On Wednesday June 10th 2020, I hosted a webinar to discuss the Future of Brand and Customer Experience. It was great to discuss with Ifeoma Dozie (Mastercard), Bunmi Adeniba (Unilever), Nkiru Olumide-Ojo (Standard Bank), Angel Mendoza (Rogers and Cowan PMK), Kazeem Abimbola (Connect Marketing Services), Tosin Lanipekun (Advertising Week Africa and Image and Time). We started out by defining the focus area which is Brand Experience and Customer Experience. Modern brands demonstrate the interconnectivity between BX and CX and they understand the equal importance of both. While BX is built through advertising, communications, experiential marketing, etc. CX presents the moment of truth where the consumer finally interacts with the brand and has the opportunity to prove or disprove the claims the brand has made in the BX engagement. At the end of the day, the customer will believe what he has touched and experienced and not what he has read or what he has been told. In the new spectrum, the totality of experience is critical for brand affinity and long-term loyalty. Every positive interaction reinforces the brand promise and every negative interaction degrades the equity of the brand.
At a time like this, when disruptions are forced upon businesses because of current realities, brand distinctivity becomes even more important because the consumer has less to spend and needs to be sure that what he is buying will deliver value. Strong brands are the growth engines of great economies. With a market capitalization of $1.3 trillion, if Apple were a country, it will be bigger than several African countries by value (measured by GDP). Right in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, within a period of two months, an Indian brand, Jio Platform Ltd. raised close to $20 billion in twelve deals from investors like Google, Facebook, General Atlantic, Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, the Saudi Arabia sovereign fund, etc. These investments are indicators of the confidence of foreign investors in the Indian economy and the confidence in the vision and execution capacity of Jio Platforms Limited.
Before going into detailed discussions on the webinar, I established that the current times were indeed tough and the impact on the economy are already far-reaching. I borrowed a leaf from Professor Mark Ritson’s webinar for Marketing Week where he divided the current realities into three stages; the COVID crisis stage, the false pneuma stage and the exogenous recession stage. We are already seeing the effect of the crisis on brands and we also know that a recession has been unleashed on our markets. The interesting point from Professor Ritson was the reference to the ‘false pneuma’. Essentially, what he was saying is that we should beware of the hyper-merchants who are professing that life will never be the same again. His point was that the development of human instincts and cognitive systems has taken millions of years and will not change substantially. On this part, while I agree with Ritson’s submission that we should not give room for mass hysteria, I also believe that some of the changes that are upon us are not going to be reversed.
The key changes that we see are more in line with an acceleration of digital transformation and its impact on every area of life. So, within the time of this crises, we have seen growth in internet penetration, growth in adoption of e-commerce, growth in the adoption of E-Sports and a change in the established pattern of the consumer journey on his path to purchase. The critical point is that we will need to adapt and re-learn especially in industries like FMCG which are far behind on the digital transformation pathway. Industries like Banking and Finance, Payment, Telecommunications are far ahead on that pathway. Ritson’s point is that the fundamentals of Marketing will still be the same after the pandemic and that the Four Ps will remain the tactical expression of Marketing strategy. With this backdrop, it was exciting to speak to the members of the panel with their diverse experience from different industries.
Ifeoma started the discussion by explaining the concept of story-making and Mastercard’s Marketing Strategy. Sometime in 2016, the Global CMO of Mastercard, Raja Rajamannar declared that story- telling was dead and story-making had taken over. Ifeoma explained that the context of that statement was that as opposed to telling stories from the Mastercard brand perspective, the brand moved towards enabling the cardholders, consumers or customers to have experiences and to share the experiences. It is a natural progression towards creating uninterrupted experiences rather than ad-cluttered formats that inhibit consumer experience. The end-user must be at the center of the story. When the brand then adds its Priceless property to the experience, it elevates the entire experience to be bigger than what money can buy.
This was an evolution from campaign-based marketing to always-on marketing. Would anyone believe that Mastercard is just 53 years old? The Priceless campaign is over twenty years old and it marked a turning point for Mastercard’s brand journey. Priceless has grown from an advertising platform to an experience-led marketing platform. According to Ifeoma, the fact that the experiences cannot be enacted physically currently has not stopped the brand from creating virtual experiences. She spoke about a campaign that is currently running with celebrities like Toke Makinwa, Jay Jay Okocha and Chef Fregz in Nigeria and other celebrities like Camilla Cabello, Bryan Habana, Naomi Osaka in other markets.
Ifeoma also spoke about the growth of e-commerce within the context of the current pandemic. She spoke to the importance of a painless user experience from order to delivery and how the role of the brand in this context is to make the transaction easy and pain-less. This speaks to our earlier principle about the connection between brand experience and consumer experience and how the consumer sees the total engagement as one. Pandemic or no pandemic, this principle will always hold true. She sees the gains in ecommerce, entertainment and telecommunications enduring. The consumer is going back to the bottom of the Marslow’s hierarchy and looking for safety, convenience and functionality. In conclusion, she recommends that brands must provide seamless and painless transactions.
Nkiru took the discussion back to the platform of principles. In looking at the luxury segment and how the future of brand and customer experience is likely to pan out, she dialed back to the basic principle of social connections. Marslow considers the social stage an important part of psychological development because our relationships with others help us reduce concerns such as depression. This principle is not going to change in spite of the current realities. In the luxury segment where bespoke and curated experiences are the order of the day, consumers are currently socializing through virtual luxury experiences until when it is safe again to meet physically. Nkiru gave the examples of the Shangai Fashion Week in China which happened in a digital format in March with over 150 designers and brands livestreaming their collections. The event was hosted on Alibaba’s TMall and it allowed consumers to buy as they watched.
She also spoke about the principle of trust especially with consumers elevating safety as a major issue. Dialing back to Ifeoma’s reference to safety, Nkiru spoke about the impact on the fitness, beauty and wellness sector. Specifically, she thinks that trust is going to be very critical for this sector because some of the players have moved their points of interaction online and even when engagements go back to the physical locations, trust will be an even bigger issue. By coming into your space as a consumer I am saying that I trust you. She believes that the same trust factor is very important in the travel and hospitality sector where we may see a slow return to air travel. The airline sector is big on service, Nkiru believes that those service skills can be transposed to other allied businesses. Nkiru emphasized that businesses must continue to flex, learn and continue to reinforce their service plan even within these times. But it is important to keep your ‘head on the customer’s chest’, listening intently and providing the needed empathy.
Principles will always endure
Bunmi came at the topic from the FMCG angle and according to her, the product experience is the most important at this point. According to her, the brand has one go at consumer attraction right now because there is a lot more pressure on consumer spending. She pointed out that there are some key fundamentals that are now very important. The first one is the packaging which used to be an important but functional device. Right now, the packaging has become extremely important. The quality of experience when the consumer at the stage of buying consideration is now critical. The way the product is on the shelf is also now more important. Every kobo spent by the consumer is a vote that must be taken seriously. Speaking to the consumer journey, Bunmi spoke to the peculiarity of FMCG brands in the consumer path to purchase. She clarified that over 90% of volumes are moved through the general trade and another 10% in the modern trade.
There is a lot more experimentation going on, but people are shopping closer to their place of residence. She sees a growth in the ecommerce sector but believes that the end to end consumer experience needs to be interrogated especially with logistic problems in the market. She believes that it is important to have an industry conversation on logistics and customer service and delivery on customer expectation. The buyer is very wary of his money and he will be very cautious about what he buys at any point in time. Consumer experimentation has risen and the sales of smaller product packs has gone up not necessarily in the low end of the market but because the consumer wants to lower his risk at trial before he decides to buy bigger packs. This is seen even more in the ecommerce space where buyers are lowering their risk at adoption and putting a small amount on the line until they are confident about the experience.
Bunmi concluded her contribution by speaking to the importance of consumer data and what she described as human to human marketing. Companies are now looking at proxy data like phone usage data, consumer purchase data. Brands are doing a lot of social listening and experimentation. Data enables brand owners flex their spend and move their money to the most relevant consumer connection platforms. This is a time when brand owners are looking at different trends and data inputs which probably did not make sense before now.
Angel Mendoza talked through the hockey stick graphs for viewership engagement being witnessed in e-sports especially at the peak of the lockdown. Mendoza explained that e-sports had evolved from three years ago when it was difficult to even understand what you were selling. Today, a lot of brands are getting involved in e-sports and taking advantage of the current upscale. The easiest way to get involved is through influencers. The second way that brands are getting involved is through tournaments, both online and physical. The benefit that tournaments have over leagues is that in tournaments you have a spike in viewership and engagement and you have the brands presented upfront. However, if you are sponsoring a tournament, you see the engagement go up and down and you get a spike around the finals. The third level of involvement is at the level of the league. Angel gave the example of the work he does with Mastercard in League of Legends where the brand builds activation opportunities around specific season phases. The major challenge for brands is how to build a long-term plan. It is easy to do something today but how do you build a sustainable plan around e- sports?
The biggest challenge for brands is still understanding how to get involved and how to reach and engage the community. This community is different and cannot be reached through traditional advertising. To reach the audience, you need to work with influencers, teams or league managers. You also need to create content, experiences and other assets to mine the opportunities. In Nigeria, the top five games on mobile are Pubg, Call of Duty, PES 20, Clash Royale and Brawlstars while FIFA, Call of Duty and NBA2K are the leaders in the console space. Some of these games are simulations of on- the-field or on-the court sports like FIFA for football and NBA2K for basketball. This shows a transfer of passion from the ‘real-life’ passion points to the virtual gaming or e-sports life. Just like every other medium, there is a lot of work to do in understanding the consumer and how to reach them without interrupting their engagement with the game. It is not about logo display, it is about deep engagement. As internet penetration deepens, the opportunity to create engagements in the e-sports space will increase. The growth in this space is just starting in this market.
Kazeem Abimbola looked at some of the challenges facing agencies working in the experience space and the opportunities presented in the new reality. He spoke about opportunity to build layers of intelligence especially because data has become even more relevant in these times. As Bunmi had explained, Brand Managers are looking for value and demonstrable returns on spend as budgets dwindle. Marketing departments will yet demand for more accountability and return on investment. He explained that the situation provides an opportunity for experience agencies to learn new skills and deepen their knowledge in some critical areas as digital transformation is accelerated. He gave an example of his business and the changes that are happening very quickly. He spoke specifically about the route to market and how technology is shaping the shopper marketing practice. He specifically spoke about the role of data analytics and artificial intelligence and how these are helping to reduce the decision-making time for brand owners and allowing them to respond to changes in consumer behaviour. Apart from innovation built on data and technology, he also explained that agility has now become a key currency in the agency world. Kazeem clarified that while agencies are ramping up their digital competence, they also need to understand that at the bottom of the pyramid and in rural markets, data and intelligence will be important but the adoption of digital technologies is still slow. The penetration of smart phones in Nigeria is still less than 20% and while this represents a challenge it also represents an opportunity. In creating brand experience for this ‘excluded’ audience, relevance and relatability will continue to be key. He opined that the current situation will eventually change and that physical experiences will still come back because human beings are naturally social animals. While digital platforms and tools will be adopted faster by the affluent audience, at the bottom of the pyramid, the consumers will adopt at a slower pace. Creativity will continue to occupy the center stage in brand experience and ideas that are created will be more channel neutral than in the past ensuring that those ideas can be expressed through multiple channels.
Kazeem spoke about certain developments and specific tech-infused products in the modern trade and open market space. He spoke specifically about helping brands to keep their shelf space and optimize their product replenishment cycle without the lost time and opportunity to sell. He also spoke about a data-driven cross-selling solution for new customers in the insurance and banking industries. He gave these examples to show how technology has become very critical in building experience but he also spoke about the importance of consumer knowledge and intelligence in optimizing brand investment. The brand experience agency today is different from the one from old especially with the skills that have now become important. In conclusion, Kazeem counseled that the new model is a combination of partnership and collaboration. Some of the infrastructure that will be needed will be beneficial as industry-wide investments.
Tosin started off by speaking to Advertising Week Africa, the international thought leadership platform for advertising, media, technology and marketing professionals. He spoke about the postponement of the event and the trajectory for such events all over the world especially since traveling and congregating had been affected by the Covid-crises. He spoke about the evolution of such events and how they are still finding a way to deliver on the benefits and core values without bringing people together physically. So, Advertising Week Asia and Pacific was just ending in Japan and though the event was virtual, the organizers tried to replicate some of the physical experiences on a digital platform. Tosin concluded as some of the panelists that there is an intrinsic value to physical events and that value will never go away. The essence of having brand experience to stimulate the five senses will never go away. It may be hindered right now, but it will surely come back. Tosin reemphasized the imperative of learning and re-learning, delivering value to clients and understanding utility.
Tosin also spoke about the role of experience design in creating unique experiences and understanding that at the heart of experience is delivering value and utility to consumers. He explained that rather than separating experience into buckets of physical or digital experiences, the first question to ask is, what is the value the brand is seeking to deliver and how do you tie it back to your strategic objectives. So, the pandemic has accelerated the move to digital but also the move to some interesting areas like tele-medicine and the interesting opportunities to create engaging brand experience. The second insight is around packaging and how this can be a potential area to increase engagement as Bunmi had said earlier. The third insight in these times is demonstrating empathy. To further break this down, Tosin spoke about the example of Union Bank and the programme called the Rise Challenge.
The idea behind the programme is to reward those who have been resourceful and started a business in the midst of the pandemic. This is in line with the bank’s brand purpose. Another example he gave was the example of Orange, a telecoms company in Poland who came up with a product called Flex. Flex is delivered digitally from end to end, from tariff changes to customer service to product purchase. The product brought in an improvement of 80% in revenue in the month of April alone. Finally, Tosin gave the example of Tesla in China where the company has reinvented the car buying process and they have gone with a full digital process. They opened with Alibaba on the platform Tmall to open a virtual showroom and between December 2019 and March 2020, Tesla sales in China went up by 60%. This was the second time one of the panelists would be talking about AliBaba and Tmall.
In conclusion, there are some principles that are timeless and there are some things that will continue to change and evolve. But the brands that will continue to win are brands that are connected to their audience in multiple ways. They are brands that have a core principle shared by the consumer and understand the importance of building deeper relationships. Brands that understand that experience is a key part of the engagement construct and are willing to continue to innovate and evolve. Innovation with data at the core, empathy at the heart and creativity as a pillar.