the survey revealed that only 10% of respondents believe that online video advertising (despite its ease in audience targeting) is actually tailored to them correctly.
These numbers aren’t new. Statistics and insights like these have been readily available for brands to digest and apply for some time now, yet adaptation to the changed environment has been slow.
Perhaps this is because brands are overwhelmed by the barrage of digital opportunities; they’ve gone from running print and broadcast campaigns to maintaining multiple social, digital, live streaming, print, and broadcast messages (often for the same budget). Often then, it seems that brand managers find themselves coping by becoming managers of agencies, rather than acting as marketing entrepreneurs pursuing clear visions of their brands’ futures.
Power To The People
Unfortunately for marketers, consumers have increasingly more control over how, when, and even if they see an advertisement online. A few clicks is all it takes to skip a YouTube pre-roll, hide a sponsored post on Facebook, or choose to pay for ad-free streaming. In short, digital audiences are not captive (and they know it), and they have the power to opt in and out of “interruptive messaging.”
Consequently, brands that fail to meet one or another of the consumer’s “need states” are struggling to make tried and tested offline advertising principles work in new, and very different, digital environments.
In our experience, four predominant needs drive consumers to the Web: information, service, entertainment, and social interaction:
INFORMATION: Google it!
Information gathering is the highest rated category of people’s time on the Web.
• 91% go online to research
• 89% go online to remain informed
• 82% go online to educate themselves
SERVICE: Can I do it online?
This is probably the consumer request heard most frequently by brands. Consumers expect:
• To perform offline functions online
• Brands to provide any service any time of day
ENTERTAINMENT: Just for the fun of it.
A total of 84% of those surveyed claim to use the Web primarily for entertainment, explaining why, every 60 seconds of every day:
• YouTube adds 72 hours of new videos
• Instagram users upload 48,600 photos
• And 15,000 tracks are downloaded from iTunes
SOCIAL INTERACTION: Making connections.
• Consumers look to the Web to socialize, express themselves, and advocate personal belief systems. On a global scale, there are two-thirds as many active social media accounts (2.08 billion) as there are active Internet users (3.01 billion people).
So What Does A Courageous Brand Look Like?
To be brave, brands need to re-evaluate their roles in both the online and offline lives of their consumers, a step often involving accepting difficult truths. Core organizational structures and the traditional funding practices of marketing are being challenged at the same time as demands for results are increasing. It’s akin to changing the wheels while the car is moving, and it requires that brands become more flexible with their roles.
Brave brands should envision how digital technology can facilitate always-on story systems, creating an optimal range of roles in consumers’ experiences. For instance, if your business relies on selling products, it is worth considering how your digital experience can provide a service layer that serves another need state. And vice versa. If you offer a service, think about what products can bolster that service to deliver scale and growth.
Brave brands have removed their fingers from the triggers of purely traditional advertising scatterguns. They have embraced consumers’ newfound powers and have taken the time to understand need states before engaging consumers in a dialogue.
Nike, for example, has repeatedly revolutionized its original brand offering over the past five years, shifting from ads to hardware and now to apps. Initially focused on producing ads about sportswear (as well as sponsorship), Nike started by building the Nike+ FuelBand, its proprietary hardware that directly provides consumers with relevant information about themselves. And as wearable devices continue to proliferate, Nike has now pivoted again toward software creation--apps that live on other brands’ hardware--to enhance its digital platform and engage its customers. With the launch of the Apple Watch, the Motorola Moto 360, and many others, Nike has an opportunity to put its brand on the wrists--and in the real lives--of aspiring and serious runners alike.
Similarly, Spotify challenged Apple in music streaming by offering a music product more deeply founded upon the sharing economy, and capitalizing on social network integration, peer recommendations, and a “freemium” on-ramp monetization model. It has become a one-stop shop for listening to, sorting, and sharing music across devices, besting Apple’s iTunes in terms of revenue for some record labels--at least in its European home market.
Focusing on a different need state, Red Bull has reimagined modern media practices by avoiding paid-for interruption entirely and moving into the production of entertainment itself. The brand has become a major producer of content through initiatives such as Red Bull Rampage, Red Bull Stratos, and regular live experiences that generate tremendous digital activity and engagement.
Both Samsung and Cheerios found social media success with quick-witted (and subsequently viral) responses to the 2014 Oscar Awards and 2015 Super Bowl. The Samsung “ad”--a photo by Oscar host, Ellen DeGeneres--had 12 A-list stars in it and leveraged the event’s real-time audience to generate 3.3 million retweets and 2 million favorites. It also briefly crashed Twitter’s servers. The photo was taken by a device made by Samsung (the main sponsor that year), and it claimed it was unplanned.
Cheerios also cleverly chose a real-time moment to promote its trademark product. When New England’s Malcolm Butler picked off a pass by Russell Wilson at the goal line to seal a win in the 2015 Super Bowl game for the Patriots, at that moment Cheerios tweeted an image of its renowned cereal (shaped like an “O”), along with the caption “Everyone's mouth right now.”
Both Samsung and Cheerios accomplished their marketing not through traditional ads, but rather by being ready to seize a momentary opportunity during live cultural events and appealing to consumers’ delight in social interaction.
All of these brands have found success by identifying a gap and inserting themselves--authentically--into consumers’ online conversations. (For a dozen more, read "CMO.com’s 12 Best ‘Brand Moments’ Of 2015.")
Five Points For Creating A Brave Brand
Brands and their agencies should approach the Internet holistically. The process of creating an effective online presence shouldn’t be seen merely as a list of tasks or channels that have to be checked off.
1. Understand consumers’ needs: Most paramount is to genuinely understand the needs of the consumer. Over the past decade, we’ve seen the refinement and application of many new methods of consumer research.
The first step for a brave brand is to develop a rich understanding of its consumers’ met and unmet needs, attitudes, and behaviors. For this, brave brands use a mix of online and offline methods, including instrumented intelligence (directly measured activity on smartphones and in physical spaces), ethnography techniques, instant online surveys and focus groups, and many other methods.
2. Rethink your brand’s offerings: Your brand’s products and/or services should acknowledge consumer needs. If those are not being met, rethink your brand’s strategy--the center should be around the consumer. Indeed, a great brand will build a world around the consumer, ensuring that all touch points are interconnected to create a seamless experience. (At SapientNitro, we call this our “Storyscaping” approach.)
3. Think platforms, not ads: Investing in new digital platforms requires a different timeline than traditional media spend. It took Nike five years to build the different elements of the Nike+ digital platform--connecting wristbands, an owned online platform, social network functionality, and third-party hardware and sensors.
These types of opportunities in digital require a multiyear vision and ongoing investment. Digital platforms typically live on for months or years, making it no trivial thing to shut down the products, services, and communities that people love. Successful Storyscapes have long-term visions that deliver on a wider brand purpose and their business case.
4. Do something significantly different: Do not be satisfied with a 2% increment here or a 3% growth spurt there. Creating a great brand via the Internet is not solely about technology, platforms, or software. Instead, commit to a different relationship with your consumers online and beyond.
Brave brands combine consumer insight with strategy to rethink how and where the firm can best compete--and then support that positioning with investment not only in traditional media, but also in technology, new product development, and digital modernization.
5. Test, learn, and adapt: The greatest lesson of successful online branding is to be immensely agile. Test, learn, and build organizational changes around this “new way” of behaving. Use every step and misstep to guide your company forward, and consistently strive to be ahead of your brand’s sector. Otherwise, despite the transformations, your brand will find itself struggling to keep up.
Traditional advertising has been called “selling through yelling,” and one of the reasons why brands struggle is because they continue to focus on pushing messages out. Today, making an impact requires a relationship with pull. This approach strengthens brands’ connections with their consumers and the benefits it can bring; loyalty, relevance, and engagement are the rewards for those brands brave enough to reduce their traditional “message out” approaches.
In the age of the interconnected, brave brands need to be acutely empathetic with their consumers--a timeless concept in new contexts. Brands with a successful and welcomed digital presence understand how their products are integrated into people’s lives and are taking critical risks to evolve their ways in. More so, they are aware of digital’s current role and the future role that it could play in enhancing consumers’ experiences and interactions.
See what the Twitterverse is saying about branding: