Tuesday, 21 May 2013

When marketing meets journalism

The other day I happened to call up a friend who had moved out of town recently. Having worked as a journalist for some time, he decided to try his hand at marketing. Given that such transitions are unlikely, our conversation soon shifted to how well the move was working for him. He explained that things were going quite good and then made a sweeping statement, “For all intents and purposes, there’s not much difference left between journalists and marketers.” After spending eight years swearing by my editorial integrity, his views sounded offending. After all, if marketing was the ‘state’ then editorial had always been the ‘church’. After expressing utter disregard for his naiveness through an uncomfortably long pause, I decided to hang up. This friend on the other side got a drift of my sentiment and ended our little phone call by asking me to visit mrporter.com and comparing its content with that of GQ – a well known monthly men’s publication about fashion, style and culture.

Although I didn’t take him seriously, I kept thinking about what he said. Finally I relented and typed in www.mrporter.com into my web browser. For the uninitiated, MR PORTER is an online retailer of leading designer men’s clothing and sells everything ranging from Alexander McQueen pocket squares to Saint Laurent tuxedos. I was immediately greeted by what the folks at this niche retailer call MR PORTER’s weekly journal – a matrix grid of stories on style, grooming, and tutorials – placed on a neatly designed minimalistic website. The UI (user interface) of the portal was interesting enough for me to navigate through a few stories. Here I came across content that I’d always wanted to read about. The website guided me on how to sport the quintessential blue blazer for a variety of occasions through an immaculately crafted video. I even got to figure out how my misjudgment with measurements always left something imperfect in my suits no matter how much I shelled out for them. I then opened gq.com in another window and attempted to read the same content. Since this was a five decade old publication, my expectations were high. After a tormenting navigational session of around 45 minutes, the website threw up an article on ‘How to get the perfect suit’ which told me a lot about how the likes of Daniel Craig suit up but nothing much on what I could do to ensure that I got my money’s worth.

And now it made complete sense. A purely commercial entity, with the sole intent of selling me its products, had managed to create better value through content than what I had come to expect from a pure play unbiased publication. This fascinated me and then a strange thing happened. I could see journalistic principles being applied to a variety of industries to create branded content. Content that enriches; content that educates; and content that goes viral. In fact, apparel major United Colors of Benetton has been using a combination of editors, journalists, designers and photographers to create COLORS – a quarterly magazine published in six editions addressing contemporary issues through a single theme and international perspective. While the unstated goal of this magazine is to get more people to buy UCB products (its readership profile is crafted based on the buyer persona of existing and prospective UCB customers), it has come to command a great following through an uncompromising focus on stories that impact the world. People who buy UCB apparels know that the magazine is associated with the brand. But they don’t care.

In another instance, IBM recently collaborated with Ogilvy & Mather to create a short video with the objective of showcasing the impact that IBM research was having on computing to the general public. The result was the world’s smallest stop-motion film verified by Guinness World Records. Titled “A boy and his atom”, this 1 minute 34 second clip shows a boy made from atoms (literally) playing with his atom. The movie was created by arranging thousands of atoms under a scanning tunneling microscope and magnifying them a 100 million times to tell the story. This branded piece of content went viral and already has 3.6 million YouTube hits.

The fact is that marketers are now embracing a new form of advertising by getting people with journalism backgrounds on board. These journalists turned marketers bring to the table an authority and infectious narrative which makes branded content genuine, useful and engaging. And brands that still doubt the efficacy of this new age marketing are unknowingly dabbling with danger. After all, the purest form of branded content is journalism itself. Think about it, an editor at The Wall Street Journal wouldn’t be all psyched about closely investigating the business practices of Rupert Murdoch.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

What Google’s latest change to AdWords means

Last week Google made a really crucial change to AdWords, the backbone of its search business. Christened as “Enhanced campaigns,” it’s all set to drastically change the way advertisers manage and track mobile advertising campaigns. It’s a move that will certainly affect how billions of people find information while using their mobile devices. And like any other change, it has both good and bad news for advertisers.

First, the good news. Instead of needing to create different campaigns to target consumers according to the device they use, advertisers can now do this within a single campaign using bid adjustments. In short, it means you, as a marketer, now need just one campaign for multiple devices: desktops, mobile devices, and tablets.

We all know that the foundation of any successful marketing campaign lies in its ability to track the buying behaviour of its TG. No doubt, AdWords has always allowed advertisers to reach potential customers based on their intent and that’s what makes it so effective. But now with “Enhanced campaigns,” advertisers can also capture the power of context – such as location, time of day, and device. Advertisers can now reach more people with relevant messages and will now be able to bid on keywords based on the time of day and location the search is coming from. For instance, a restaurant could bid 25% more on people searching for “lunch” or “dinner” after 11 a.m., and 30% more for someone in 1 km. radius. It could also bid more for people searching on a smartphone, and less for people searching on a desktop. So what’s bad about it? Hasn’t Google made it much easier for advertisers to run coordinated mobile and desktop AdWords campaigns targeting users based on their preferences and capabilities that used to be technically possible but far outside the reach of small and medium sized businesses?

Well, the bad news is that all those campaigns which were built keeping in mind the advertiser’s low-volume terms now need to be upgraded and re-engineered. In plain words, if you had previously made copies of the same campaign, one for desktop, and one for mobile, then you’ll need to merge those back together into one. Haven’t we learned to accommodate the quirky and unique nature of different devices? So, if Google is giving from one hand, it’s taking from the other.

Thus, the big question is: What you, as an advertiser, should be doing? I would say, relax! Since the full transition isn’t happening until June 2013, we have ample time to prepare (or even crib!). Moreover, if you take a quick trip down memory lane, you will realise that changes like this are not permanent. For instance, Google alters its PageRank algorithm over 500 times a year. In fact, if industry experts are to be believed, Google has a habit of trying something out and if it doesn’t work, they have no problem changing it back, thereby making their problem, your problem. So, while you are adapting to this new approach, abandoning what you have learned till date is definitely a bad idea.

The only thing you need to do is to get hold of your agency and move in tandem with Google and search engine optimizers (SEOs) to make sure landing pages bids and messaging jive with a people-centric approach as you migrate away from a device-centric approach. In other words, you have no choice, but to make your campaigns mobile!

Monday, 20 August 2012

What if your customer knows everything?

Minutes before I sat down to write this editorial, I got a call from a friend. He was in a Dell outlet and wanted to buy a laptop. He’s aware that I keep a tab on developments in the gadgets arena and therefore trusts my judgment. Interestingly, I could hear the sales representative trying to sell him a particular model at a price point he had suggested. Unfortunately for the folks at Dell, my friend wasn’t really listening to them. He was asking them for what I had recommended. And this is when the thought struck me – what do you do if your customer knows everything? What if a channel, which was supposed to convince prospective customers to make a purchase, is no longer seriously considered by the buyer? According to McKinsey’s Consumer Decision Journey report, “Consumers rather than sitting passively and having advertising come after them, are much more actively reaching out to their friends and family, the Internet and other channels to understand their options. As such, there is an urgent need to step back and re-evaluate, both how consumers go through the decision process and see what companies need to concentrate on in order to make their marketing efforts more productive.”

The fact of the matter is that traditional channels of advertising no longer serve the purpose of convincing consumers to buy the product. They merely help the brand in establishing its presence in the market. A television ad is as good as deploying a loudspeaker in a crowded market place which announces “Brand X is available at a store near by you.” End of story. This might surprise you, but CEOs already realise this. A recent study conducted by the London based Fournaise Marketing Group reveals that CEOs across the globe are increasingly getting with their marketing department. The study, titled Global Marketing Effectiveness Program 2011, states that “73% of CEOs say that CMOs lack business credibility and the ability to generate sufficient business growth, 72% are tired of being asked for money without explaining how it will generate increased business, and 77% have had it with all the talk about brand equity that can’t be linked to actual firm equity or any other recognised financial metric.”

If you, as a marketer, really want to stand out and survive this shift in consumer behaviour, you’ll need to do much more than allocate budgets and hire a great advertising agency. If your website does not answer all possible forms of questions but your competitor’s website does, you’ve lost the bet. Marketing in the 21st century is about going back to the basics. If you are one of those who have suddenly started questioning the viability of Facebook as a marketing platform just because its IPO tanked and a lot of your friends in the industry say their are no reliable metrics, then you’re making a grave mistake. Look at the immense potential of the native ads market. They’ve been around ever since the rise of Google. Google’s search ads let marketers display offers relevant to their search queries. Similarly Facebook has ‘Sponsored Stories’ which have been proven to be more effective than Facebook display ads.

The herd mentality does work at times, but when you are in the business of getting hold of a customer before your competitor tries to hijack her, listening to what everyone is saying might backfire. While there’s still time, forget everything you had learned about traditional marketing and start looking at data unique to your business instead of trusting your past experience – by all standards, that’s now obsolete.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The consumer is king, again!

A lot of people say that we are about to enter a ‘Post-Digital’ world. Well, I would say, let’s stop talking about it as something yet to happen. It is already here and we are up to our eyes in it. It’s a world, where people come first. It’s a revolution, where word-of-mouth, the most persuasive media of all, is king. And it’s the very reason why Lady Gaga tweets messages and pictures to her 24 million Twitter fans, and iconic brands like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Apple, et al, interact with their consumers on a real-time basis through Facebook. 

If you too are in the business of selling, then you are game to this revolution. Believe it or not, digital has taken over our lives. The reason is simple. As humans, we are hardwired not to live alone. For instance, there’s no way you’ll not speak even once to the passenger sitting next to you over a long-haul flight. And the very reason social media has engulfed almost everything is that it revolves around communication. Marketers who live by statistics might disagree, but ‘social’ is probably the most vital element that completes the very concept of globalisation. I mean think about it; there was a time when there were limited shops selling select products to a certain number of households. You never had to bargain and almost always you got the best deal because the shopkeeper knew you and your family personally. Soon, globalisation started seeping in and markets witnessed unprecedented proliferation of new brands. As corporations selling these brands expanded it became almost impossible for them to communicate with consumers. But here’s the catch. They realised this was more convenient. A message had to be funneled through and consumers had no choice but to consume it. Even if someone out there had a problem, he wouldn’t be a threat. How could this one alienated customer possibly speak ill about a brand to its million odd patrons? Further, everything could be just put onto a PowerPoint presentation. The insights were actionable and made great forecasts. What fun! But not anymore. The phenomenal rise of social networks, blogs, search engines, mobile and almost anything related to the world wide web has put the power back in the hands of the consumers. Try to ignore customer feedback/requests and you might find yourself in a more painful situation than you would have actually thought. 

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson got a taste of what an angry customer could do when one Giorgio Galante decided to vent out his frustration through a blog. Galante had asked AT&T for an early iPhone upgrade. For this, he wrote an email to the CEO. Instead of a customer care executive reaching out to help, he received a voice mail threatening legal action if he tried to contact the CEO again. He later received an apology from a VP, but by then the blog had gone viral and much of the damage was done. 

Thus, companies which underestimate the relevance of social media will suffer. Its effects may not be immediate, but over the long run it’ll just become impossible to catch up. So, if you’ve a veteran heading the social media bench at your company who tells you that everything is under control, kick him out immediately because nothing is in control. Unlike traditional media, companies don’t own these platforms. They’re evolving everyday. Therefore, you’d do better by hiring a crazy looking chap who’s matured in the digital age. He’ll know what to do. After all, you can’t derive the value of emotional connect customers have with the brand by putting the number of ‘likes’ and ‘tweets’ into a statistical equation. The customer is no longer your muse, so try falling in love with her. Cheers to the consumer!

Friday, 18 November 2011


I have been up against tough competition all my life. I wouldn't know how to get along without it - Walt Disney 

Gone are the days when a good product was all that was needed to stay in business. The changes witnessed in the business world occur not only because of the inventions and product developments in the R&D centres of companies but a lot of it comes from the new ways created by practitioners of marketing to look at the same old problems. We live in a world where the future of a brand is not left for the market to decide. For a brand to stand any chance in the market it has to go beyond the conventional realms of business practice. “Good Product” is a given, what is expected from the brand is answering the needs of its customers. This is why a lot of brainstorming, ideating, heated discussions of boardrooms, and tissue meetings of the advertising industry, involving millions of dollars and the best intellectual capital, is employed to arrive at strategies that can help brands rise out of the surrounding clutter. This seems a lot like what legendary boxer Muhammad Ali said - I hated every minute of training, but I said, "Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion." 

To create a champion brand one doesn’t need a philosopher’s stone. Companies need to acknowledge certain simple facts and unhinge themselves from the primitive branding strategies that are well past their sell-by date. This is exactly what is happening in the Indian mobile phone industry, as challenger brands are bringing down established brands by providing solution based products rather than going for product attributes in their advertising trance. Brands are also finding that it is imperative to connect with their customers. Connecting with the customers has amplified by the sudden rise of social media. Social Media is not a formality on the contrary most brands especially online shopping brands have found it to be a great platform for addressing their customers’ needs, queries and grievances in the most efficacious manner. 

After all the sweat & toil of the day a brand needs to stand for something that is unique and belongs exclusively to it. This is why even after decades Amul stands for butter. We know that butter produced by almost all brands is similar, yet how is it that Amul has kept the branding bonfire going even after so many years. Amul didn’t invent butter but it was the first to create a butter brand, employing the simple concept of cherchez le creaneau. To maintain a competitive edge in the marketplace a brand needs to know its consumers better than its competitors. Consumers today relate with a product or service through their connection with a company's brand. This highlights why a brand needs to be unique, innovative, and mulish enough to not only grasp and hold customer loyalty, but also to assume a domineering position in the market. 

In a market swarmed with fierce competitors the best way to go about is by scrutinizing your competitor's strategies and then developing your own strategy that can buttress your brand despite competition. Being first is antediluvian; the history of brands shows being authentic is what counts. 

Brands are sensitive, initially they need care and attention but as they become strong they need their creator’s passion to keep them from falling into slumber from which it is always hard to wake. A marketer needs to be artful in picking up the seemingly inconsequential changes in the market and orient his brand in a way that makes it interesting to the customers. 

This journal is a salutation to all the companies that have got their marketing campaigns right. Brands that have carved a niche for themselves riding on the success of their advertising. These brands are well & truly ‘Thorns to Competition’. Hope you enjoy reading it!