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10 questions brands should ask themselves in 2019

There’s a lot of ‘advice’ around for brand managers at this time of year. We’ve used the inverted commas because, in all honesty, it’s easy to take this ‘advice’ as gospel and jump on the latest bandwagon without really stopping to think about whether it’s right for you.

It’s fair to say that the last decade or so has been tumultuous: huge social and political change, plenty of economic uncertainty and intense tech fetishism have made plenty of brands stop and think that they need to do something radically different.

But there’s a divide between the brands that simply throw themselves headlong into the next big trend and hope for the best, and those who step back and assess the landscape before making a decision.

P&G fall into the latter category: a $200m cut in digital ad spend may seem ludicrous to some - and completely at odds with the way marketing seems to be going - but it paid off and their reach increased by 10%.

So before you take your next big leap, stop and ask yourself some questions.

1. Will your customers ever really love you?

For many brands, the dream is to be like Apple: a brand with an almost evangelical following that was described by one cultural historian as a ‘cult’. We’re plied with stories and images of how Apple devotees queue for hours to spend a fortune on the brand’s latest products - even if they don’t really need them - because...well, because it’s Apple.

But many brands in diverse sectors will never have customers who truly love them - and that’s ok. Because if you make J-cloths, you’d probably think it was a little odd if people subscribed to Google News updates on your brand, if they constantly sang your praises over social media, if they couldn’t wait till they had time to get to the supermarket so they could finally buy a new pack.

You may like: The 5 consumer trends that will define 2019

Throwing a fortune at social media in a desperate bid to feel the love is futile for many brands. You’re competing for micro-seconds of attention with everyone else. Stop aiming for love, and start aiming for sales.

2. Do you truly understand your customers?

The Conservative government is accused by many of being in its own little upper middle-class bubble, far removed from knowing what the population actually wants. But marketing’s the same.

In his talk at the 2018 APG Strategy Conference, Martin Weigel of W+K Amsterdam described marketing folk as “living in something that really resembles self-imposed exile”. While he was clear that “the truth of real people in the real world is our best raw material”, he spoke also of how consumer research is often no longer conducted by qualified agencies, but by planners themselves who are not trained to do so.

It could explain why Asda and Tesco launched (and subsequently pulled) their mental health patient Halloween costumes in 2013, and why Lush was lambasted for its “spycops” ad campaign in 2018. It also explains why our industry was so shocked and horrified by Brexit and Trump. We’re not normal people, the sooner we understand that, the sooner we can connect with our customers properly.

3. Do you really need Millennials?

Millennials are set to rule the global workforce by 2020. Their spending power is on the rise. For many brands, this will be a sign that they should tailor products and services specifically to this market to gain market share.


We’re not saying they should be ignored - there are a lot of 20-35 (ish) year olds out there, after all. But as we’ve mentioned before, the best bet is to look at ‘Millennial’ as a mindset rather than a demographic, recognising that a 20-year old man and a 35-year old woman will be two very different people. And bear in mind that the over-45s are still the largest demographic in the UK.

As Les Binet and Sarah Carter of DDB suggest, “perhaps the real reason we ignore demographic realities is that they remind too many of us of our own mortality. This could explain the phenomenon we've noticed whereby the people who bang on most about Millennials are aged way past 30”.

4. Are you budgeting for success?

How is your marketing budget set each year? If it’s a case of looking at last year’s spend and activity and adjusting accordingly, it may be time to think again.

Zero-based budgeting may be dismissed by some as too bureaucratic, but amongst FMCG marketing departments, it’s becoming increasingly popular. As Mark Ritson says, “The zero base approach is not a cost-cutting method or belt-tightening approach. It’s just a better, more strategic way to plan your marketing”.

Starting with a blank slate, writing a marketing plan, asking for a budget and promising a specified ROI is a way to ensure accountability - and it’s why big brands like Unilever are adopting this approach.

5. Are you making the most of procurement?

Procurement teams are those people who just want to hold marketers back, controlling the purse strings so tightly and with such a dearth of marketing knowledge that trying to talk them round to your ideas is pointless. Or so the stereotype goes.

In reality, all procurement wants is what’s best for the company - which should be your aim, too. So why not talk to each other more?

Increasingly, according to Diageo, procurement teams are hiring marketing experts to ensure they can unlock “innovative commercial thinking”. And in an interview with Rare, marketing category lead Romain Delpech confirmed that “of course data is a big thing in procurement. But I think we also understand the importance of the creative side of marketing. I’d say here at BAT, the relationship between procurement and marketing is actually quite good”.

Can you make the relationship between the two teams a symbiotic one in 2019?

6. Can you trust tech?

The martech landscape is pretty crazy. If you don’t agree, take a look at this:


That’s around 7,000 different tools, compared with just 150 in 2011. Promising to improve productivity, efficiency, budget management, web presence and more, technology is there to make our lives simpler and our marketing operations generally better. But with so much choice (and limited budgets), is marketing tech all it’s really cracked up to be?

Last year, P&G cut their digital ad spend by $200m, with chief brand officer Marc Pritchard stating that, “as we all chased the Holy Grail of digital, self-included, we were relinquishing too much control—blinded by shiny objects, overwhelmed by big data, and ceding power to algorithms”.

Don’t use tech for tech’s sake - but use it to ensure faster delivery and the creation of better, more unique products. And remember - as much as the press loves to claim that print ads are dead, they’re still very much an integral part of the marketing mix.

7. Are we thinking too big?

The original Kit Kat was launched back in 1935 - with just one variety. But in the early 2000s, strong competition from the new Cadbury Dairy Milk superbrand kickstarted their new approach: creating limited edition flavour variants to boost consumer interest.

In total, they’ve launched over 200 flavours in Japan, while here in the UK, in 2018 alone we had the divisive lemon drizzle flavour, as well as the new Kit Kat Senses selection.

So many brands pile cash into NPD only to create variants of their existing range trying to appeal to everyone. In reality, fewer choices make decisions far easier. Researchers tested this theory with jam in a supermarket - one displaying 6 jam varieties on shelf, the other, 24. The number that purchased from the second supermarket was ten times lower than the first.

Instead of jumping straight into creating new products, make the most of the brand equity you already have and use a soft power approach to tweak it to make it as relevant as possible. It’s what SKYN condoms did, moving from a functional to an emotional approach. It’s what Maltesers did, moving from messages about weight loss to a tongue in cheek, fun tone. Can you do the same?

8. Are you doing your bit?

The world is in a state of massive change. In 2019, our predicted consumer trends include things like a focus on sustainability and greater transparency from brands: essentially, brands need to ensure that they’re working for good.

The problem for many brands, explains Margaret Heffernan in her 2018 APG Strategy Conference talk (and in her book) is one of wilful blindness: deliberately ignoring threats and dangers - turning a blind eye. Enron, BP, the Catholic Church, News International and many others have all been guilty of wilful blindness over the years. But with consumers more likely than ever to choose brands based on their social and political beliefs, and 65% saying they would refuse to buy from a brand that stayed silent on an important issue, working for good is now more important than ever.

9. Is your organisation diverse enough?

Over 80% of people in the UK advertising and marketing industry are in London, 87% of the UK population lives outside of London. The over-50s account for 47.6% of household expenditure in the UK - but only 5.6% of the ad industry is 50+. 51% of the UK population is female - just 31% of C-level roles in advertising are filled by women.

Take a look at the diversity within your organisation and ask yourself, does our team truly represent the audience we’re trying to reach? If you’re a team of 20-somethings marketing stairlifts or a team of 50-somethings in charge of the next Fortnite-type hit game, you may want to look at whether things need to change for the best results.

10. Is your marketing strategy executional?

Setting goals is one thing. Actually making them happen is entirely another. What’s the point in spending time and resource putting together what you believe is the perfect strategy if it’s not followed through?

Make the time to get things done. Measure the results of every element of your strategy once executed. Revisit the original strategy regularly to see if things need to change as a result of competition or market changes.

Setting a strategy is the easy part. Executing it is trickier - and often not given as much time and energy as strategising. But by ensuring all of the teams involved are on board, and that you have a methodology in place for getting things done, the execution of your strategy will be a success.

The marketing landscape continues to shift and evolve, and it’s vital for brands to shift and evolve in turn to stay relevant. But real change comes from strategic innovation, not from chasing fads and cool ideas. By asking yourself and your team these questions, you’ll enable yourself to question the status quo and determine a plan of action for this year and beyond.

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