Marketing in the Digital Economy: It's All About Relationships

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, February 10, 2016

It’s all about the unique cultures and lives of the consumers you want to reach, not the product category you compete within.

When I first started my career in advertising, brands listened to customers and prospects by holding focus groups, conducting market research, doing stakeholder interviews and preparing post-advertising campaign reports within an industry category (or perhaps in a related one). So many of our proposals back then included about 15 stakeholder interviews, 30 customer one-on-ones and a few focus groups in the most important markets.

Rarely did we use statistically significant research, and we didn’t have access to digital data like we do today. Some companies had brand trackers or depended on other agencies’ popular brand-ranking studies, but none of these were truly robust when you peered under the hood, and none had access to digital and social data.

While current brand trackers may be more robust in including proper digital data, they still focus on ranking scale and strength – a hindsight viewpoint. When it came to identifying how to help an individual brand, the tactics were almost always based on qualitative research.



There were – and still are – some fundamental problems with these market research methods.

For one thing, almost all depend on individuals’ self-reporting of information, which can be way off course. These methods also assume, for the most part, that people make their purchasing decisions by comparing similar items or similar brands to one another. In that scenario, the item with the best benefits – whether tangible or intangible – wins. They also ignore people’s unconscious, unspoken motivations.

What we’re seeing now, though, is that people make their purchasing decisions from an entirely different perspective. For instance, if I’m thinking about purchasing a car, a soft drink or a running shoe, I’m generally not thinking about which one has the best brakes, the best fizz or the best cushioning. In reality, I’m usually thinking about the brand I’ve always thought about – the one I know the best, the one I see most often, or the one my friend has or likes.

In other words, I’m thinking about a product within the context of my cultural group. I’m thinking about the brand that I have a cultural connection to – a relationship.

By the time I’ve decided to buy a pair of running shoes, let’s say, my decision rarely has anything to do with the tangible features of the shoe: questions that a company might ask in traditional market research.

Instead, my decision has to do with the brands that my friends consider, which may be only one or two. I’ll choose the brand that’s right for me, yes, but it’s also dependent on who I am – how I’m positioned – within my cultural group. I’ll think, consciously or unconsciously, about the brand that plays a role in my circle: in the lives of my friends and family.

You’ll rarely have someone go into a shoe store and say, “I want the best pair of running shoes.” A few people will do that, but more often than not, someone will walk into the Nike store or go onto the Nike website because that particular brand has been on their mind and discussed in their circle. It’s already part of their world.

What does this idea of “cultural relationship” mean in terms of utilizing a company’s marketing and market research resources?

Many companies are recognizing that they have been wasting money, but they may not know exactly how or why. And truthfully, some of the old methods can still produce useful answers – to a point. For example, asking consumers questions about the context and category your company is in, and about some of the tangible benefits of your product or service, is key because you’ve still got to get all the basics right.

But today, the importance of those results is hugely exaggerated.

The fact is, we can get much richer answers now by looking at social media, search engine behavior and internet usage: the data that people generate as they move across the web or use their phones.

Even more, we can see answers to questions we wouldn’t have even known to ask by looking at people’s actual behaviors.

When a brand isn’t investing in new tools and teams designed specifically for listening in this way, it can find itself mired in at least two forms of waste: money (and time) spent solely on old-school market research methods; and in turn, traditional brand-oriented advertising based on the results of that old- school research. It’s no wonder that companies are seeing diminishing returns on their investment.

This post is an excerpt from the author’s new book, “Listening Brands – How Data is Rewriting the Rules of Branding” (Lioncrest Publishing, December 2015).

1 comment about "Marketing in the Digital Economy: It's All About Relationships".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Jill Wagner from MMI Consulting, February 11, 2016 at 4:20 p.m.

    This is interesting from a retail perspecitve. Infact, all of your examples were retail: auto, can of soda or running shoes.  What about a utility where the first question is who has the best? Even when there is competition, best can be service, installation or speed.

Next story loading loading..