Madhukar Sabnavis: Brands becoming Big Brother

Last Updated: Wed, Dec 05, 2012 05:17 hrs

The American elections are prophetic. In 2008, Barack Obama unleashed the power of social media as an important part of his communication mix to win the polls. And social media became big thereafter. This year, data analytics was one of the key strategies used by the Obama team to target voters by creating focused messages. It is, perhaps, the herald of the era of data analytics. Social media and data analytics are two very different ends of the power of technology and its use in marketing and communication - one upstream and the other downstream.

We live in an age of data overload. In fact, we think we are free (in democratic republics like India); but we keep having our privacy invaded every moment. Through our mobile phones, the internet surfing we do on tablets and personal computers, with our credit cards, loyalty cards, computerised shopping bills and direct-to-home digital television providers, we are unconsciously laying our lives bare to the world. An intelligent, integrated marketer can access data across all these platforms, reconstruct our behaviour, discover our likes and dislikes, and predict our future behaviour with the right analysis. Two recent commercials by IBM are representative of the possibilities with data analytics. In one, titled "Tasty data", a baker is able to make connections between the weather and people's eating habits to manage inventory. When it rains people eat more cakes; when it gets sunny people eat more panini. This information enables the baker to make more of one item than the other at the right time for better sales. The second one, called "Predictive", is a little more outlandish. A police man redefines his job as not about making arrests but about preventing crime before it happens. Data analytics is sophisticatedly used here to identify the next venue of robbery. These are realities if the data around us are used smartly. This is the upstream impact of technology. The opportunities downstream are even more enormous.

When Fox Crime, a TV channel, launched in India last year, it used the integrated power of television and the Net to engage consumers. It tapped into the detective in each one of us to get people across India to solve a murder mystery through multiple clues on the Net. Cadbury's 5 Star chocolate took its two offline characters online in an interactive story that Net users could influence by helping the characters to do one thing or another. And the Indian Premier League team Mumbai Indians made personalised videos for Facebook for its lead players to get fans to become friends of players like Sachin Tendulkar, Harbhajan Singh, Lasith Malinga and Shaun Pollock, among others, and thereby took brand communication to the next level of engagement. Clearly, it was not only about messaging but about getting consumers to spend more time with the message and increasing involvement with the brand. These new possibilities have been opened up by the power of technology.

If increasing time spent is one opportunity, encouraging buzz and sharing is the cornerstone of viral marketing. The success of Kolaveri Di and Gangnam Style is well documented. Brands, too, have done some iconic stuff. A few years ago, IKEA's store manager started a Facebook page and put up photos of furniture sets - the first one tagging a piece got it free. Facebook fans shared it virally and the brand created a buzz at no cost; users created noise for the brand. In a more provocative use, Burger King ran a "Whopper Sacrifice" programme on Facebook, encouraging users to delete 10 friends to get a Whopper burger free - 200,000 friends were deleted. It became controversial and Facebook had to withdraw the programme - but, by then, offline media picked it up and amplified the story, which heightened the desirability of the burger at no cost. These are examples of online activities going offline.

And then there are opportunities to go the other way round. T-Mobile in the UK is all about sharing. A couple of years ago, the brand organised a flash mob dance at peak time in a crowded London station. Many passers-by joined in the dance; onlookers clicked pictures and shared them online. The whole scene was shot and put on air as a television commercial. Online buzz was created by a single unusual event on the ground. The same principle was used by Volkswagen to launch its series of cars with "Blue Motion", a technology it says ensures a reduction in the vehicle's environmental impact without taking away driving pleasure and fun. Volkswagen created a series of little on-ground events: a staircase designed as a piano, encouraging people to take it instead of the escalator; or a musical bin to encourage people to dump trash. These became webisodes on the Net and went even further, inviting viewers to create their own content. And, finally, the now famous Yellow Pages' Treehouse restaurant programme in New Zealand. In this programme, a woman built a restaurant on a tree in a godforsaken forest using suppliers from Yellow Pages. And her agonies and ecstasies of construction became an event to follow on the Net and traditional media. All three are examples of recognising the power of technology to amplify and create a buzz. The future will belong to big ideas executed on a small scale, which get technology to amplify them and make consumers the media channel.

Search, the most popular digital function, today offers its own opportunities. Owning keywords helps brands get into consumers' consideration set in the last mile, when they are consciously looking for, and evaluating, options. And if brands are ultimately about building associations, owning keywords and visuals already floating on the Net can help strengthen brand imagery too.

Scott Adams says, rather satirically: "Hundreds of years ago, advertisements were created to generate awareness. Then they improved to the point of being persuasive. Now they're downright manipulative. The next step – and we are almost there – is when advertisements are so effective that you will be compelled to buy whatever they tell you to buy." (This was first published in 1997.) Mr Adams' cynicism apart, with the growth of technology, marketers and brand communicators can become Big Brother. Upstream, they can get into the minds and predict behaviour; downstream, they can get into the minds and influence their behaviour. Big Brother can make consumers producers and messengers. Scary yet exciting. Something worth thinking about.

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