Building Brands in the Digital Age

As an advertising and brand communications professional from the days of adverts in column centimetres and VHS tapes and DVDs, I have to admit I am a little overwhelmed in the age of digital and social media communications. For starters, nothing communicates “excess” more to me. The age of the internet is supposed to have made the media more individual and personalized, and yet one feels surrounded by it always, coming at you from everywhere.

This “surround-scape”, if I can call it that, also has the ability to create its own echo chambers, further amplifying, filtering, and spreading the message to corners of the world, you didn’t even know existed. The innocuous looking “like” button and the “share” button are more revealing of our user behavior than we realise and these are the building blocks of psychographic profiles that internet companies are always trying to create of us. We were always told at the start of the internet project that it was going to be an information super-highway, but little did we realise it would only be the way of the internet giant companies, not yours or mine. And oh, it is supposed to be so empowering!

Surrounded by a digital bubble, wherever we go; Image: Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

So how did it come to this? And if it’s all that personalized and empowering, what does it do for brands? To understand that, we have to go back in time – not too long ago, just to the start of this millennium – to, well, the dot-com boom that went bust, for those of us who might remember that meltdown.

I do remember reading and hearing all about it in the news then, but it’s only when I started reading Shoshana Zuboff’s book, Surveillance Capitalism, recently that I realised what an epoch-defining, phoenix moment it was for some tech companies. For none more so than Google, the tech giant that controls and pretty much runs our digital lives for us, which made a few significant changes in the organization just after the dotcom meltdown. First, its venture capitalist partners insisted that Google bring in a professional manager which led to Eric Schmidt being hired by Page and Brin. Second, and more important, it was then that the company changed to an advertising-based model. The rest, as they say, is history.

Soon, Google would be joined by Facebook, and together, they have dominated digital and social media advertising. The duopoly is now expanding to include Amazon, another behemoth in the use of AI and machine learning as well as e-commerce. To the extent that they pose a real and existential threat to legacy advertising agencies like the ones I worked for all my life. As if this was not enough, my industry also faced disruption from within, mostly from creative and media agencies being separated, companies chasing billion-dollar media budgets, and not knowing much about the digital space; it’s a tale well-told by Ken Auletta in his book, Frenemies.

Tracking our activity 24×7 on the internet; Image: William Iven on Unsplash

Digital and social media advertising has become such a craze that companies are pouring millions of their advertising budgets into it. At the same time, one hears so many brand managers and marketing folk at least in India, treat it as something that is separate from brand-building campaigns. I had written about this as well in an article on LinkedIn. If one looks closely, most of these social media or digital advertising campaigns are nothing more than digital activation – another term the industry has coined, for want of a better word to describe communication that merely activates sales. Almost always on price-offs and discounts.

Not only have advertising agencies been disrupted, all our decades of brand-building endeavours have suddenly been reduced to a “drive sales traffic” effort. Hardly surprising, when you consider that digital and social media have built their advertising-based business models entirely on mining certain user-behaviour information that they think and know will be of value to advertisers. As an industry we have not only failed to anticipate these developments, we are being led by the nose and accepting whatever the tech companies have to offer.

It also pays to note that we are alone in this, because advertisers (our clients) are way ahead of us in understanding the digital medium and in many cases, are even shaping the future of digital communications, along with these new media companies. For example, Shoshana Zuboff informs us that the use of “cookies” which was started by Netscape in 1994 had actually run into trouble in the US by 1996-97, with the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) discussing proposals to assign control of personal information to users. Advertisers cried hoarse and wanted them reinstalled, offering to self-regulate through an association called the Network Advertising Initiative. In 2001, Google brought new life to these practices, Zuboff writes, giving full legitimacy to a questionable practice. The advertising agency business, meanwhile, was nowhere in the picture.

Indeed, on closer examination it appears that advertisers are as guilty as the internet media companies, of violating user data privacy. It is another matter that the US, where almost all of this originates from, is notoriously lax on such issues and has little regulation on user privacy to speak of. What’s more, these powerful internet media giants have lobbied so hard to ensure that their internet activities in the US are not considered part of regular media and are therefore not governed by the same regulations.

Is it any wonder, then, that such a down-stream world of driving hard bargains and pushing sales to meet next quarter’s targets are hurting brands and brand-building? In a McKinsey article titled Consumer Decision Journey, they even use the word “funnel” to mean the whittling down of considered brands in a consumer’s decision-making journey. While I accept the larger point that the article makes about this journey having shortened and telescoped in the digital age, I cannot agree that “brand marketing” should make way for more focus on consumer touch-points in order to influence the last-stage purchase decision. To my mind, the stages are all equally relevant, just require more speedy responses.

What can be done to make the brand-building journey work more smoothly, and for all concerned in the digital world?

Building relationships with consumers should be the goal; Image: Victoria Heath on Unsplash

To start with, I think we all need to share a common understanding of brands. Brands are more than the sales of products or services. They are more than price or features offered. In fact, they are not about price-offs and discounts at all. Even Walmart or Target that are known to be discount-retailers, actually stand for something other than price discounts. They are brands that can be relied upon to offer the best value for money.

Brands, ultimately, are relationships that customers and other stakeholders develop with the company and its products/services. This idea fundamentally requires us to view brand-building as an upstream activity intrinsically connected with the company’s business goals, mission and engagement with stakeholders. It is here, that a huge divide exists between the world of brands, and the world of digital marketing which is last-mile, sales-focused. One can hardly blame marketers and brand managers for treating them as separate worlds.

There are ways in which we can and must bridge this divide, primarily focusing on the consumer or customer. Using consumers to generate behaviourial surplus (a term coined by Shoshana Zuboff, to mean surplus generated without the user participating in a transaction with you, ie user information that has come to you free without the consumer’s permission or even knowledge, in many cases) should be anathema to the world of brands and corporate responsibility.

There has to be a new way devised where consumers are asked to opt in for receiving advertisements or promotional material and agreeing to participate in the marketing programme. Some of this has already taken place in EU with GDPR rules that came into effect in 2017. Perhaps they need to be made simpler still.

Mining of data based on likes and shares, should be stopped completely. Cookies should be done away with, just the way cookies ought to crumble. Sharing with third parties too should depend on users’ consent.

Learning to connect transparently in future; Image: Norwood Themes on Unsplash

I have always seen the potential of digital marketing to be in its ability to connect directly one-on-one with consumers. It is a new age form of direct marketing, and it is here that its individual and personalized nature should blossom. Not by surreptitiously tracking users and virtually stalking them all over cyberspace. I had written about a few positive changes in digital communications that I noticed in India, again on LinkedIn. If we manage to communicate with consumers transparently, ask for their permission and build a relationship with them, it would be brand-building in the true sense of the word. And because it is a form of direct marketing, it would still be measurable and sales/conversion driven.

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the WorldWide Web had expressed his disappointment a few years ago over the way internet users’ data was being harvested by tech companies and sold to others. He has also helped to find a possible solution for allowing users to control their own data through Solid, a platform developed by his company, Inrupt, that you can read about in this article from Wired.

There have to be ways in which internet users own and control their own data and government regulation should work to ensure this and protect citizens. Where do Google and Facebook feature in such a world? As media companies, which is what they ought to have been designated, in the first place. They will be governed by the same rules as digital media organisations, and perhaps some of the regulations need to be revisited. Just as in the world of traditional media, they could earn their revenue based on the volume and frequency of communication, as well as clicks registered. They will be shorn of their great consumer behavior insights, the source of much of their money and power, albeit ill-gotten. We are not always aware to what extent today’s consumer data is free training material and fodder for machine learning at these media giants.

It is a much better way to cut these companies to size and regulate their activities, rather than breaking them up which is doing the rounds of policy circles in the US and Europe, because the latter will not achieve the same objectives as those discussed here. In the process, tech companies too can repair some of their battered brand image, especially in the case of Facebook, and join the world of sane digital communication done the right way.

Is such a world possible? If GDPR is any indication, we certainly can move forward together in this direction. It takes political will, most of all. But if citizens, media and corporations keep up the pressure, we can surely see better days.

And this time, I hope the advertising and brand communications industry will be leading the charge for change.  

The featured image at the start of this post is by Adam Jang on Unsplash

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