Creating a marketing campaign used to be like making a movie. It would be planned months, if not years, in advance.
There was a linear process of: research; communications planning; creative development; more research, production; implementation and evaluation.
Each stage of the process would take weeks, if not longer. For years marketing departments and their agencies were built around this blockbuster model. The system was built for big-budget productions, not speed or agility.
The advent of digital media turned everything on its head. One of the interesting manifestations of this is Millward Brown’s annual league table of global brands. It still includes names like Visa, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Disney and Nike.
These are brands that were built in the old way, with blockbuster campaign after blockbuster campaign. However, the table also contains brands like Facebook, Google, Starbucks, Zara and Amazon, all built in a completely different way. They’ve become global superstars in a fraction of the time their predecessors took.
How many blockbuster campaigns can you recall for these brands? Identifying what they do differently is central to understanding the future of marketing.
A new mindset: growth hacking
One technique that sheds light on the different approaches of tech brands in particular is growth hacking. The concept has spread throughout the tech industry. From all that’s been said and written about growth hacking, a number of elements stand out as being central to this philosophy:
Clarity of focus: Growth hackers are totally focused on growth (user acquisition) to the exclusion of all other objectives.
Monopolise small communities: Instead of seeking a small share of a large audience, they focus on monopolising smaller ones.
Iterate fast: Aided by their digital toolkit they are able to deploy a huge volume of activity at a rapid pace.
Analytics is central to everything they do. Everything is monitored to understand what works and what doesn’t.
These are some of the ways in which growth hacking is said to differ to traditional marketing. However, it’s debatable whether these techniques are fundamentally different to the activities of a modern marketing department. Particularly the most progressive ones where big data, real-time and personalisation have been truly embraced.
The most interesting aspect of growth hacking is something else. And it’s something most brands have yet to get to grips with.
Culture as marketing strategy
The difference between growth hacking and traditional marketing can best be understood by looking at the outputs rather than the process. Two of the best known examples of growth hacking include:
Airbnb: As a small start-up, Airbnb needed a cheap way to promote their new service. Craigslist is an established website for classified advertisements with a huge user base, particularly in the US.
Airbnb developed a hack that allowed rentals listed on their site to be automatically posted to Craigslist. This dramatically increased the exposure for their brand and led to exponential growth.
Hotmail: Struggling to find a way to promote their new email service, one of the Hotmail team suggested they automatically add a message to the bottom of every email sent using their service.
It simply read: "Get your free email at Hotmail". Every time anyone sent an email they were promoting Hotmail’s brand, which kick-started huge growth.
What’s interesting about these examples is that marketing is not something that happens to the product at the end of the process. The product is the marketing.
This shift in focus is similar to the one currently taking place in customer experience in many sectors beyond just the tech industry. Brands are realising that a great experience is great marketing.
What’s emerging is the need for marketing to stop being confined to a single department. Marketing needs to be re-understood in its original form, as a business-wide management process. As businesses move in this direction will be whether confining marketing to a single department is still the right approach.
Some of its core functions might break out and become disciplines in their own right – research, product management, social media, campaign execution, for example. But marketing strategy will be elevated to a position where it has a much broader influence across every single function of the business – from the design of the product to the way it’s delivered to customers.
In doing this marketing will have evolved from something done by a department to a culture or philosophy that’s practised by the whole organisation.
Rob Gray is partner at Squad, a consultancy and creative agency.