Navigating The Always-on Digital Landscape

Brands have a distinct opportunity to stay relevant, engage in new and interesting ways

Our dependence on everything digital is omnipresent and is only going to increase in the future. Jeff Bezos once said, “It’s hard to find things that won’t sell online” and today nothing can be truer than this. You have such a growing and dynamic ecosystem that is evolving at such a fast pace that marketeers, agencies and holding companies are all trying to understand how best to navigate this new reality.

From consumption and sharing of news to accessing basic services like finding the weather conditions for the day, to deciding to purchase a product, all elements of our lives involve a digital interface. We consume information through platforms like Twitter and further share them via messaging services like WhatsApp or through social channels like Facebook, Instagram, etc. We turn towards platforms like Netflix and Youtube for entertainment, and Amazon and Flipkart for shopping. All this is changing the world brands live in and how consumers today have so much choice and multiple touch points of engagement with their favorite brands. Many businesses and sectors have realized the advantages of evolving their models to deal with this and are benefiting from adopting digital transformation. Take for instance the banking sector that realized early on that the importance of omnichannel marketing. Today most of us are experiencing the benefits of these changes, especially during the pandemic. The societal impact and benefits can be seen all the way down to villages and towns where there are so many fintech brands offering banking services through kiosks and cellphones.

Communication In The NOW

We live in a sharing economy where if you care, you share. With opinions being formed and shared at the speed of thought, live conversations and talkability today also dictate brand relevance. This is only being further fueled due to smartphone and internet penetration. A whole new generation of young Indians are going to grow up in this new age where opinions built on digital platforms and that will dictate buying trends. Influencers have quickly capitalized on this trend and today the use of influencer marketing is a part of most brand’s marketing mix, especially when there is a need to target a younger aspirational audience.

Brands Reimagine Their Business

In the past two years, the pandemic has made so many brands and businesses reimagine their models and adopt digital in a very new and innovative way. Take for example the events industry that has had to quickly reinvent to offer new ways of engagement -- virtual exhibitions and conferences are now the norm. Another great example is the travel industry that has continued to remain resilient by being quick to adapt to the new scenario. From Etihad’s fleet maintenance drive video to Tourism Spain’s virtual tours of Madrid, there are some wonderful examples of how brands can stay relevant. Brands need to have a strong message that cuts through the clutter. With an average user going through a football field worth of data every single day, there is the very real danger of brand messaging getting lost. This is the space where marketers can come together with smart agencies to create campaigns that have lasting impact. The truly smart brands are the ones able to do this without relying on huge spends.

Let’s look at a couple of examples. Take the case of Uber. The company based their initial social media strategy on the fact that around 92% customers make purchase decisions based on their friends’ recommendations. To harness word-of-mouth marketing, Uber offered incentives to riders in exchange for a social media share. What resulted was Uber as a verb getting added to our daily lexicon.

Use Of Topicality In Communication

Another great example, which highlights how leveraging topical events always pays off, is Lifebuoy and its COVID-19 campaign. To urge people to wash hands and protect themselves, the brand boldly asked people to wash hands using whatever soap they had access to, even going as far as naming its competitors in its communication. It further engaged in partnerships with PayTM to allow people to make donations while also creating more engaging content with celebrities like Badshah and Kajol. Lifebuoy has continued to up the ante and has now created a H for Handwashing global mission that hopes to incorporate this relevant message in the academic curriculum. Both instances show brands making smart use of digital media by either leveraging a key trend or a key topical issue. Brands can also understand what the prevailing cultural narratives are and dominate them with some smart creative messaging. We call this cultural newsjacking. A great example is Coca Cola’s “America Is Beautiful” ad that used the Superbowl to showcase the diversity of the country. In India, Samsonite’s #DiwaliKaSafar piggybacked on Diwali to build on its communication of the traveler’s preferred choice.

The importance of identifying and leveraging topicality cannot be overstressed. It can quite easily make or break brand communications. However, in this always-on world it is easier said than done. Having dedicated teams that monitor online conversations and gauge moods of audiences, identify cultural trigger points and trends helps to a large extent, but it is not always possible for each brand to set this up in-house. This exciting world of opportunity to engage differently is not without challenges. Big tech and their dominance over the digital ecosystem and data privacy are discussions that have been ongoing. For many, it is an indication of how the likes of Google and Facebook have rewritten the rules of the game. It is for good reason that data is called the most valuable currency in today’s world. Access to data has come at the cost of consumer privacy, with the major online platforms currently engaged in myriad legal tussles to ensure this privacy is protected. In April, Facebook user data from 533 million people in 106 countries was published on an online forum. Google has had its own share of data leak scandals over the years. It is a thin line that we walk and this is without considering the ever-present danger of data breaches as numerous examples, the most recent being Domino and Air India have shown us.

Staying Ahead of a Crisis In this sharing economy, while there are opportunities there is always a potential for a crises and when they do occur, there is only a limited window for brands to take advantage or address them most effectively. In just one instance of a banana ordered by a celebrity guest and his sharing his angst on social media almost blew up as a crisis for a large hospitality brand. Another example is of WhiteHat Jr, the edutech startup, that courted controversy some months ago with strong, online criticism over its model and way of doing business. I am truly surprised with so many agencies and brands that are unprepared for dealing with these situations. For marketers, the first thought is, “Let my PR agency tackle this.” There is a paradigm shift when it comes to public relations as journalists are no longer necessarily the first port of call to tackle a crisis. The PR industry has built its very foundation on this and this must change. This means that our traditional systems of managing crises no longer applies and are completely powerless to deal with the new reality that crisis doesn’t knock, it tweets. No amount of media influence can stop something that gets posted. It is a wake-up call for the entire industry. Add to this the fact that the general mood of individuals to share views and opinions on digital channels is so easy. The only way to deal with potential crisis, is to tackle it before it blows. Al Golin, the founder of Golin, who is an icon in PR said ‘fix it before it breaks’, that powerful quote is something I truly believe needs to be remembered. Crisis research has found that the best time to tackle a crisis is in the first 5 hours of a post or else it has a potential to travel forward and get onto mainline news within the first 24 hours. Having a well-planned crisis program is what works best, defining scenarios, aligning messaging and content and preparing all stakeholders in advance is the best thing brands can do. All this backed by a rigorous and well-thought social listening and ORM system. In fact, I would say that crisis planning needs to become a key part of any agency-client relationship, irrespective of the type of agency- whether PR, advertising or digital. This is the brave new world that we are living in – one that is constantly challenging, but at the same time exciting. And it needs a complete re-orientation and rethinking on the part of brands and agencies to achieve success and create great consumer experiences.

The author is Ameer Ismail, President, Lintas Live, MullenLowe Lintas Group

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.