Why it's time for marketing to stop spinning and start telling the truth
A view from Sue Unerman

Why it's time for marketing to stop spinning and start telling the truth

How can the marketing discipline reposition itself in 2014? MediaCom's Sue Unerman has a prescription for more integrated thinking.

Marketers are under pressure to gain "share of mind", not just among consumers but within their own organisation. Marketing columnist Helen Edwards wrote recently: "Marketers are tolerated as the colourful folk who put the brand stuff out, mess around with logos and sign up celebs; not as people from whom to take directions, or to guide the serious business of making, running or even selling things."

Of course, the reverse is true. Marketing author Dr Kotler said: "Marketing is a terribly misunderstood subject in business circles and in the public’s mind. Companies think that marketing exists to support manufacturing. The truth is… manufacturing exists to support marketing. The company can always outsource its manufacturing. What makes a company is its marketing offering and ideas."

What does marketing need to do to reposition itself?

I believe the answer is the same, whether in relation to share of mind of the consumer or the organisation. Stop spin whenever it comes up, treat the consumer as an equal who knows as much about the brand as any expert does and insist on authenticity, which means joined-up, connected and integrated thinking.

Equal terms

A year ago, my first book was published. In Tell the Truth: Honesty is Your Best Marketing Tool, I wrote about the need to treat the consumer on equal terms and the value of authenticity in marketing communications.

I ended by predicting the demise of spin, saying: "In five years’ time, we’ll look back on the art of spin as an anachronism."

Why is this necessary? The people who buy stuff have changed. When I started out in the business, I used to attend as many qualitative research groups as I possibly could. Sometimes I just used to gatecrash, squeeze my way into a cramped viewing room, and as soon as I could I learned to run my own.

I believe that you don’t really get to the truth of the brand until you understand what consumers think about it and how they talk about it. I have never seen a great campaign that was not triggered by a great consumer insight. Quantitative research is essential too, but nothing replaces hearing it from the consumer in person.

One thing is clear. Consumers have changed. In those early days, people were naïve and unthinking about marketing. Now most (not all) consumers sound like they’ve done a marketing course. They’re happy to talk brand concepts and brand intention. They get what spin is and are clear about how far they will tolerate it.

We need to understand comms planning as a connected process
rooted in an understanding of the customer journey.

They’re skilled in getting the point of advertising. They’re very happy to co-create. They’re interested and involved, or uninterested and proud of it – but not neutral, or uninformed. In addition, pretty much without exception, consumers are wielding smartphones and know how to use them to find out in a few moments everything they want to about the brand, its history, provenance, credentials and pricing tactics.

Economists point out that many markets are based on the "asymmetry of information". For example, you may benefit from this if you’re selling your house. You’re quite likely to gloss over some of your detailed knowledge of every corner of every room to get the best possible price. You wouldn’t do anything illegal, but probably won’t go out of your way to point out every stain on the carpet, for example, or the window that is inclined to stick in wet weather. Caveat emptor is one of the oldest principles of selling, after all.

Shifted favour

This asymmetry has shifted in favour of the buyer in nearly all major areas. As Phil Stokes, partner at PwC, says, there is a fundamental change, and it is likely to continue to become even more significant. The faster you are with your smartphone or tablet, the more information you can have on your side.

MediaCom’s head of digital, Stefan Bardega, has pointed out mobile is now many people’s "first screen", with an omnipresent physical intimacy that no other screen can have. PwC’s research points out that a new and different type of consumer will dominate the near future.

This year is the turning point when the digital consumer overtakes the traditional ones among the UK active adult population. You can’t pull the wool over their eyes, hide stuff from them, talk down to them or say one thing in one place and not deliver it in another. They will expect you to know them and their habits, and tailor the communication to make it relevant to them (while not wanting to be stalked). To paraphrase Ogilvy: "The consumer isn’t a moron, she is the owner of a smartphone who can find out all about your brand."

What do we need to do about it? Be authentic, be consistent, integrate. It might sound obvious. It probably needs a lot of reorganising of effort, how teams work together, how sales or service outlets are configured and how data is used. It will require marketers to influence and determine what teams do that don’t report to them.

You may recently have had a conversation about how, not that long ago, everything was simple. I’ve had three of them this week; agency, media-owner or client individuals reminiscing about the days when you would create a brand marketing pyramid, with a single benefit at its heart, make an ad that explained it to the customer and book a media plan that delivered huge reach and frequency via one or two channels.

Now you have to consider social, content, paid-for, owned, earned, buzz, digital click-through – a series of agencies, each proposing a separate strategy, multiple retail channels, long-term brand affinity, short-term cost per acquisition, real-time big data and include CRM and employee advocacy. It takes more time and meetings.

Deeper understanding

At MediaCom we find it useful to focus on three macro trends to redefine our approach to communications:

Consumer journeys are more convoluted and informed and involve far more than paid-media channels; social and content are an important part of these journeys.

Google’s role at the heart of these journeys (especially natural search) makes understanding and using the algorithm a critical part of understanding how to communicate effectively, whether for direct-response plans or to understand how big a "real-world" share of mind a brand has.

Technological developments (especially mobile and multi-screening) are turning every media channel into a "dialogue initiator" and with each interaction produce data that can inform channel optimisation at a granular level for all strands of comms.

As a result of this we need to understand comms planning as a connected process where every plan must be rooted in an understanding of the entire customer journey; allow an element of personalisation and hyper-targeting; include a content strategy at scale; harness and use all the available data; and optimise in real time.

"We need to move from a model that is predicated on a simple, one-stage process (see ad: buy stuff) to one that accommodates all the various pathways that prospective customers could travel down," says MediaCom managing partner David Beale. "Not only do we have to understand these pathways – which will change from consumer to consumer – but we also need to understand how to influence them."

Reorganise to integrate

Dawn Paine, vice-president at Universal Pictures International Entertainment, revolutionised its approach to DVD sales at Christmas with a connected strategy driven by the basic customer truth that the physical nature of a DVD makes it a great present to wrap and stick under the tree.

She says: "Integrated thinking is not just about how we fuse different elements of the marketing mix to create one crystallising campaign idea, but also how we create distinct communications and competitive advantage. Rather than create 40 disparate product campaigns, we developed a creative ‘glue’ to coalesce into one bigger punch… using consumer emotion and storytelling to present the category in a different way.

"In a complex business with multiple stakeholders, it was essential to bring all parties into the process beyond the marketing team, from finance and sales to A-list Hollywood talent and the very best British stand-up comedians. We have created internal advocacy and staff engagement to further fuel a campaign anchored in celebrating Britain’s favourite DVDs – we’re all consumers, why not give everyone a voice?"

Anthony Newman, product marketing director at Cancer Research UK, echoes the need to organise in order to integrate, and agrees that the media agency can have a key role in facilitating this with a single view of the customer. He believes it is essential to take a single customer view and eliminate silos, while keeping ownership of product areas intact. Newman’s successful relaunch of Race for Life and launch of the Dryathlon initiative is based on integration. He writes: "A centralised integrated view is the best thing overall to maximise customer and public engagement with the brand."

It is fair to say that things are more complicated than they used to be. Nonetheless, the opportunity to reach the customer in an accountable, creative and effective way at every stage of their journey, with connected planning, also means that the opportunity to leverage marketing’s role in the organisation is greater than ever. End spin, tell the truth, connect the journey.