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Why shouldn’t an ethical business market itself?

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Jay Rayner, the Observer’s restaurant critic, reviewed the Riverford Cottage Field Farm, the restaurant spin-off of organic vegetable box scheme Riverford, in his latest piece. What’s this got to with marketing, you say? Well Rayner, who likes to appear outspoken, opens the piece with this:

Have you ever lifted an organic veg box and wondered why it was so damn heavy? It’s because it is weighed down by the hopes, fears and aspirations of the entirety of Britain’s guilt-sodden middle classes. That and the cannonball-like swede that always seems to end up in there. I cannot understand why a serious cook would allow a random collection of ingredients into the house, and hate the smug satisfaction that those who order them exude. They think they are doing something to save the planet. They aren’t. They are making affluent lifestyle choices and supporting apparently alternative business – but ones built entirely on conventional marketing strategies.’

This isn’t the place to debate the rights and wrongs of vegetable boxes (for what it’s worth, I get a vegetable box, but am well aware I’m not saving the planet; as I’m not a ‘serious cook’, I quite like the challenge of being sent whatever is in season and trying to work out what to do with it – kohlrabi, anyone?)

What I found interesting was his final comment – that an ‘alternative business’ is somehow undermined by using ‘conventional marketing strategies’.

I went to visit Riverford for a piece in Marketing mag nearly six years ago. It was a much smaller business at the time, but two things stood out: first, that it really was trying to achieve something (it wasn’t trying to save the world, just get people interested in cooking and eating fresh food); and second, that Guy Watson, the guy in charge, was a seriously talented businessman.

Is it a bad thing that Riverford has used a franchising strategy plus smart branding, online and word-of-mouth activity to build his business? Would it be better if Riverford were still a small collection of farms in Devon? That might suit some in the hairshirt brigade (and Rayner’s patrician outlook), but it isn’t going to help Watson achieve his goals.

The thing about conventional marketing strategies is that, by and large work, they work. If an alternative business is to remain in business, why shouldn’t it use marketing?

In fact, Rayner’s view is a little out-of-date – there are plenty of ‘alternative businesses’ building themselves into bona fide brands (eg Divine Chocolate), and even some general ‘good causes’ (Fairtrade, for example) using marketing principles to raise awareness of some of the issues around food. Maybe they do tap into middle-class guilt (why are only the middle classes guilty?), but as long as nobody thinks that they can change the world with a few purchases, isn’t it a good trade-off to pander to those feelings in return for a bit of consumer education? And given that the recession has allowed far fewer of us to make ‘affluent lifestyle choices’, those businesses that have used branding to build a relationship with consumers are more likely t0 survive the cull. That, surely, is a good thing.

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Written by davidtiltman

June 13, 2010 at 10:21 am

Cons-Lib coalition – the branding implications

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It’s been a very busy few weeks (freelancing, wedding preparations, even the odd weekend away), so I’ve not had chance to update this blog after the pretty astonishing traffic surge my last post created.

What’s more, I’ve been glued to the election coverage (on which point, it’s nice to see my earlier post questioning the role of social media in the election seems to have been on the money). It’s been an incredible few weeks in British politics, and from a branding perspective the creation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition (ConDemNation, as it has quickly been tagged) throws up some huge issues.

First, what does it mean for the Tories? The interesting thing is that the coalition, though apparently a compromise born of necessity, may help David Cameron and the Tory brand in the long run. Cameron has been trying for years to reform the party’s image – he realised that a Conservative Party that appealed to the English shires could not win power on a national basis. But that message has not got through to huge swathes of the party. Cameron is unpopular in parts of the Conservative party because his leadership is based around a small clique; he does it that way because, frankly, he doesn’t trust lots of his own party. And you only have to look at what happened with Chris Grayling to see that he is probably right.

Cameron is a centrist that has tried to modernise the Tory brand with a new political positioning and a new ‘compassionate’ image (as well as that curious kids-drawing-of-a-tree logo). Yet he never quite managed to ‘seal the deal’ with the electorate because plenty of voters still didn’t trust the braying element of the party (or Cameron’s own posh-boy background).

So tying up with the Lib Dems, a centrist party with strong environmental and civil liberties credentials, is a masterstroke. It’s an astonishing attempt at partnership marketing, co-opting your partner’s brand strengths. If it works, it will detoxify the Tory brand, help make them a bit cuddlier, and make them far more electable whenever the next election takes place.

Then there’s the Lib Dems. It’s a much more complex situation for them. Arguably, part of their brand was their sheer powerlessness. They were the voters’ moral conscience, cash-strapped but high on principle, who could be employed as a protest vote either for fed-up middle class Labour voters or Conservative defectors. They were a way of reminding the big two parties that they couldn’t take their core vote for granted. A few years ago they veered to the left, and still have some pretty out-there policies, but for much of their existence they have sat neatly between Labour and the Tories.

Getting into power changes everything. Their left-wing credentials will be undermined by the fact they are propping up a Tory government. The hairshirt brigade, who previously could quite happily commit the Lib Dems to all sorts of crazy policies safe in the knowledge they’d never be put into practice, now find the party making compromises to get into power. This is a brave new world for the party, and one fraught with danger. There is a very real danger of a defection to Labour by some of its voters; to counter that, it must show voters of all persuasions who previously saw the Lib Dems as a wasted vote that the party has a role to play in power (and making that case will be easier if they push the Alternative Vote system through).

In short, what Nick Clegg needs to do is rebrand the Lib Dems. And the only way to do that is to be seen to deliver in government. If he fails, the Lib Dems could be wiped out at the next election, just as previous coalitions wiped out their predecessors, the Liberal Party. It’s a big risk – the Lib Dem brand could be completely undermined over the next few years.

Then there’s Labour. It actually polled better than many feared in the election, but it’s clear it needs a brand refresh. The departure of Brown and the end to the New Labour project means the party has to start again. For all its troubles, the New Labour machine proved one thing: to win elections convincingly it needs a credible, centrist vision. It took the Tories nearly a decade to work out it had to follow suit; can Labour now do it again more quickly? Bookies’ favourite David Miliband seems to recognise the scale of the challenge, but with the ConDemNation suddenly taking over the centre ground, Labour needs to find some new ideas. And it faces a core urban, working class vote the party has gradually alienated. For an intellectually and financially exhausted party, this rebuilding may take a while.

Finally, there’s the issue of the forthcoming spending cuts, which as we all know will be brutal. Mervyn King recently predicted these would severely hurt the popularity of the party in power, and that of course is possible. Cameron’s cuddly image may be compromised by the resurgence of the ‘nasty party’ in voters’ minds, and the Lib Dems’ role in the cuts will be under heavy scrutiny. But actually, I think Labour’s brand may suffer here too. The great realignment of politics in the 90s was built on two factors: the loss of confidence in the Conservatives’ ability to manage the economy in the wake of Black Wednesday, and the ability of Tony Blair to convince voters that Labour had moved on from its former financial recklessness. And for a decade, it seemed like Labour had buried its reputation for economic incompetence.

The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats will be hurt by having to make savage cuts. But if they make them competently and fairly, and if they actually show they can deal with the deficit, they may be given some ‘tough love’ credit. And assuming they spend the next couple of years blaming the situation on the former government, Labour may find it has a mountain to climb to convince the Middle England voters it needs of its economic competence.

The beauty about branding in politics is that it is always at the mercy of events and the foibles of individuals. That makes the next few years impossible to call, but fascinating to watch.

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Agencies – what one client really thinks of you

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Last night I went along to the Revolution Awards, celebrating all things digital. And I ended up chatting to one of Britain’s top marketers. I won’t divulge his name, but it’s safe to say he’s the man behind some of the best-known ads in the UK of the past few years and has a pretty formidable track record across the industry.

So naturally, I decided to probe him a bit for what he really thinks about the agencies that he’s worked with. And after a few glasses of wine, he was more than forthcoming. In no particular order:

1. The best you can hope for from an agency is a couple of good ideas a year. Often you won’t even get that. And he’s talking about some of the best agencies in London when he says that – BBH and Dare are two he mentioned.

2. BBH are ‘difficult to work with’, but obviously get results.

3. He really didn’t think much of Rapp – ‘you’ll be waiting a long time to get a good idea out of them’. They are ‘just a machine’.

3. Ogilvy are another agency he thinks are all mouth and no trousers. And they should never have moved to Canary Wharf.

4. JWT are now a very weak agency in his opinion. In fact, he questioned WPP’s takeover strategy, saying it seems to have created big, bland networks.

5. One of his biggest complaints was the sheer lack of talent within agencies. There are normally only a handful of people in an agency he’d actually want to work with. That’s a common complaint, and the reason agencies are such brittle businesses – a couple of important people moves and they can be in real trouble.

6. Media agencies could have cornered the digital space (a couple of Revolution Awards actually went to media shops). But they’re not smart enough to see the opportunity.

Pretty damning stuff, really.

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Written by davidtiltman

April 9, 2010 at 7:21 am

Six reasons internet measurement is rubbish

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The greatest fallacy in digital marketing is that the internet is the most measurable medium. It’s not. Yes, it’s the medium with the most data (absolutely phenomenal amounts), but making sense of that data to get a true picture of what consumers are actually doing (ie measuring it) is still far from an exact science.

Last week I journeyed into the heart of data geekery, spending two days at the biennial I-com conference in Lisbon, a conference dedicated solely to online measurement. I’d be lying if I pretended my brain didn’t hurt by the end of it. But several themes emerged over the course of the conference that deserve recognition outside this specialist world. For marketers (precious few of whom actually attended the conference), sorting this stuff out will be vital if they’re ever going to spend serious money online. And for publishers, this stuff is key to the way they will sell online performance.

1. Even the things you think you know, you don’t. One of the key problems with measuring online activity is that the data comes from machines, not humans. Linking up what we know from humans (ie panels) with the data deluge from the internet is tricky. The result is that we often assume the machine data tells us things it doesn’t.

Take unique users for example. Sounds like a pretty basic piece of information, and something most campaign metrics seem to look at these days. But as one speaker pointed out, measurement of unique users is usually based on cookies. Now people use multiple devices to access the web (mobile, home computer, work computer etc etc), and each has a different cookie. Also, they are increasingly using multiple browsers on single device, adding even more cookies. Some users, said the speaker, had around seven separate cookies. So what does that make a unique user?

2. Clicks are pointless. This isn’t new news, but that doesn’t stop click-through rates being used as a measure of campaign success. Yes they’re easy, but they mean absolutely nothing unless an ad is purely a direct-response piece. What’s more, click-through rates are declining fast; that means campaign measures based on clicks are looking at a diminishing audience. Also, there are, said one panellist at the conference, no correlations between click-through rates and other brand scores.

3. The last click tells you little. All the action is still around the last click – this particularly applies to search, where search engines make their money from people clicking on links. But much of the hard work in terms of taking people through the purchase funnel comes much earlier – and this bit is really hard to measure. Doron Wesley from Cheil/Samsung admitted at the conference that the brand had not even started to look at so-called ‘attribution’ – working out where and when a consumer interacted with a brand online and what the influences on purchase were. If a brand like Samsung can’t do this, not many others can either.

Search is an interesting one, because on the surface it is so measurable. But in truth it is still extremely difficult to measure search’s total impact. How do you measure ROPO (research online, purchase offline)? Or even the branding impact of search activity?

4. People can’t even agree what needs measuring. Many years ago, when I first started writing about online marketing, an agency boss told me that the medium needed reach and frequency measures like TV to get marketers interested. Imagine my surprise when I find the exact same argument is raging in 2010. In Lisbon it was the GRP system that holds such sway in the US that caused debate – does the internet need to adopt GRPs to be able to get marketers interested? There’s no consensus here – everyone knows the internet needs some sort of standard measurement currency, but nobody can agree on what that should be.

5. Increasingly the action is in social, but that’s even less measurable. Social media is increasingly used as a PR tool. Terms such as ‘engagement’ and ‘conversation’ abound. But what does that mean and how do you work it’s delivering.

The last couple of years have seen all sorts of buzz-tracking services launch, and some were at the conference. But they didn’t really have an answer when one delegate asked why, when he asked five different word-of-mouth measurement companies to track his Superbowl ad, he got five different responses. These services sell themselves as tracking tools, but actually they are hugely reliant on human input to categorise brand mentions on social media. They’re better than nothing, but they’re still flawed.

6. Don’t even start on mobile. The mobile expert that appeared on stage simply described mobile measurement as ‘icky’. Nuff said.

As Geoff Ramsey, CEO of eMarketer, put it:  “Right now, we’re in the dark ages.” And as one of the few clients at the conference told me, without a proper currency online that allows some sort of comparison between media, he cannot advise heavy spend in digital.

So next time you hear an agency lazily praise the measurability of online media, it’s time to ask a few hard questions.

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March 17, 2010 at 1:58 pm

Digital marketing – the ad world’s ginger stepchild*

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I’m busy writing up this year’s Digital Media Top Asian Brands report. This is the third year Media has looked at consumer attitudes toward brands and their online activities. It’s based on some pretty meaty research from TNS covering Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia and Thailand.

Obviously I’m not going to give anything away before the data is published, but there is one very interesting finding that deserves to be aired and discussed. The data shows quite clearly that people really don’t like most of the established forms of digital marketing.

I’ll publish the full chart post-publication, but the key finding is this: across these Asian markets, the seven least trusted forms of marketing (online and offline) are all digital. Ads in video games, mobile SMS, email ads, banner ads and, interestingly, search ads are among the marketing channels with very low trust scores.

At the other end of the table, the most trusted marketing channels also include a few digital options. Unsurprisingly, recommendations from friends and family is the out and out leader. But expert reviews on websites, manufacturers’ websites, consumer opinion on blogs and consumer reviews on

Maybe digital does belong to PR after all!

Watch this space (and the Media magazine and website) for more data on this. I’m doing a feature on it too.

*No offence intended to those of red or strawberry blond persuasions. It’s just a phrase!

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March 5, 2010 at 5:45 pm

The future of mobile? Look to India

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Mobile. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told how important mobile will be in Asia.

At conference after conference, the mobile vendors are there explaining why mobile is so important. Why internet penetration is being driven by mobile phone usage in markets like India, China, Vietnam and Indonesia. Why mobile offers the chance to target emerging consumers in geographically vast countries. Why these consumers are more receptive to mobile marketing than most others. And it all makes sense. But for a variety of reasons (lack of co-ordination, lack of metrics, all the usual stuff) nobody seems to be making big money out of it.

But there seems to be something stirring in India. There was a really interesting article in today’s FT about the Bollywood mogul Amitabh Bachchan and his new vlog. Every day ‘Big B’ will record an audio blog. Nothing unusual there, perhaps. But the way consumers will be able to access this blog is by dialling into it. So that’s a marketing channel and a means of monetising your audience all in one.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen India going its own way in the mobile sphere. At last year’s Spikes Asia, I moderated a session on mobile at which Nokia’s Sandy Agarwal talked extensively about Nokia Life Tools, a mobile phone service launched in 2008 for rural customers in India and now being rolled out elsewhere. The features are pre-loaded onto an entry-level handset and work via text message (no point making it internet-based as its target consumers are out in the middle of nowhere). It gives users information such as weather updates and market prices. He made the point that there were huge opportunities for brands to get involved in these services (though I guess he would say that).

Why is there so much innovation around mobile in India? It is huge, obviously, and internet penetration has been much slower to gain ground than in China, meaning that the gap between mobile penetration (413m) and web penetration (33m) is vast (figures for early 2009 from the ADMA Yearbook). That means mobile is almost a standalone medium, rather than an adjunct to digital, and so is more likely to develop its own marketing ecosystem. At the same time, it’s now a market with enough scale to make money out of using some sort of micropayments model. That makes it a good testbed for these types of service. Then there’s good old-fashioned Indian entrepeneurialism – as the FT story makes clear:

The Tata Strategic Management Group, a consultancy, estimates that the number of what it classifies as middle-income households – those earning between Rs110,000 and Rs240,000 per year – in India will rise from 75m today to over 103m by 2015. This would make middle-income consumers the biggest group in Indian society for the first time in the country’s history.

Products, such as Mr Bachchan’s vlog, are aimed directly at this group. In a country where internet penetration remains low but mobile phone use is burgeoning – India now has 550m mobile phone users – the vlog unites India’s fascination with celebrity and its growing communications revolution.

Going back to the FT story, it’s interesting that it’s a celebrity taking this step rather than a brand. But marketers in India should certainly be watching out for the results of ‘Big B’s’ vlogging venture. Mobile in India may not have the bells and whistles of the iPhone-crazed markets in the West, but for anyone interested in connecting with emerging consumers it is probably far more relevant.

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March 1, 2010 at 6:32 pm

Social media is crap – AdAge says so

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Awesome article on AdAge this week on the limits of social media. It’s by a guy called Jonathan Salem Baskin, and he warns brands against blindly piling cash into social media and out of channels which, though unfashionable, have at least delivered results in the past. He also takes a swipe at the social media ‘gurus’ forever lashing out at the luddite marketers who just ‘don’t get it’. Here’s a choice excerpt:

I know all too many CMOs who find criticizing the social-media lobby something like debating the dialectic with avowed Marxists – you’re never right when the very premise of your existence is wrong, and it gets old being told that your visceral concerns are a result of your failure to perceive class struggle or to tweet enough. Nobody with responsibility for a bottom line has ever felt comfortable with social media as a replacement for traditional advertising. Arguing that consumers “buy more” if you “sell less” just smacks of another five-year economic plan for the glorious motherland.

While he’s obviously hamming it up a bit for effect (as I have done with the headline), he makes a very good point – and one that goes for media owners as well as brands.

A case in point – my own dabblings in Twitter last year for Media. When we set up a Twitter account we were just experimenting with the medium, watching what other media owners were doing and seeing what worked for us. Coming from a publishing background, where what you want is people reading the words you’ve sweated blood over, we began by pushing out our headlines with links to the stories.

At the time, I remember being told by the experts that this was the wrong way to go about it. That we wouldn’t be respected if all we did was pump out links. That we were no better than an RSS feed. One of our competitors even tweeted that we had completely misunderstood the site. But what did we actually want to do with Twitter? While it’s great to make a few people feel warm and fuzzy and engaged, we didn’t have the staff to devote to doing this consistently. They were too busy doing proper journalism. The stuff they’re paid for. What we wanted was for people to read our copy, driving clicks that allowed us to sell ads.

A year on? When I left Media the Twitter feed was one of the website‘s biggest drivers of referral traffic. We abandoned automated headline/link tweets early on to be a bit more ‘bloggy’, but the purpose of the feed is still to generate clicks through to the content. Funnily enough, most serious publishers do exactly the same. And it seems to work with what a lot of people in our business use Twitter for – finding and sharing interesting information.

And the competitor? Funnily enough they’re pumping out links to their own content now.

So kudos to Mr Baskin for having the cojones to suggest the Emperor may not be as fully clothed as we’re told.

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Written by davidtiltman

February 24, 2010 at 3:04 pm