Marketing in a Digital World

By Tracy Ging

In the digital world, traditional marketing has been challenged to the point where some are even predicting its obsolescence. The assertion is that it’s an entirely new world, so an entirely new strategy is required. No doubt the field is changing and new theories and marketing approaches are emerging rapidly, but when the suggestion begins to resemble a sentiment of out with the old and in with the new, I grow a little nervous because there are certain marketing fundamentals and theories that remain true, relevant and effective. Sure, it would be foolish not to evolve marketing strategy appropriately to account for the impact of technology and new media, but it’s also risky to ignore everything we know in favor of the new.

If you think about marketing, there has always been something new to consider. Over the years, marketers have seen brand strategies morph into an exhausting number of variations, such as brand logic, brand essence, brand proposition, and brand color. At one point, it was about customer relationship management (CRM), which spawned a focus on authenticity and engagement. Marketing went from mass to micro and then to mass customization. Soon thereafter we were talking about critical mass, influences, and outliers. Each of these philosophies introduced a new way of thinking that was interesting, revelatory, and generally applicable—but for the most part, they were additive in nature. It wasn’t necessary to throw out everything, but rather assimilate these suggestions into what you were already doing.

Now we’re in the digital age and marketing is about social media strategies, advocates and digital bonding. This time, in addition to new and different terms, we’re presented with the idea marketing is fundamentally different. In an interview with Harvard Business Review (July/August 2010), Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, spoke about the role of social media and commented, “The rules of engagement in traditional marketing are over….there is a seismic shift in how people are gaining access to information and, as a result, how they are behaving.” Has everything changed?

While it is clear traditional marketing has its limitations and a social media strategy is imperative, I am not convinced it is an entirely new world for marketers. Some foundational elements absolutely still apply, albeit differently. And yes, there is a lot of new theory and function to consider. The work for marketers is to reestablish an approach for marketing that doesn’t lose sight of the basics, while still taking into account this drastically different world.

When I first started in marketing, I learned the basics as brand strategy, a unique selling proposition, the four Ps (product, place, price, and promotion), methods that routed customers through the sales funnel, and a customer loyalty plan. Barraged with terms over the years, I maintained focus by thinking more simplistically in terms of:

Brand = Who are we and why do we exist?

Unique Selling Proposition = What are you offering and why should your customers care?

The 4 Ps = How customers experience the brand.

Sales Funnel = How do you meet potential new customers.

CRM = How do you keep your customers?

Brands, at their essence, are about defining who you are and why you exist. Anyone who has ever attempted to figure out who they are as a person might relate to how ridiculously complicated it is to arrive at an answer. After numerous exercises that might require imagining your company as an animal, you’re left with a strict code of colors, photography styles, fonts, copy tone, and maybe even fixed templates for materials. Underneath these brand guides are intentions to define and impart consistency, no doubt important elements, but if controlled too tightly the risk now—given social media by its very nature defines a relationship that is somewhat personal—is that it’s perceived as impersonal and manufactured.

It becomes even more delicate if you are a company who strives to be environmentally and socially responsible. How do you explain to people that, no, really, we’re good guys? This is where the term authentic comes in. Branding hasn’t changed, expressions of branding have. The digital world requires a level of realness that traditional forms didn’t. Before we were talking to customers and now we’re talking with customers. That means, in addition to brand strategy, you need to let your brand live—how can a larger number of employees engage?

The unique selling proposition has also not changed. Traditional marketing, digital, face-to-face, internal…it doesn’t matter, you need to offer something the recipient cares about. Back in the day, the goal was to reduce the unique selling proposition to a single sentence. A desire for simplicity spawned a gazillion statements about price, quality, and service but it became very clear that simple competed with unique. There was never, nor will there ever be, a single thing you offer. As much as what I am about to write appears like jargon, it is about an experience. Digital media has given consumers a new way to experience companies so it is no longer about the uniqueness of your product or service but how they experience that through their online engagement, in talking with their peers, in visiting your web site, and interacting with your staff. In “Branding in The Digital Age” (Harvard Business Review, 2010), marketing is redefined as an orchestrating or coordinating role now tasked by “…the need for a plan that will make the customer’s experience coherent and may extend the boundaries of the brand itself.”

In the past, we relied on the Four Ps to make that experience coherent but both the digital age and generational differences pronounced by the digital age force another look. In Grown Up Digital, Dan Tapscott suggests the Four Ps have been replaced by “ABCDE rules of marketing—anyplace, brand, communication, discovery, and experience. Net Geners want to buy things Anyplace, where and when they want. They’ll help shape the Brand, and the product. And they won’t tolerate a lecture, however amiable. The standard ad will be replaced by Communication, a two-way conversation. As in any relationship, integrity will be one of the key building blocks of this new interactive brand. Since Net Geners research the product and its price online, they’ll negotiate the price. I call this the Discovery of Price. And finally, they expect products to be at the same time an Experience.” I distill that theory down to one thing…listen to your customers.

The ability to interact and develop a more dynamic relationship with customers opens up new opportunities, and changes. The article I cited earlier, Branding in the Digital Age, refers to a study conducted about facial skin care products that concluded 60 percent of consumers in a particular segment went online after the purchase—sharing their experience with the company and product, highlighting likes and dislikes and advocating for a product they liked. That insight changes the sales funnel entirely. Instead of going wide to bring potential customers in, the new method of marketing goes wide once a customer is acquired—the article highlights that, “Marketing investments that help customers navigate the evaluation process and then spread positive world of mouth about the brands they choose can be as important as building awareness and driving purchase.”  So long funnel, hello loop!

The loop means CRM thinking has evolved from simply keeping customers to building advocates. I’m going back to Branding in the Digital Age one more time because this is the most important insight it offers to marketers, “The coolest banner ads, best search bys, and hottest viral videos may win consideration for a brand, but if the product gets weak reviews—or, worse, isn’t even discussed online—it is unlikely to survive the winnowing process”. This is the point where marketing has become fundamentally different. Traditional marketing is not dead and in fact, it can still work very well in leading people to purchase. But, marketing is now a before and after relationship—and it’s what happens after that requires a new way of thinking, new strategies, and practically speaking, new ways of spending money.

While not everything about marketing has changed, there is no question some elements need to evolve. Brand strategies will need to become more flexible and accessible. The unique selling proposition has to translate across more points of contact. There are still P’s to consider, but social media offers a new opportunity to listen to your customers so those points can be mutually defined. The idea of a sales funnel remains applicable for defining how to build awareness, interest, and trial, but it can no longer be viewed as a linear process. However, marketing in a digital world does require a very different view of the customer experience, their interactions with your company, and what they do and say after purchase. Digital marketing opens up an opportunity to do what marketing theories and terms could never fully capture—have an authentic relationship with your customers.

With more than 15 years of marketing experience, Tracy Ging has spent the bulk of her career in the coffee industry, where she has worked on both sides of the supply-chain, developing a deep understanding of the market and the trends driving it. Tracy currently serves as Deputy Executive Director of SCAA.