How To Be Relevant, Relentlessly – And Why It Matters

How To Be Relevant, Relentlessly – And Why It Matters
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In this guest post, Edge’s executive planning director, Richard Parker (pictured below), says it’s increasingly hard for anyone in media to stay relevant when so much is changing so quickly. But, he says, put the effort in and you’ll reap the rewards…

I’ve been working in marketing for the best part of 20 years now. And it’s been 20 years of incredible change.

I started my career in the middle of the dot-com bubble, and during my career I’ve seen the launch of Google (1998), the rise of web 2.0 (1999), Facebook’s UK launch (2005), Twitter (2006), WhatsApp (2009), Instagram and Pinterest (2010), and G+, Facebook Messenger and Snapchat (2011). And a few other oddities in between – anyone remembers Foursquare (2009)? Or, slightly more obscurely, the Shawn Fanning-founded Path (2010)?

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When I started my career I still had 56k dial-up internet at home (ADSL was launched in the UK in 2000, and broadband had still only reached 50% penetration of UK households by 2007), and mobile phones were big heavy things that were mainly used for texting (and the legendary Snake) because calls were crazy expensive. I still had (and used) a landline. The Apple iPod was yet to be launched, and the iPhone was almost a decade away.

I did most of my shopping on the high street – barring the odd textbook from Amazon, and cheap CDs from CD Wow of course.

Shit has changed.

In fact, one could say (to misquote Heraclitus), that the only constant has been change itself. Let’s take a look.

The digital revolution just keeps on happening

There is no industry that hasn’t been disrupted. Media has been democratised. Every year there’s a new, shiny thing to obsess over. SoLoMo. The sharing economy. The attention economy. Drones. Programmatic. VR. AR. AI. Voice interface. Nanotechnology. The blockchain. The intelligent web. And the pace of innovation and disruption is…accelerating. Frankly, just reading this back to myself is enough to induce panic!

Society is changing

Millennials are the biggest cohort in Australia – and either have just overtaken, or are just about to overtake baby boomers as the biggest spenders, depending on how you look at the data. They consume media and content in vastly different ways to their forebears. And they’re more socially progressive, too.

We’re tribal, but we’re increasingly hard to predict

It’s almost impossible to use traditional demographic segments (age, gender, income, family status etc) to predict consumer behaviour. People of all ages – and in many markets – are shaking off demographic ‘conventions’ and constructing lifestyles and identities more freely than ever before. PepsiCo’s chief customer officer, Ram Krishnan, puts it well: “Around the globe, we see consumers are becoming omni-cultural, and geographical boundaries don’t necessarily divide them. They aren’t defined by where they were born or where they live. Rather, their passions unite them with like-minded people around the world.”

All of this sets up a serious challenge for brands: how to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world, where what is relevant today isn’t necessarily going to be relevant next week, let alone next month or next year.

How to stay relevant, relentlessly.

And it’s an important challenge, because 80 per cnet of consumers say they are more loyal to brands that continue to find new ways of being relevant in their lives (Aaker, 2015). And we all know what happens to brands that stop being relevant. Aside from the obvious legacy victims of new technology (Kodak, Blockbuster) there are those that just seemed to disappear. Anyone heard of Abercrombie & Fitch recently?

Luckily, my company, Edge, has been working hard to understand how brands can drive relevance relentlessly. We reckon it boils down to a number of dimensions that are interlinked – and we’ve structured our business around solving these problems for our clients.

  1. Consumer obsession

Brands need to know everything about how, why and when their consumers behave – including what they value, and their decision-making and experience journeys – to drive advocacy.

According to a recent Wunderman study, 79 per cent of consumers felt that brands must actively demonstrate “they understand and care about me” whilst another 89 per cent said they are loyal to brands that share their values. We can’t tap into this unless we’re obsessed with them, and obsessed with the way they behave.

  1. Value evolution

Never stop innovating. Ensure that the business model is constantly evolving in response to the big social, cultural, technological and economic drivers of our times to provide something that the consumer genuinely values.

This goes beyond mere technological innovation (although that’s important) it speaks to the need to understand that brands don’t exist in a vacuum, but as part of a culture – and that brands that acknowledge their role in shaping that culture, and act in a human way in a human environment, feel way more relevant to consumers than those that bury their heads in the sand. Patagonia – with its commitment to conservation ethics – is a classic example of a brand that continues to find new ways to demonstrate the way it aligns its values to those of its customers – and by doing so has stayed relevant for over 40 years.

  1. Scientific rigour

Apply the latest thinking around big data, machine learning, neuromarketing and behavioural economics.

The ‘science’ side of our discipline is evolving pretty rapidly as we access more and more data and apply machine learning to make sense of it; as our understanding of the way evolutionary psychology has shaped the way we consume improves; and as we start looking directly at the way different parts of the brain responds to different stimulus to refine our messaging. A combination of these disciplines helps us to understand not just what consumers say is relevant to them, but what is subconsciously relevant. See ING’s ‘Everyday Round-up’ – both the product and the campaign – as an example of a brand using behavioural economics and choice architecture to stay relevant (as well as innovating its products and services to stay relevant).

  1. Creative provocation

Deliver bold platform ideas that provoke an emotional response from the consumer, flow seamlessly across media and can be amplified by the consumer.

It’s really ever been thus, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable. If we want to be relevant to consumers, we need to provoke an emotional response with our creative. That means creative that helps consumers identify with our brands, it means creative that helps to shape the way consumers see the world, it means creative that makes consumers look and feel smart. And it means creative that works across multiple media formats and devices that consumers want to share.

  1. Transparent culture

Bring brand purpose to life through every aspect of the business, not just communications.

According to Trendwatching.com we are in the age of transparency – of ‘glass box brands’ where every action that brands undertake – including internal ones – can be seen by consumers. It’s never been more important to have a clear purpose that is relevant to and shared by – or at least approved of by – consumers, and to ensure that that purpose goes beyond communications. See the way Starbucks has a program to help staff in London raise a deposit on a home, or how it opened a store in Kuala Lumpur dedicated to hiring deaf people.

  1. Real time presence

React and move with the customer – responding to their rhythms, not the rhythms of the business.

Again, this sounds simple, but the reality is that many businesses work to quarterly financial cycles, and monthly marketing planning whereas consumers respond to what’s going on in their world minute by minute, day by day. To be relevant we need to find a way to tap into this consistently. And to be clear: we’re not just talking about trying to do an Oreo here – though using real time marketing and newsjacking techniques across social media is a no brainer – we’re talking about broader applications of real time – for example the way fashion brands like Burberry and Tommy Hilfiger use AI-technology to recommend products and help customers shop from their mobile devices.

  1. Hyper-personalisation

Build off big data to develop communications that are hyper-personal, understanding context, interest, time and place.

Just starting to become possible thanks to the kind of data we’re able to collect from mobile and wearable devices, most businesses are still way off being able to deliver this kind of experience for consumers. But increasingly, consumers will respond in a hostile manner to brands that are communicating with them in a way that doesn’t speak to their unique experience of the world. According to Alfie Ang, Johnson & Johnson’s head of digital analytics in Asia: “Touch, smell, hearing, seeing and tasting are all very important, so we translate that into our messaging for the Johnson’s Baby brand so that we remain relevant to mums and give them information that is helpful for their babies’ development. Overall, we’re seeing that consumers are wanting much more personalised information, so we need to be able to balance that level of personalisation while also making sure we aren’t overloading them with content.” Hear hear, Alfie!

As I mentioned, the dimensions are interlinked – it’s hard to get hyper-personal without being obsessed with the consumer, collecting data and applying scientific rigour, for example – so we feel the approach needs to be holistic if we’re to dramatically change a brand’s relevance. That said, we’re conscious that large organisations are slow to change course, and their progress in different areas (big data; customer experience) may be more or less advanced. So a plan to drive relevance relentlessly must be tailored to the organisation.

But wherever organisations are on their journey, ‘relevance’ needs to be the prime directive in today’s ever-quickening socio-digital landscape that gives people access to anything and everything, 24/7, at the touch of a button. While product and service competition is fundamental, competing for the attention (and demand) of consumers is essential – not only for a brand’s continued growth, but for its very existence.

‘Relevance’ means ensuring consumers connect with a brand simultaneously as the brand connects with the consumer. Ensuring that the connections are real. Human. Intelligent or visceral. Rational or emotional.

And ‘Relentless’ means doing it over, and over, and over again. Being nimble enough to adapt to the constantly shifting sands of consumer behaviour. Being able to pivot on a dime if need be.

We know we need to challenge the way brands engage with their customers, because traditional methods are increasingly broken. We know we need to challenge the channels and approaches that are used, to challenge conventional wisdom, to challenge empty brand promises and to challenge the way we understand and respond to customers. It’s all a challenge. But we all have to be up for it if we want the brands we work with to succeed.

If we want them to be relevant. Relentlessly.

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