Connectivity – first through telegraphy and then through the telephone – transformed the world. Before this, people rarely travelled or met others outside their own towns and villages. Afterwards, they lived in an interconnected world that was suddenly 'global'.
In the 80s, I was at a party in London, where I met a girl called Kate for the first time. Before leaving, she ripped a piece of paper from the Yellow Pages by the front door and wrote down her number with lipstick. Remarkably, I still have that piece of paper, and that woman is now my wife.
Today's dating game is quite different. In Japan, for instance, people can go into a bar and, without even speaking, scan the QR codes on singletons' T-shirts in order to check them out on Facebook. Only then do they decide whether they want to speak to them. How different that first meeting with my future wife would have been, if back then we had the technology we rely on today. How can you resist phoning a number that has been written in lipstick?
Mobile is changing so much of our behaviour, even our face-to-face interaction. How many parents of teenage children have been baffled by the texting, tweeting and Facebooking that goes on in front of the TV? Isn't one screen, one activity, one flow of information enough?
Mobile is the biggest enabler of social media, as your handset is rarely more than a metre away. More than half of all activity on Facebook and Twitter now happens on a mobile device. Hence Facebook's decision to purchase Instagram, a company with 13 employees and zero revenue, for £1bn.
Moreover, while it may seem as if mobile is something just for the developed world, where smartphones and expensive devices proliferate, I have seen greater growth and more use of mobile in developing markets than in Europe.
A couple of weeks ago I was in Bhopal, India, where mobiles are a central utility for people in this developing market. The locals there have no toilets, chimneys or even electrical light in their huts, but they do have mobile phones, which have various uses beyond communication, from a means to transfer money to a source of light by which to cook.
In fast-growth markets such as India, where there is a population of 1bn people with nearly 900m handsets, the reach of mobile is greater than that of television. Mobile is the primary way consumers in these markets connect to the internet. In addition, since many of these places are 'TV dark', mobile is the primary way a company like Unilever engages with consumers. Here, TV is being usurped by mobile as the mass medium to reach consumers.
Mobile is affecting the way consumers engage with the world; it is therefore only natural that it has changed the way we engage with them, and the way we do marketing. In my view, there are four shifts that we must make to address and capitalise on this.
1. Not so long ago, everyone was striving for 360-degree communication. How quickly things change. We're now shifting from that all-round planning of integrated channels to a 365-days-a-year, always-on approach. Instead of rolling out big marketing campaigns three to four times a year, brands are reaching out to consumers 24/7 via mobile and social media.
Crucially, it's about always-on entertainment for the consumer. Returning to India, exponential population growth means the opportunities are ripe. The lack of electricity (only 55% in rural households) means the entertainment options are limited, but mobile penetration is 66%, thereby providing the channel through which to give people the entertainment they want. Incidentally, most handsets there are feature phones, so providing interesting entertainment is, in many ways, more challenging than running a campaign on a smartphone – and more rewarding when it works out.
2. Every day, 2bn people use a Unilever product across 180 countries. While the numbers are big, people have individual access to technology, individual access to content, and individual access to our brands. Therefore, we must address the 7bn people in the world by personalising content designed for the masses, but tailored to the individual.
Targeting content for individual consumers in an intimate way builds relationships. Done well, it cuts down the clutter of unnecessary communications – my children are teenagers, I don't need nappy ads on my phone.
Big data is transforming the business and consumer environment. It should even make people's lives easier: we are already able to tell a consumer when he's walking in the park (we know his location) on a hot day (we know what the weather is like there) where the nearest place is to buy a Magnum and send him a code for a discount.
Just think of what we might be able to do in five years' time.
3. Consumers are on the move. As a result, companies like ours need speed and immediacy of data just to keep up with the consumer. People want information now, they want to interact now, they want to buy now; and they want all this on the go.
The concept of immediacy has transformed mobile into a tool of action and transaction in a single swipe, click or tap. Our communication must take into account that whenever we reach a consumer, he or she will talk not with their feet, as we used to say, but with their fingers – and unless we are ready to capture that action, then we will be missing an opportunity.
4. Since mobile requires a different way of working, planning and engaging with consumers – and because it is by no means a one-size-fits-all formula – we have found that working in partnership with experts in different mobile-related fields is as necessary as expanding our own understanding of the opportunities.
We are working with mobile and content providers – gaming, for instance – to unlock the magic of our brands by leveraging mobile and social together, to explore innovative ways to co-create content, and to achieve distribution at scale.
Mobile does require a different type of consumer engagement and way of working, but I, for one, am very excited by it.