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Marketing’s digital evolution in need of a real revolution

Various reports in late 2016 and early 2017 show that at last, digital budgets are achieving parity with TV. The latest ad spending forecast by eMarketer has even suggested that in the US, digital will overtake TV ad spending this year for the first time.

We are certainly deep in the digital pool. It would probably be prudent then to consider whether we are swimming and transforming our brands through this pursuit, or merely expending significant energy for little movement forward. It certainly seems an opportune time to make such an assessment. We’ve now had a long enough history of digital marketing to look back at what has been a huge experiment. To look from a historic perspective at what’s worked and what hasn’t, and ensure that we move forward from a time of trial and error into one where digital spend clearly equals brand success.

In the beginning, there were banner ads.

When you consider a history of marketing’s digital evolution, you quickly realise that what has taken place in the digital space over the last 15 years almost mirrors what took place in branding more broadly over the last 50. At first, digital advertising mostly consisted of banner ads providing marketers with another, and potentially much cheaper, channel to perform their most relied on and certainly most perceived safe strategy: what we all know as ‘mindshare branding’. The only problem was that while people once found this form of advertising permissible when it was paying for their favourite TV show, now that it was disrupting and slowing their free internet surfing, they weren’t having it – and certainly wouldn’t watch it.

Phase two – let’s get emotional

The second evolution involved the favoured model of branding of advertising agencies: ’emotional branding’. As Douglas Holt identified in his 2016 Harvard Business Review articlethis was the point when about a decade ago, most companies were heralding the arrival of a new age of branding. They hired creative agencies and armies of technologists to insert brands throughout the digital universe. Viral, buzz, memes, stickiness and form factor became the lingua franca of branding”. Essentially, for a time, creatives got a free pass to indulge their wildest dreams – they were in the entertainment industry, tasked to use their big budgets like Hollywood to engage audiences around their online brand platforms.

However, we were already living in a world over-saturated with cultural content and this was about to explode as the internet further developed into social media. Suddenly, the consumer themselves were creating content that could generate more buzz than big budget advertising creativity. As Holt points out today: “In YouTube or Instagram rankings of channels by number of subscribers, corporate brands barely appear. Only three have cracked the YouTube Top 500”. Ads don’t compete with other ads. Instead, they compete with a plethora of content created by the very people advertisers are targeting—their customers.

And along came Purpose

A third evolution since the late noughties and the mainstreaming of social media has involved ‘purpose branding’. A happy alignment of online platforms bringing consumers together around a cause, and some traditional advertising to communicate it, ‘purpose branding’ is a brand’s attempt to connect with consumers through values it shares with them. One of the highest profile examples of purpose branding was Pepsi’s Refresh Project. In this, Pepsi attempted to capture the spirit of the election of Obama and tap into the apparent widespread altruistic values of the new generation. The initiative proved good for short term PR, but not for long-term brand building. While it achieved most of its social media goals (giving away lots of money tends to drive people to participate), it didn’t make people think of Pepsi any differently. What it showed was that Pepsi was prepared to through a huge amount of money to buy online engagement. It didn’t show that Pepsi genuinely understood the tensions facing the generation, the new ideas they were organising around, and offer them a new way to express themselves.

To do this would not be ‘purpose branding’, but ‘cultural branding’, which as a model offers a far better way for brands to perform in the digital age. Developed by Holt, he has made the strong case that in order for brands to finally fulfill the promise of the connected age, they need to look back at the most famous cases of advertising success, brands such as Nike, Budweiser, and VW who at their best delivered not entertainment, but myths their customers can use to build their identities.

Brands win if they play a useful role in crowd culture

Why does this work well in the digital age? Because like never before, enabled by the internet, people are organising in ‘crowd cultures’ around new and interesting ideologies: subcultures that brands have a role in helping diffuse for the mainstream. Underarmour has had significant success in digital marketing by understanding an ideology today of overcoming societal barriers through sheer willpower and creating branded content aimed directly at the online crowd cultures that live with it. The same strategy was originally used by Nike in the 1970’s and 1990’s. The only difference today is that Underarmour has been able to use the crowd culture to spread the message, rather than buy TV space. Instead, the media spend was able to be used to truly understand the subculture and get the ideology right.

When you consider this case, you’ve got to ask whether some of the taken-for-granted mantras of the digital age are actually wrong. For example, ‘join the conversation’. Under Armour didn’t join a conversation. It led it by taking a latent idea to the mainstream. To join the conversation, you could cynically say, is to reflect popular opinion. But like politicians, brands are far more authentic when they and bring new ideas to the public consciousness. To do so brands have to be culturally relevant as well as creative.

More listening, less talking

For this, brands would do well to use more of their digital investment to understand online crowd cultures as well as the opportunity for their brand to champion their ideology. Rather than spending all their energy trying to get noticed in the digital pool, spending some to understand the people who are in it. More listening to people and less talking at them would go a long way. In the end, this is the real revolution required in marketing.

Tim Gregory is a cultural brand strategist at TRA.
This story first appeared at StopPress.
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