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Looking back to go forward: marketing’s digital evolution

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This is a landmark year in the evolution of digital marketing.

In a nutshell

  1. We’ve now had a long enough history of digital marketing to take lessons from the past and ensure that we move forward into a time where digital spend equates to brand success.
  2. Digital advertising has progressed from 'mindshare branding' to 'emotional branding' and now 'purpose branding'. 'Cultural branding' is the next evolution. 
  3. Brands should use more of their digital investment to understand online crowd cultures as well as the opportunity for their brand to champion their ideology.

Various reports have shown that digital budgets are at last achieving parity with TV, and the latest ad-spend forecast by eMarketer even suggested that in the US, digital will soon overtake TV ad spending for the first time.

We are certainly deep in the digital pool. It would be prudent then to consider whether we are swimming and transforming our brands through this pursuit, or merely trying to stay afloat and expending significant energy for little movement forward.

By now we’ve had a long enough history of digital marketing to look back at what has ultimately been a huge experiment and ensure that we move forward from a time of trial and error into one where digital spend equates to brand success.

In the beginning there were banner ads

When you consider the history of marketing you will quickly realise that what has taken place in the digital space over the last 15 years almost exactly mirrors what took place in branding more broadly over the last 50.

At first, digital advertising mostly consisted of banner ads which provided marketers with another (potentially much cheaper) channel to perform their most relied on ‘safe’ strategy: ‘mindshare branding’. The only problem was that while people once found this form of advertising permissible when it was paying for their favourite TV show, as soon as it was disrupting and slowing down their free internet surfing, they weren’t having it – and certainly wouldn’t watch it.

Let’s get emotional

The second stage of the evolution involved the advertising agencies’ favoured model of branding: ‘emotional branding’. This was at the point about a decade ago when most companies were heralding the arrival of a new age of branding. They hired creative agencies and armies of technologists to insert brands throughout the digital universe. Viral, buzz, memes, stickiness and form factor became the lingua franca of branding. Essentially, for a time, creatives got a free pass to indulge their wildest dreams – they were in the entertainment industry, tasked to use their Hollywood-like budgets to engage audiences around their online brand platforms.

However, our world was already over-saturated with cultural content and this was about to explode as the internet further developed into social media. Suddenly, consumers themselves were creating content that could generate more buzz than big budget advertising creativity. As Douglas Holt points out: “In YouTube or Instagram rankings of channels by number of subscribers, corporate brands barely appear. Only three have cracked the YouTube Top 500”. Ads don’t compete with other ads. Instead, they compete with a plethora of content created by the very people advertisers are targeting—their customers.

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And along came purpose

"The cultural branding model argues that for brands to fulfill the promise of the connected age, they need to take inspiration from the likes of Nike, Budweiser and VW who at their best delivered not entertainment, but myths their customers could use to build their identities."

A third evolution since the late noughties and the mainstreaming of social media has involved 'purpose branding', a brand's attempt to connect with consumers through values it shares with them.

One of the highest profile examples of purpose branding was Pepsi’s 2010 Refresh Project which attempted to capture the spirit of the Obama election and tap into the widespread altruistic values of the new generation. The initiative proved good for short term PR, but not for long-term brand building. While it achieved most of its social media goals (giving away lots of money tends to drive people to participate), it didn’t make people think of Pepsi any differently. It showed that Pepsi didn’t genuinely understand the tensions facing the generation, the new ideas they were organising around, or offer them a new way to express themselves.

To do this would be 'cultural branding', which offers a far better way for brands to perform in the digital age. Developed by Douglas Holt, the cultural branding model argues that for brands to fulfill the promise of the connected age, they need to take inspiration from the likes of Nike, Budweiser, and VW who at their best delivered not entertainment, but myths their customers could use to build their identities.

Brands win if they play a useful role in crowd culture

Why does this work well in the digital age? Because, enabled by the internet, people are organising in ‘crowd cultures’ around new and interesting ideologies: subcultures that brands have a role in helping diffuse for the mainstream.

Underarmour has had significant digital marketing success by understanding an ideology of overcoming societal barriers through sheer willpower and creating branded content aimed directly at the online crowd cultures that live with it. The same strategy was originally used by Nike in the 70’s and 90’s. The only difference is that by using crowd culture, Underarmour have been able to direct spend originally set aside for paid TV space into truly understanding the subculture and ideology.

More listening, less talking

You have to ask whether some of the taken-for-granted mantras of the digital age are actually wrong. Take join the conversation’, for example. Underarmour didn’t join a conversation. It led it by taking a latent idea to the mainstream. To join the conversation, you could cynically say, is to reflect popular opinion. But like politicians, brands are far more authentic when they bring new ideas to the public consciousness. To do so brands have to be culturally relevant as well as creative.

For this, brands would do well to use more of their digital investment to understand online crowd cultures as well as the opportunity for their brand to champion their ideology. Rather than spending their energy trying to get noticed in the digital pool, spend some time understanding the people who are in it. More listening to people and less talking at them would go a long way. In the end, this is the real revolution required in marketing.

Tim Gregory
Strategist at TRA

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