Why data-driven CX prevents brands from just doing it

Nike's latest campaign featuring controversial footballer, Colin Kaepernick, has proved a win for the brand. But would Australian marketers be brave enough to follow suit?

Stirring social debate

Adam Ferrier is no stranger to stirring social debate, having been part of the team at Naked Communications behind the 2009 ‘lost jacket’ hoax campaign by fashion label, Witchery. He believes fear of what customers will say about a brand is reducing their desire to do anything that might risk that conversation being a negative one.

“Brands will always have to get a balance right between knowing what they stand for and protecting that image,” he says. “In a world where there is so much listener response available, many brands are starting to get confused about their messages and what they stand for, as they prioritise their customer ahead of what the brand stands for.

“They say they are proudly customer focused, which means they listen to the customer, and when the customer says they don’t like something they respond. And then they start to lose their way.”

Ferrier says brands with really strong brand intelligence are the ones that have a strong sense of self and understand what they stand for, and then project that confidently to the world. He believes this is true at Nike, and therefore doubts there would have been one person in the business concerned about an initial drop in share price.

“Staff knew they were being true to the brand and they have confidence in that,” Ferrier says. “And lo and behold, Nike followed up with an even stronger communication.”

Ferrier says the only way for brands to follow the Nike example is to have inherent brand intelligence. This means having all stakeholders understand what the brand stands for and having the courage to communicate that authentically. Mistakes happen when stakeholders involved with the brand don’t understand its proposition, or even more often, its tone of voice.

“Understanding what the brand stands for should be prioritised above all else,” Ferrier says. “But often with so much data available on what consumers are thinking, with so many voices available to be heard, that is working at odds with what the brand stands for. So understanding what the brand is about and the tone of voice and how that brand behaves is becoming a bigger opportunity for marketers.”

Internal versus external voice

But in the age of the customer, the external voice can be much louder than the internal one.

“As outrage culture increases, as you get immediate feedback on things, people are more likely feedback on things they don’t like rather than things they do like,” Ferrier says. “Because there is so much data available around what the customer thinks, it does have a dumbing down and homogenising effect on brands, and it almost takes the rough edges of brands. But the rough edges are often where their character is.

“Data can help identify an opportunity in the marketplace, but we are at our infancy in using data for building strong brands. We haven’t worked out the role data can play in that journey yet.”

Roberts echoes the concern brands have become internally focused, and says the mantra of ‘if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it’ may be stifling brand creativity.

“Marketing is being driven more and more away from the genius and the creativity and the imagination that made it such a special place,” he says. “In becoming more efficient in our marketing, we may have prejudiced some of our effectiveness. There is no doubt we have gained something, but I would be less adamant in arguing that it would be worth the cost.”

Roberts points to Qantas as being the standout example of a large brand taking a public stand on a divisive issue, led by its CEO, Alan Joyce, in its advocacy for same-sex marriage.

“When Alan Joyce got behind gay marriage, you could argue that he had a vested interest, but in some sense that was a pretty courageous thing to do,” Roberts says. “Qantas is the most upmarket domestic airline brand in Australia, and being socially conservative goes with wealth and status quite often.”

Gill agrees while marriage equality was an issue close to Joyce’s heart, it showed great confidence that he was willing to back something he believed in.

“A lot of CEOs don’t have the confidence they need to have to back things that are bold,” she says.

Roberts says courting controversy has also traditionally been used as strategy to gain attention by challenger brands, and has been used to great effect historically by St George Bank (prior to its acquisition by Westpac) and by Virgin.

“There are some brands that could do that, because Australia has had so many iconic brands. I think Australian brand managers have not always shown the courage,” Roberts says.

But any brand needs to tread carefully should it choose to push its campaigns into controversial waters, he cautions.

“The majority of brands that are destroyed are destroyed by the brand owner, not by the competition,” Roberts says. “While this gets people talking about important social issues, from the equity holder’s perspective, if you do the math I’m not sure the uncertainty this adds to the stock returns is justified.”

And that may be why Australian brands ultimately just won’t do it.

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia, or check us out on Google+:google.com/+CmoAu

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