Take, for example, Panasonic’s campaign to introduce its new battery. The campaign (centered on a "life after dark" theme) includes a nightlife blog that shares stories about the party scene in several cities, ads on websites like MTV.com, MySpace and Yahoo, and appearances by a cast of impish characters that are meant to reflect the irreverent attitude of the product and its buyers. But who really takes night-clubbing tips from Panasonic seriously? That’s what Time Out’s website is for. Not only does this kind of marketing initiative strike me as a waste of money, but perhaps even more costly is that trying to make a brand into something it is not can make it appear even more irrelevant in the eyes of the consumer. The analogy is that of the out-of-touch dad who starts using words like “phat” and “homey” in front of his kids and their friends to try and look hip and with it. In trying to be someone he is not, not only does Dad get dismissed from that realm of cool he has tried to venture into, but he potentially loses some of his regular dad-variety credibility in the process.
Is it an utter lack of direction or dynamic consumer understanding that drives companies to adopt web-based advertising platforms in this insipid manner? “Unconventional,” “non-traditional,” and “innovative” are some of the catchwords used by agencies to woo their clients into pumping advertising dollars on mediocre and uninspired online campaigns. Somehow the rationale has become that because the medium in itself is “unconventional” and consequently hip, the substance of the advertising doesn’t have to be.
After all, for example, a promotional contest is still a promotional contest, whether you ask consumers to lick a stamp and send in a cardboard coupon from the back of their Wheaties box or click on a link and send an “electronic coupon” from a marketing blog. Trying to garner increased brand awareness and sales with the promise of a free blender, a holiday trip for two, or a lifetime supply of chewing gum is a pretty old school marketing gimmick. The Internet doesn’t change that.
Budget Rent A Car’s latest Internet advertising campaign is a good example of this kind of misguided thinking. Budget recently released ads on 177 blogs asking readers to visit a Budget-sponsored blog to enter a treasure hunt being held in 16 cities with cash prizes of US$ 160,000. "Blogs seemed an appropriate fit for Budget's young, tech-savvy audience," says Jay Arnold, president and chief executive at the Impax Marketing Group in Philadelphia, which created the blog campaign for Budget.
In reality, we are not seeing new and innovative web-based marketing strategies for new and innovative times. What we are seeing are simply marketing techniques gone digital for digital times. “But what about the fact that the ’net is an interactive medium? That’s certainly new and innovative marketing!” I can hear marketing and advertising execs cry. Companies are indeed turning to the web because they believe that interactive web-based marketing, as opposed to traditional passive TV viewing, allows them to actively engage with the consumer and achieve higher levels of brand awareness and recall. But the truth is that many people I’ve talked to report that they often ignore the advertising in the margins. Tech-savvy consumers, such as those Budget is targeting, often hit the “skip this ad” link before advert graphics even have a chance to load.
Assuming consumers have noticed your advertisement in the first place, three key concerns endemic to interactive web-based marketing stand out. They are: 1) an erosion of inspiring emotional brand positioning; 2) a premature forcing of consumer trust; and 3) a shifting of the burden of advertising to the consumer.
In a competitive context where potential for differentiation based on product attributes is decreasing, companies are turning to marketing emotional brand values to distinguish their brand from that of their competitors. However, in their attempts to employ interactive techniques, many web-based marketing strategies end up undermining their own efforts to communicate inspiring emotional brand messages. Consumers I speak to while conducting qualitative research tell me again and again that they find that text messaging or website solicitations in advertising campaigns degrades the product image. A hip and edgy campaign that concludes by asking consumers to text in or visit www.ourbrand’smarketingblog.com for more information is not emotionally inspiring. It is pedestrian at best and a turn-off at worst. And yet I can just imagine the thought process of nonplussed marketing managers and account planners, “Hmm, new medias, interactive marketing… what to do, what to do? I know—let’s ask them to text in for an invite to an exclusive party sponsored by our brand!”
Many of these efforts are simply not credible or appealing. More importantly, however, these marketing tactics often have the effect of prematurely and unnecessarily forcing the issue of consumer trust in the corporate entity behind the brand. This issue of consumer trust implicit in interactive media strategies is often overlooked. Companies are erecting extra hurdles in the consumer-brand relationship by forcing the issue of trust. On a more innocuous scale, consumers are afraid that clicking on any promotional link will trigger an avalanche of pop-ups that makes the most aggressive of door-to-door salesmen look tame in comparison. Equally at stake are more monumental questions of trust, such as those that touch on distribution of personal information, like mobile number and name. Trust that the corporate entity won’t try to exploit the consumer’s goodwill by charging exorbitant fees for a simple text message in an effort to make money off of them. All of this represents significant barriers to consumer responsiveness and participation.
Lastly, one has to question the effectiveness of interactive marketing strategies that shift the burden of advertising on the consumer by asking them to text in or log in. The core of the lesson here is that consumers want to be entertained and seduced by the advertising, by the brand, and by the product. Marketing managers and account planners walk into the situation thinking they are offering up innovative entertainment to their target audiences. For consumers, however, it can feel like the burden of advertising is being placed squarely back on themselves. From this perspective, even seemingly innocent strategies such as the recent trend of posting short film advertisements on a company-sponsored website can prove less than effective.
Companies worried that they are no longer reaching their targets through traditional advertising strategies are turning to the web in the hopes of reaching a larger and more targeted consumer segment. Yet is directing consumers to a website and asking them: a) to remember your web address and b) to find the time to look up your ad, really the best way of reaching and engaging? The truth is that in a context of an unremitting supply of Internet content vying for a consumer’s attention, very few brands and creative campaigns are actually able to leverage that kind of pull on the consumer.
There are lots of ways to hike up a brand's awareness and recall quotient. While web-based marketing offers some clear advantages, wrapping old strategies in new technologies does not constitute a competitive advantage in marketing. Companies think that by reaching a more targeted audience and actively engaging them, they will score higher on brand-awareness metrics and ROI. In theory they are not wrong. In any domain of innovation, new tools are first applied to old processes. Often established processes are automated before new processes are created. In this case, digital tools are being applied to established marketing techniques. The truly new is yet to come.