I recently came across a blog entitled “Marketing is Dead” and I guess out of morbid curiosity I decided to read it. I understood marketing to be about understanding consumer needs and finding ways to address them. I figured this was still relevant but marketing, in the context the author intended, amounted to various tactics and vehicles marketers use to communicate and promote their brands. Within that definition, apparently social media has made everything else obsolete and traditional media and PR plans have become a waste of money. After 25 years in brand management and before social media, I wasted plenty of money. But, before we accuse social media of murdering marketing, I think a little context would help. Here are a few takeaways that may define the relevance of social media to a particular category of products. They are directly tied to the level of involvement consumers bring to their respective choices and the nature of their decision process which differs dramatically depending on what they are choosing.
The higher the up-front investment and involvement the more social media becomes relevant.
That’s pretty obvious, but it doesn’t just mean financial investment, though that applies too since I solicited more input the last time I bought a car than I did the last time I bought lunchmeat. While I can’t imagine typing Oscar Mayer Bologna in a search engine, I did enter Kia Optima. The marketing obituary made no distinction by the nature of the decision process and the examples used were in extremely high investment areas like family vacations or the selection of graduate schools.
What is most relevant though is personal investment and that can be plenty high in otherwise lower involvement categories like food. With natural and organic foods people often identify themselves with the brands and companies that make them. The traditional CPG giants that gave birth to brand management in the first place haven’t always fared well in this area. For example, consumer attachment to small independent brands like Boca or Lightlife become post-acquisition attachments to Kraft or Conagra; this can be an issue. It may explain why the parent company was not identified on packaging or in other communication for some time post-acquisition. While both are trusted companies, they are also big branded manufacturers and for that reason, if no other, they are not as easily approachable and identifiable. Social media can be more proactively used to get out in front of some situations to explain how the acquired company can maintain its mission and identity within the new ownership.
Messaging is less controlled so being true to who and what you are is at a premium.
If you are not a shareholder or employee, then any identification with a company is probably tied to a cause or a lifestyle choice. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be a small New England co-op, but it probably would help. Pretending you are won’t. Bigger branded companies have successfully tied themselves to causes like feeding children and breast cancer prevention. These companies can use their extensive reach and large scale advantages to make meaningful contributions to wide spanning causes. They can’t be treated as promotional tie-ins but instead an outgrowth of the company’s enduring commitment and values.
If you believe that “perception is reality,” there is a good chance consumers will not, so being true to who and what you are is critical. Somewhere I heard the statement that the “truth will set you free,” but never have I been told my perception would.
Less can be more
High production value marketing doesn’t work so well at building personal relationships with consumers because consumers feel like…well, they are being marketed to. Simple straightforward presentations engender trust more than flash and sizzle in most cases. Simple ingredient lists have obviously become important but simplicity and being straightforward in general across all consumer communication seems to produce stronger personal connections than being overtly sold to.
There is no doubt social media has radically changed marketing though its death may be a little exaggerated. It is a critical part and maybe even the centerpiece of relationship building between a brand and consumer because it involves a real exchange and dialog more than any other communication vehicle.