Building a bright future for our industry

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(Photo courtesy  Keith Weed, copyright Unilever)
(Photo courtesy Keith Weed, copyright Unilever)

Technology is changing the face of advertising, especially on three fronts

I’ve had a persistent feeling for some time that we are on the edge of something transformative. I talked about it earlier this year at the Cannes Lions Festival when I highlighted that our industry needed to shape the new pattern of marketing that is emerging — or risk letting it shape us. In the passing months I have only felt this need grow stronger.

Technology is radically changing advertising. Companies who ignored the growing power of digital have declined, in some cases disappeared. Others have thrived and grown, creating completely new industries. But if we think the last five years have been transformational, we are in for a real ride over the next five.

Today, 25 percent of search results for the world’s top-20 largest brands are links to user-generated content. Brands are not owning brands anymore. The way people have integrated social media into their lives has put us on the edge of a shift of power. More than ever, people have a global platform to connect. They are creating communities; curating content; and making their opinions heard, loud and clear.

If marketers are not ready to deal with this shift in power, our industry will be one of those that become obsolete. We don’t have to predict the future, but we do need to recognize the shifts happening around us and build a framework to deal with them. It is not enough today to market to people, sending just a one-way message. Instead, we must collaborate to market with them, building our brands together.

There are three areas where I see this transformation happening most: mobile, visual and personal.

The future is mobile

Let’s start with mobile. Last year, mobile data traffic was nearly 18 times the size of the entire Internet in 2000. By 2018, there will be another 10 times more traffic than there is now. I firmly believe that the connectivity mobile provides will change the world more than the Internet has, to date.

This is not just an opportunity for marketers working in the developed world. While the average American spends approximately two hours a day on a mobile device — or 57,293 hours over their lifetime — markets like India and Africa also offer an immense prospect for connection.

About three-quarters of the population in India already has a mobile device – that’s around 900 million mobile phones. I am writing this from Delhi, where there is a marked increase in smartphones from my previous visit to India. And when I was in Africa earlier this year, the growth in mobile ownership was evident on every street corner. Ownership is predicted to reach 56 percent of the African population by the end of this year. In areas that are traditionally media-dark, brands that live by a "made for mobile" strategy have a larger addressable audience than ever before.

"Mobile first" thinking is helping our brands access new media-dark areas. Last year we launched a "radio" station through mobile phones in Bihar, India, called Kan Khajura Teshan. Mobile users give us a call and then hang up, leaving us a missed call. We then phone them back with free entertainment, interspersed with ads for our products. Six months after launch we were the largest media channel in the state. We are gaining new business and new insights on how to think like a "mobile first" business.

This kind of mobile connectivity will change the way we live and the way we do business. People will have the power to purchase what they want, where they chose, whenever is most convenient for them, and this change in the path to purchase will be irreversible.

Marketers need to be wise to the fact that 57 percent of users won’t recommend a company with a poor mobile site. For me the message for brands is clear: Ensure you are optimized for mobile while ensuring a coherent and integrated strategy across multiple channels.

Emerging images

The second area of transformation is in the power of visual. Specifically I am talking about "visually social" in a world of social media where image, not text, is increasingly king.

Snapchat’s ephemeral photo-sharing service currently has an estimated 50 million to 70 million users, with 400 million snaps every day. But while 97 percent of marketers are using Facebook, only 1 percent are using Snapchat.

Last year Lynx — Axe in the U.S. — became one of the first brands to use this powerfully visual but transient marketing space. Innovating on platforms like Snapchat connects us to a highly engaged audience.

But really harnessing its power requires a shift in thinking for those like me who cut their teeth in the "golden" age of the 30-second TV ad. Rather than moving from Big Hit to Big Hit, the focus now is a Big Hit followed by many small hits in an always-on world, directly into the palms of millions of potential consumers.

The power of the moving picture on the small screen is also growing. Seventy-four percent of consumers use a smartphone to watch online videos, up 13 percent from two years ago. I suspect this is a combination of marketers getting better at optimising for the small screen and people getting more used to it. Either way, the potential for brands that create compelling content in this medium is obvious.

Case in point: Views for our latest Cornetto Cupidity films, launched earlier this year targeting Millennials, just topped 430 million. More than a third were on mobile, and the number is growing.

Getting personal 

Last but certainly not least of this triumvirate of transformation: personal.

You’ve all seen the statistics: We are producing unfathomable amounts of data every second. For me, the impact of this on how we market to people is two-sided.

Marketers are rapidly understanding what consumers’ digital lives tell them about off- and online behaviors. Greater transparency and connectivity is moving us from marketing that is "personalised" to "personal," and we have the opportunity to engage one-to-one at scale more than ever before.

But we should not forget the flip side of this: responsibility. When companies talk about "big data" and "direct-to-consumer" relationships, I suspect that in the heady excitement of big insight it is easy to forget the "personal" part. Currently, consumers seem willing to share their data digitally with companies either for free or for a relatively small benefit — a discount voucher or access to privileged content, for example. But this exchange comes with an assumption of trust on behalf of the consumer.

The value of primary data for personalization and targeting will grow. Companies who overstep the mark and abuse this transparency have a long and very public way to fall. The take-away? In the quest for personal, we shouldn’t forget the person behind it. In the future it is the brands that not only connect with consumers but act responsibly on their behalf that will be the winners — the brands that don’t just market with people, but for them.

Our industry is changing, and changing quickly. Unless we shape this pattern that is emerging, I see a Kodak-shaped destiny ahead of us. I am not suggesting it is not going to be an easy journey. In addition to mobile, visual and personal that I’ve talked about here, whole-system disruptors like Programmatic and new commerce models — Birch Box to give just one example — are high on everyone’s minds. But we are looking for solutions, and we need others out there to join us in transforming our industry.

We are on the edge. Make sure you are ready to use it as a jumping off point, not tumble over it.

Keith Weed first joined Unilever in 1983 and, prior to his current role spearheading marketing and communications, he served as executive vice president for Unilever Global Home Care & Hygiene, chairman of Lever Fabergé and Chairman of Unilever Export. He started his career at Michelin and has a first class degree in engineering.

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