19 December 2013

Of Brands in the Splinternet

By Mohit Hira, SVP & Digital Head - JWT India Group, JWT Delhi Account Management

It could have easily been yet another typical panel discussion on the future of digital marketing. But it wasn’t.

Partly because everyone’s accepted that, when it comes to digital brand-building, the future’s not coming. The future’s already here. And partly because we had a set of “not-old-but-mature” CMOs engaged in a sparkling conversation. Literally.

They came from Birla Sunlife, GSK, Nestlé, Nokia, Pepsi et al at the JWT-WARCConversations last Thursday in Gurgaon, to discuss how brands could unlock sustainable growth in 2014. And, while it started out as a meandering flow of easy banter around the current slowdown and possible challenges that brands could face, it quickly focused on the impact of the digital medium. And, from there, to the role brands now need to play in this uncontrollable medium.

This is not a new debate. But there were perspectives that were fresh and set me thinking. Perhaps, because like the panelists, some of us had also migrated from a static, staccato, offline advertising era to a volatile, interval-free, online communications age.

So, think about these facts…

There was a time when time was finite. No, that doesn’t mean we have 25 hours now but we have managed to stretch time and bring elasticity to it, a lot more than we could in a non-computerised, fixed-line telephony world. The media of that time – 15 or 20 years ago – was also finite: a newspaper had a predictable number of pages; television (even with the arrival of satellite broadcasters) had secondage that could not be extended or revisited. There were no digital recorders, no YouTube that allowed a viewer to go binge-viewing and create his own programming schedule: the remote control was, at best, a channel-switcher; whereas today it enables one to master time itself, to flip back and forth at will. (HG Wells would have been delighted.) And YouTube, that mouse-controlled,scourge of copyright-catatonic creators was yet to be unleashed on an unsuspecting, hungry world. It would grow to become larger than many TV channels at a fraction of the cost, and allow a viewer to go as far back in time as he wished, at will; as long as someone had uploaded the video he wanted from an archive.

There was also a time when we learned that brands had to behave in a certain way. Brands would be personified and were meant to appear consistently, speak in a defined tonality… in short, they were predictable. And rigid. Life was easier for the brand manager and his agency because things were templated. A media plan had to be frozen days (if not weeks) in advance because, although it had fought the government’s quota regime, the media was itself still caught in the quagmire of self-imposed inventory quotas.

Everything was also integrated: all services rested within a single agency, brands and clients were wedded to their agency partners, audiences were sitting ducks waiting to be targeted en masse as they turned up almost magically every Sunday morning to suspend disbelief and succumb to Ramanand Sagar’s histrionics.

But that was before the media agency was born out of the creative agency and exposed themselves both to predatory purchase managers. The partner had became a vendor. Dis-integration had arrived: remove the hyphen and you’ll realise what the word really means. Media channels had also mushroomed and eyeballs were no longer available on demand. Niche became nice. Audiences had fragmented, the client-agency relationship had moved from long-term commitment to a flirtatious fling with creative boutiques. The triad of the client-agency-consumer was replaced by the tangled triangle of the client-agency-second agency. Therein lay the problem: a single brand owner and a single brand custodian meant greater accountability; but in a multi-agency relationship, while the brand owner was still one, he had divided the custody of his marque to several agencies and consultants. As a result, no single agency could now take credit or blame for either the rise or fall in brand metrics. And the poor brand manager spent the better part of his time orchestrating campaigns between them instead of being out there in the marketplace. Somewhere along this journey, the niche creative hotshops would face the dharam-sankat of growth versus quality…success meant sacrifice.

Add to this, the explosion of social media and the onslaught of the always-on, ever-ready-to-express, smartphoned youngster. Brands now have to be on guard, exposed and in the public eye 24x7 – not just on prime time. The concept of appointment-viewing is history and media plans can no longer be cast in stone: a single, radical twist to a campaign can skew a brand’s plans and lead to overnight changes in media plans. All you need is YouTube and a maverick with a mashup. It cannot be a coincidence that, anagrammatically speaking, ‘viral’ becomes‘rival’.

Brands have, actually, never been used to conversations. That entire stimulus-response thing we learned in textbook Jim Young workshops was meant for a one-way world. Not for a stimulus-response-stimulus-response-stimulus-response chain that is now the default dialogue everywhere. A post, a tweet, a picture instagrammed is all the stimuli a trigger-happy generation needs to make or break a brand in seconds. The thumb never had it so good. And because everything happens rapid-fire in real time, everything is also very transient. Moods change, likes become dislikes and there is, apparently, nothing wrong in this 180-degree flip.  No guilt. If this is true of human beings where our behaviour and tone of voice changes within hours or by simply transiting from the workplace to other places, why should it not be so for brands themselves? And why should brands continue to invest blindly in broadcast media with no assurance of who’s at the other end? Why, too, should ROI be demanded from digital media only?

In this volatile splinternet (yes, the term does exist) how can a templated brand ever converse with its consumers? Why should brands not be allowed to change tonality depending on the stimuli that comes back at them? The tux is not a style statement today, the t-shirt is. Control is not the key, agility is. Dialogue is the order of the day. Brands that shed the starch and find the courage to be flexible and also trust one brand custodian for the long-term will find that they thrive. Simply because you can get one gymnast to be agile and aesthetic, not a motley gang of untrusting rivals.

So, dear “maturing-client”, keep the faith… in your long-term agency partner. In the medium that is attracting the very-mobile masses. And, most of all, figure out a way to engage with, and win, the faith of the fickle digital consumer.

The article was first published on Facebook. 

1 comment:

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