Digital or die – have we over-corrected the fundamentals of marketing?

It took only half a year, but in that time the world as we know it changed forever. Even though there are certain aspects of life that are likely to revert to type, the reality is that how we do life going forward, will be affected in some way large or small. But it won’t be the same. It’ll be a “new normal” for everyone, a term which I have come to detest because really, life is constantly evolving. Nothing is ever static. It’s just that usually, things don’t change this drastically, all at the same time, all over the world, in every industry of business.

Marketing probably more so as it relies on historical data to predict future strategies for brands and Covid-19 turned the data on its head.  For months, most brands didn’t know what to do (or say) as they navigated what the pandemic meant for their survival. Some were unable to trade at all and a number of our familiar favourites brands will never be seen again.  Shopping and purchasing behaviour also changed radically, people had had to adapt buying habits by necessity or desire.

Nielsons recently released a number of frameworks outlining the short, medium, and long term implications of Covid-19 on consumer behaviours and needs. Essentially, it revealed that there are three phases of adjusted living responses, namely Rebound, Reboot, and Reinvent. We are currently in the reboot phase, where we are reassessing and reprioritising a significant number of aspects of our lives. If it takes 21 days to form a habit, we’ve had a fair few months to shatter old routines and allow new behaviours to emerge. Many have had to downscale, switch to cheaper alternatives, or try new products and services to make life work. Even those consumers whose income has been insulated during the pandemic have gone through this reboot. They too have been unable to spend money as they normally would, have been increasingly housebound, and spent more time online, all of which has led to a similar reprioritisation of what is important and how they will choose to conduct their lives as the future unfolds.

Is the choice really to go digital or die?

These shifts in consumer behaviour are very real, there’s no question about it. But does it warrant a complete rethink of how we go about marketing our brands to people? The phrase “go digital or die” has come up more than once in strategic planning sessions across the globe, leading to an overload of published content and  digital communication. Digital marketing teams are working round the clock to create content strategies that engage, excite, and convert, and traditional media houses are all but closing down.

Arguably, this is the right course of action, as seen in how digital brands are thriving during this time. However, the problem with traditional agencies shutting down these services, aside from the loss of jobs and ensuing knock-on effect as suppliers and related service providers lose business, is that it could quite possibly be an overcorrection. My sense is that consumers are able to be reached so successfully through digital means at the moment as a result of necessity and forced behaviour. Moreover, because the customer experience for most digital-first brands has been successful likely means that this behaviour will continue long after the necessity subsides. Those digital-first brands have had the advantage of having refined the customer experience over time and thus were primed for the onslaught of new online customers much more so than their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

But this doesn’t mean that the way they go about attracting new consumers is fundamentally different.

While most traditional brands are going digital, the biggest digital brands in the world are using traditional platforms to create emotional connections and engage their audiences. Go figure.

According to Ad Age Leading Advertisers Report, in 2019 the biggest TV advertisers were Amazon, Google, and Facebook. In the report, it was revealed that Amazon had actually increased their TV spend by 32%, with Google doing the same at an increase of 23% and Facebook increasing theirs by a staggering 236%. Yet in spite of this evidence, if you are not hotly debating how to pivot onto digital or up your brand’s share of search, then you are probably going to be overlooked as irrelevant and out of touch.

In truth, what is absolutely crucial is a return to the fundamental principles of marketing. The main function of marketing must continue to be as it was. To effectively reach customers and deliver quality products or services in the most convenient way possible and at the best possible price.

The only difference now is that we have so many more ways of achieving our goals. The same thinking applies to how we understand the consumer. Consumers may have changed, but the need to understand audiences and have an in-depth handle on their key needs and drivers hasn’t. It’s just that we now have better tools to gather data, and better technology to analyse and apply the insights from that data to deliver a heightened customer experience. So whether we talk about B2C or B2me or whatever the ever-evolving jargon of the minute dictates, marketers will continue to create relevant and meaningful communication, engagements, and experiences. This pursuit has not changed, regardless of what you call it. Now, more than ever, brands need to stay true to who they are, with some slight refinements in order to do so authentically in this new era. Additionally, brands also need marketing leaders that have the wherewithal to stay the course as the world becomes infinitely more complex. Marketers who are able to orchestrate a wide variety of players and platforms seamlessly to deliver to consumers’ expectations and create brand loyalty. Because while channels will always evolve and technology will continue to bring amazing new ways of delivering experiences to people, it will take only the brave, true, and strong marketing teams who understand the fundamentals first and can combine the right tools, technology, and approach, to innovate and deliver true value to markets.

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