Barbarians in the kitchen
It’s a surprise, and something of a concern, that consumer brands are not more publicly focused on the significant potential impacts of automated shopping and replenishment offerings such as Amazon’s Dash and Echo.
Such services surely signal a determined home invasion, only the first of no doubt many forays into the home territory of our most well-known heritage products.
Already under unrelenting pressure from powerful retailers and, more recently, empowered consumers, not to mention an economic austerity that will not lighten in the foreseeable future, how should a household staple respond to this latest wave of disruptive, data-enabled friendly fire?
The received wisdom is that the present and foreseeable health of consumer brand marketing will be defined and driven by the sophisticated use of data.
And yet, despite the sharply increasing range and depth of data available to practitioners, alongside a lively scrum of martech and adtech service providers, we are if anything more distant from a meaningful connection with consumers than ever.
Down to the crossroads
Should we sit tight and wait for the answer to emerge, or do we challenge the current assumptions and seek alternative approaches? Whatever our choice regarding the former, the velocity of change in market and the ongoing feeling of uncertainty surely demand a regular and rigorous health check.
Are the heavy expectations that lie on digital marketing, advertising and data justified? Or does the way we think about the future of the consumer brand need a radical rethink?
Here I’ll argue for the latter. Having worked in digital media, marketing and advertising for a quarter of a century, and advised leading players on both demand and supply sides, I’ve come to see that a reliance on the current and envisioned applications of digital and data could lead to a severe crisis, at least in their current manifestations, for many of the world’s most familiar and successful consumer packaged goods.
I’m relieved to report that this current challenge is not, necessarily, the end of the road for FMCG. It’s potentially the beginning of a new chapter, one that will demand, alongside a continuing focus on new technologies and ever-richer and more comprehensive forms of data, degrees of bold invention that have not been seen in brand advertising since the golden days of Madison Avenue.
A Game of Thrones
It’s easy to overlook why we have brands, and why they have been so important in both culture and commerce.
Branding was invented in the late 19th century in the United States by manufacturers of consumer goods. They had become frustrated by the increasing dominance of the wholesalers that controlled, through an effective monopoly of railways and warehousing, the national and regional distribution channels.
The evolution of the retail chains from the middle of the last century, first in the US, then across much of the developed world, extended the field. The power that chains such as Wal-Mart, Target, Tesco and Carrefour have over everyday household brands continues, as is well-documented elsewhere, continues to both expand and to change.
Branding, therefore, has always been about power before value.
Advertising, the undisputed driver of the media landscape of the past 75 years, introduced a new combatant in this unfolding Game of Thrones. Ads are, we tend to forget, information provided to an audience to co-opt them to the cause of the brand. And in doing so, choice enters the picture. And with choice, come the first incremental, then rapid and explosive, empowerment of shopper and consumer.
The great copywriters of the mid-20th century could never have anticipated the rise of this ruthless connected consumer.
And so we arrive, today, at a kind of pincer movement, with the retailer – on- and offline – and the shopper, equipped to push the beleaguered brand around, with powerful weapons of mass commoditization. At the heart of this brutal new system, of course, lies the data.
There’s no need to go into further detail. The state of play in our Game of Thrones finds consumer brands at a severe disadvantage. The mistake, however, is to assume without close examination that, if digital technologies plus data are the problem, then they must therefore be the entire solution.
Marketing vs. advertising
One little-discussed effect of the digital revolution has been to enmesh the previously separate disciplines of marketing and advertising. Understandable, especially when many of us have concluded, often tacitly, that if it’s all about the data, then we’re really just using different information at different points along the purchase funnel.
I think this has led to important misconceptions, and have found it useful to re-separate them using value as the distinction. We could say that marketing’s primarily about the articulation of value, and advertising’s about its communication.
The discrete roles of data come immediately into focus. Whether used for research, validation of ROI, integration into smarter product and services, prediction and so on, we can’t question that data has been and remains front and centre in intelligent modern marketing.
Furthermore, despite its frequent misfires and continuing disappointments, and while not being the driver of transformation that we once hoped, CRM’s ongoing journey remains at least valid. We should note in passing however that CRM is often partially siloed in customer service. Of which more later.
It’s data’s role in advertising that seems less sturdy.
The vocabulary of digital advertising merits inspection. In particular, the word “relevance” is a daily touchstone of value that should concern us. While a product or service must, from a marketing point of view, resonate with current or anticipated consumer need or desire, surely the task of advertising is not to simply reflect back to our audience all the data we currently hold on them (like an ecommerce recommendation: “If you bought this you might like that”).
To the contrary, advertising’s job is, by blending creative alchemy and astute planning and buying, to convert initial indifference to some level of consideration. We are, we could say, in the very business of irrelevance.
Stephen King, after close to 50 years, still says it best. “How to measure advertising and its effect is not terribly hard if you work out in advance what sort of response you are trying to get, because the basic question then is: Are we getting that response?”
If equity, at its most commercial, is a disposition to prefer our brand over others, and to pay a reasonable premium for it, we must surely concede that, with honourable exceptions, significant ground is being lost to the ubiquitous yellow discount label in the store, and in-basket substitutions and one-click price comparison services online.
While not doubting for a second that media planning and buying should and will continue to be ruthlessly informed and optimised – the programmatic explosion says it all – nevertheless, the magic data bullet that that will rescue the household brand from the Game of Thrones remains elusive.
Efficiency vs. growth
Leading marketers are waking up to a stark realisation. Having spent up to 5 years investing in large programmes of digital transformation that were envisioned as bold steps into the future, they have, instead, become mired in the past.
These initiatives are not, in the main, transformations or innovations. They are programmes of incremental improvement. Efficiency projects. We become, well, smarter, faster and cheaper at doing the things we needed to be better at doing five years ago.
Notoriously, efficiency projects in themselves deliver no business value beyond cost savings. Putting aside the common estimate that 70% of corporate change projects fail, in sharp contrast to even 5 years ago, the sheer accelerations that life and business on the network have conferred on the market mean that we no longer have the luxury of “semi-optional” change gambles.
Life does not go on outside. It rushes past us.
Here, perhaps, a throwaway (and typically cryptic) line from McLuhan’s 1964 masterpiece Understanding Media comes back to haunt us. “The paradox of mechanization is that although it is itself the cause of maximal growth and change, the principle of mechanization excludes the very possibility of growth or the understanding of change.”
Our transformation programmes must not be mistaken for a result. Being digital is simply to arrive, often a little late, at Basecamp One. The mountain of tough competition remains entirely unclimbed.
Having focused, arguably to our detriment, exclusively on the science, we now need to swing back rapidly to the art. It’s creative growth, departing from our platforms of digital efficiency, that demands urgent focus.
Product vs. service
A friend and colleague, one of the country’s foremost engineers, when we were discussing the impact of automated services on consumer products recently, made an observation that must be noted. “But won’t these brands soon enough be selling themselves not to consumers, but to the machines that serve them?”
Indeed. What happens to the intangible and perceived value created by huge investment, over multiple decades, in advertising – with or without the data – when the shopper is, in any sense that we’d recognise, no longer the shopper at all? This is far from a dystopian vision. One way or another, home automation is a reality.
And yes, the data we currently collect and look to for advantage will go on to play a central role in this new episode in our Game of Thrones.
But this will be about services. Amazon, in fact, is best viewed no longer as a retailer, but as an increasingly must-have service provider: this is the logic behind the – for now still reassuringly feature-light – Dash and Echo programmes. The former offers replenishment services for participating brands via either its recently launched one-tap stick-on sensors, or its rather magical Wand.
The latter doubles as a speaker for various audio channels and – far more compelling – a voice-activated home control tool. “Alexa? I’m nearly out of mayonnaise. Get me anything on special offer – over 50% discount – to arrive … oh … Thursday evening. The same size as before.”
We get the picture. The unmediated interaction that consumers and product brands have maintained for so long, is interrupted by a layer that anonymises both sides of the transaction and the relationship.
The fundamental logic here is that quality of service, in the end, always trumps quality of product. We’ve seen this repeatedly in marketing, and of course the digital revolution has accelerated the timelines between comfortable, bankable brand equity and also-ran commodity.
The stark realisation that follows, if we accept this logic and the trajectory we’re seeing so far, is that no matter how we may juggle and refine our marketing communications on behalf of the product brand, we can’t defend against the service players.
A way forward
We are close to marketing heresy here, of course. But looking around at the wholesale disruption we face across all sectors that are exposed to the destructive power of unfettered information, it’s hard, when we’re honest, to imagine that our product brands are somehow immune. To imagine that a data-led communications strategy will provide a sustainable defensive halo, is to ignore what’s right in front of us.
Will data kill the consumer brand? Well, not exactly, despite the clear and present dangers outlined here. It’s branded products that are under immediate threat.
Branded services – initially built around existing products, naturally, but rapidly evolving to create radical, ownable new forms of consumer value – are where logic demands we seek opportunity.
The question that remains is whether brand owners are realistically equipped to take this on at all, in terms of the longer game. Point services, based around a single product or category, will soon enough be subsumed, for the same reason that most branded smartphone apps fail.
Nevertheless, with improved focus and urgency in our various Connected Home programmes, we will uncover innovative, perhaps transformative service models of our own. Multi-category FMCG brand owners hold a particular advantage here, as to stand a chance of remaining, well, relevant in this bleak future context will require offerings that are integrated right across the home, indeed reaching beyond it.
This is not simply a challenge of technology, not indeed of marketing or advertising. I believe it represents, the single most urgent form of transformation that consumer brands should undertake, in order to sustain a useful and valued role in both culture and commerce.