Brave New World: Connecting Brands to Consumers in this Technological Age

TECHNOLOGY IS CHANGING THE WORLD on a daily basis. How people communicate with each other has changed and how they expect companies to communicate with them is changing. Clearly, the marketplace has clearly moved beyond traditional marketing techniques and tactics into a new world of consumer fragmentation, channel and availability expansion, and increasing cynicism and control from consumers. Marketers are attempting to respond to the new world – with increased spending against digital and point of sale); in fact, $36B was spent for online advertising in 2007. This number is projected to increase to $66B by 2010. But more money is not the answer. The real question marketers should consider is: In a fast moving, fragmented world, how can brands reach and engage customers to encourage brand choice and (the Holy Grail), brand loyalty? Here, we attempt to answer this question by cutting through the hype with practical insights for marketers.

While it is easy to think that everyone is paying incredibly close attention to our categories and brands at all times and hanging on our every word, the reality is that the humans are busy and have much better things to do. In fact, one of the essential purposes of memory is to allow people to forget and to only call up the information from storage when needed.

The way information is stored and recalled by the brain is essentially through “networks” of neurons working together. These “neural networks” are clustering tools that create associations of things linked together in our memories. So, when we call up a piece of information about something, we call up everything about it – the entire network of associations, emotions, thoughts and images that are all connected together in our brains.

Interestingly, research has shown that the imagery that surrounds words and their meaning is more important than the words themselves. You can see this in action – successful brands evoke valuable meaning through associated images, metaphors, myths and legends. There’s no ‘single message’ that goes with a brand.

Historically, advertising theory was dominated by the very linear A-I-D-A model (attention-interest-desire-action). This theory was based on the view that consumers first think, then feel, then do. In this model, ad claims were pushed on consumers with highly cognitive messages. It was believed that if you could get people to think about your brand in a certain way, they would feel differently and respond accordingly.

Recent thinking across a wide range of disciplines has changed this theory. We now understand that emotion is actually the first filter that decides if we are going to pay attention. In fact, emotion plays a role not only in our unconscious, but also shapes our conscious thoughts about brands, products and services. The importance of emotion in advertising and brand stimulus cannot be overstated. The other implication of this is the recognition that advertising is only one part of the total view of the brand. We should not put too much value on the impact of one new ad campaign. Advertising is only one part of a holistic view of the brand.

The other important part of brand communications to consider in today’s world is the role of digital communications and word of mouth. In the age of Wikipedia and user-created-content, consumers are no longer content to be “talked at” by brands and told to believe what marketers say. Increasingly, people are listening less to what companies are telling them and more to what their peers and others are telling them. Friends and family recommendations are nothing new, but the definition of “friends and family” has expanded dramatically online. Companies no longer control all the communications regarding their brand. People post comments or vides on websites, and exchange information constantly with the touch of a button. This is scary for most marketers unsure of what people will say to millions of others about their brand. So, what should marketers do?

Based on the newly applied understanding of how the brain works, we can take away nine key imperatives for marketers as they find ways to connect with consumers in this new world, as well as some key questions you should ask yourself about your brand.

Leverage Your Brands’ Full DNA
A brand is bigger than a mere positioning statement. Communications and activations must primarily generate emotional connections and tap into the full associations that consumers have for brands. This must happen not just with words, but with visuals, storytelling and sounds as well.

• Do you understand the full picture of the network associations, imagery, sounds, metaphors and stories that consumers have for your brands? Is your brand connecting with consumers on an emotional level or is your relationship strictly rational?

Develop Communication for People
Communication development must be grounded in a well-defined target of people, and it must recognize the distinct differences in segments of people. While large, “mass” brands will have multiple target segments, it is critical that specific communications be designed to connect with a defined set of people. Down the middle for lots of different people won’t work anymore.

• Who are the people that you are trying to reach? Do you fully understand all of your consumers groups – as people, not “target markets?”

Capture the Moment ofTruth
The point of decision is a critical time to tap into and trigger consumer memories and brand associations in order to impact behavior.

• How is your brand tapping into the storage bin of associations about it at the point of purchase? If every new communication conjures up the entire network of associations of the brand, what are you doing to ensure that happens at the moment of choice when it’s most relevant?

Give Them Something to Talk About
Embracing the digital world means acknowledging that you no longer 100% control the dialogue with consumers. However, it is possible to engage people in your brand and make it easy for them to co-create and transmit to others. Word of Mouth is a critical component of the brand communications plan and must reflect and expand the brand message.

• How are you building word-of-mouth into your brand communications in a way that reflects and expands the brand’s message? How are you engaging communities with your brand and empowering co-creation with your loyal fans?

Embrace Marketing on the Edge
The only way to develop expertise is to experiment and learn from successes and failures. Many of the new approaches are beyond the comfort zone of most marketers, but the only way to get more comfortable is to get out there and acts like an insurgent. However, just because this is new, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be measured. New metrics are being put in place, and it’s up to the marketers to continue to push them.

• How are you building in experimentation to learn and build for the future? There are no best practices, so how are you building up expertise? What metrics are you using to determine the impact of your digital spending?

Taking the Leap
We have entered a brave new world, not only in our technology but in how we market to our various audiences. To succeed, we as marketers must think like insurgents – we must not become aware of a technological advance after it happens, but as it happens. And, we must learn to look at brands from our customers’ perspectives, and recognize the importance of emotional connections to brands. We can then determine how these changes will impact our brands.