Last week I had the opportunity to both attend and participate at the Chief Digital Officer Forum in New York. If I had one macro take away from the conversations and topics covered—it was that a Digital Transformation Journey is an infinite loop. There is no destination. There is no summit to be reached. The more things change the more they look the same—and while this sounds simplistic in nature, it’s actually the opposite because Digital Ecosystems have only become more complex over time and adoption has exponentially exploded with no signs of slowing down.
One of my favorite speakers from the forum was Melinda Richter who heads up the Johnson and Johnson Innovation Labs (JLABS) function at the company. JLABS is a network of innovation Hubs across multiple geographies that focuses on bringing external innovators into the Johnson and Johnson fold providing a value exchange which offers some of the things a large organization can bring in exchange for the opportunity to learn from or potentially partner with innovators brought into the system. Without using the “D word” (Disruption) it became clear that JLABS was focused on ensuring that the broader organization could future proof itself but needed an operations system to do so.
Melinda’s philosophy in dealing with internal stakeholders who grappled with the value of her initiatives is to probe whenever she got a “no” response. “Tell me more about your no” she explained is one of the ways she uses to get deeper insights into what drives resistance to change. She also advocated a three pronged approach to navigating change in a complex organization:
Championship (Find and leverage executive sponsors)
Grit (The most valuable soft skill)
Never Give Up (Change is hard)
Digital Transformation is a Journey: It Never Ends
The panel I facilitated included one of Edelman’s clients in the food sector—Barilla. The brand began its Digital Transformation Journey before we starting partnering with them, but in the past few years, decline in the Pasta category (a trend beginning to reverse) acted as something of a catalyst which accelerate Digital Transformation across the organization. Proof points can be found in the form of activations in content and influencer marketing as well as social intelligence—all activities that the brand prioritized as a way to help combat disruptions in marketing and business.
Topics ranged from artificial intelligence, to bots (both the good and bad kinds) to the potential of voice technology to integrating data systems and many more. All have roots in digital whether from a tech perspective or a human usage point of view. And while the technology advances as does human adoption, the discussions had weren’t all that different from when business began migrating to the Web or mobile.
What’s Next In Digital Transformation?
We shared our broader perspective on Digital Transformation with this group of practitioners in terms of what’s likely coming next. From our perspective brands will be grappling with opportunities across three core areas with specific connectivity to marketing and communications:
Apps, automation, artificial intelligence, mobile connectivity and a mature tech infrastructure now allows consumers to get what they want, when and how they want it like never before. These elevated expectations are highly disruptive for brands who are now dealing with loyalty-based responsiveness, convenience and a customer experience that feels frictionless and on-demand.
With ad blockers, false reporting bots, a decline in traditional television viewing, the rise of digital video and influencers—marketing has finally been hit by the meteor it always knew was coming. Media is completely fragmented and programmatic solutions have resulted in unfortunate ad placements that put a brand’s reputation at risk. The benefits of data driven insights have yet to deliver on its potential. Marketers must adapt or die in the pursuit of finding new ways to reach and engage audiences at scale.
On the cultural front—consumers are not only empowered to behave as activists thanks to social media—they are now polarized and motivated to do so and no brand is immune. Millennials in today’s polarized environment are causing brands to anticipate and respond to consumer’s needs in ways that transcend transactions and even emotions. Brands increasingly find themselves associated with societal issues where consumers, employees and even media demand to know their stance. In this economy, brands will be forced to re-examine and re-align their societal values and not just the value proposition of their products.
Digital Transformation runs the risk of being an overused buzzword (it likely already is) but those of us doing the heavy lifting to help our organizations evolve know it’s just shorthand for the never-ending task of adapting to a dynamic business environment fueled by cultural social and technological shifts. It’s an infinite loop and the journey never ends.
This was my tenth consecutive year attending SXSW. This means I started attending in my mid thirties during a very different time in tech, marketing and culture. There’s no need to go into how different these things were or bask in the memories of those early years. What’s still special about SXSW is that many of the people who were pioneers during that time still attend joined by a new generation in a now mature market where the Googles, Facebooks, Snapchats and Sprinkler’s of the world operate.
BUT, outside of the informal conversations in the convention hallways, the restaurants and bars I noticed an interesting trend. There was almost a theme in terms of the panels that addressed inclusion in tech—mainly defining that inclusion through diversity in gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. This is obviously a good thing as many organizations are dedicating time and resources to address gaps and divides in these areas especially in specific industries. Diversity in these areas should be challenged. How women are treated in tech should be discussed. What hurdles minorities face should be issues we speak about out in the open…
What About Age Diversity?
What was absent from debate and discussion is an increasing reality that in the start-up, tech, and even marketing worlds (to name a few), there’s increasingly less diversity in age especially at the 50 plus range. This dynamic affects all people regardless of background and it begs the question if people in this age range have a fair shot at applying their years of wide experience to compliment the energy and distinct skills of younger colleagues. As a forty something GenXer, this is something I am thinking about a good deal—what happens when I cross that threshold of 50? Will my experience be valued or viewed as antiquated? Tech and marketing especially are fast moving spaces and even if you adapt your skills and stay ahead of the curve—age may be held against you. They are also industries where you are expected to look and act the part, especially if engaging with millennial audiences is a part of the job.
Being The Change
Despite the lack of age diversity or inclusion for that matter in these industries being a topic—it’s something that’s worth talking about. Mixed generations who work together, Boomers Xers and Millenials reflect the same generations we create both digital experiences and build brands for. This goes well beyond these two industries. We have much to learn from each other, and should band together ensure employers both know and see the value in it. I’ll be thinking much more on this topic and have some ideas. If you’d like to be a part of it—let me know in the comments or shoot me a note.
Whether SNL knows it or not—they have just nailed the kinds of meetings marketing executives on both the brand and agency side will be having for the months if not years to come. While one team pitches “Cheeto executives” the same idea over and over again involving political hot topics—the other team in futility keeps trying to bring the brand back to more basic truths. People eat Cheetos because it’s fun and they taste good.
The spoof was in reaction to the 2017 Superbowl, where several brands in reflection of a polarized climate took a definitive stance on where they stood. Knowingly or not, SNL hits a very real chord that marketers must carefully evaluate. Brands don’t like being irrelevant or out of touch with culture, and when a culture is divided and polarized—it puts pressure on the brand to become or stay relevant. But in that rush to relevancy, brands are going to have to answer some key questions or risk out of touch with what they actually are.
Key Questions Brands Will Need Answered Before Taking a Definitive Stance
Do we have a right to weigh in on a specific societal issue?
When marketers wax poetic over the effectiveness of value-driven campaigns such as #Likeagirl, they often overlook that the brand in such case (Always) has a built in right to cultivate a conversation around woman empowerment. Without a genuine right to join or lead a conversation—a brand stance will fall flat.
Have we uncovered and articulated our core values?
Brands have personalities like people—and they can often hold values. Not all brands have done the work needed to define what that guiding “north star” is and without this—they risk sailing into consumer activist waters without a compass.
Do our core values align with our value proposition to the consumer/customer?
Does the average Nordstrom consumer have the same values as a Budweiser consumer? Brands must go beyond traditional demographic data and see their consumers in more nuanced ways.
Is our brand’s business operations a good representative of the values we are championing?
Audi’s Superbowl ad looked different from the faces and gender of their executive ranks. Brands that haven’t aligned marketing with business operations must way the risk and rewards of taking a stance especially if there is a gap between communications and operations.
Does the societal issue fit into our higher purpose at the company/corporate level?
Does your brand operate under a broader “corporate” brand structure or are they the same? Either way when engaging with consumer’s and taking a stance—a brand’s values should align with the corporation.
Who will we possibly alienate—who doesn’t share the same values we do?
Taking a stance doesn’t guarantee that everyone will agree with you even if the company and CMO think it’s the right thing to do. Brands will need to be prepared to handle scenarios where even the most positive messaging may be as interpreted as offensive or disingenuous.
SNL’s Cheeto skit may have been fictitious but it’s closer than they likely know in terms of how brands will wrestle with when they should stand for something or not or if so, how. And in polarizing times—the stakes have never been so high.
This year’s Superbowl was historic on two accounts:
1. It is the first Superbowl to have ever been won in overtime
2. It will be known as the Superbowl that brought Brand Activism into the mainstream
What Is Brand Activism?
Simply put—it’s when a brand decides to take a definitive stance on a societal issue and bring it front and center into its messaging or value proposition. And it’s not totally new—one of the most well known examples of Brand Activism is P&G’s #Likeagirl campaign which artfully brought the societal issue if gender equality into its core message of empowerment. Brand activism is part art, part science and part sociology. When done right, it aligns the brand and company’s values with the values of consumers. When done wrong—it’s heavy handed, forced, contrived or disconnected from how the company and brand functions.
When Should a Brand Take a Stance?
A complex question to answer and it’s a different answer for different brands. Some brands will look to Brand Activism as a way to remain or obtain relevancy with consumers and audiences. Others will do it because it is in line with either the company’s or brand’s stated values. And yet others may have a direct stake in the issue.
84 Lumber for example (a brand most people have never heard of) is in the midst of a recruiting campaign and logically who and how they hire is an issue likely on their minds:
“Under owner Maggie Hardy Magerko, the daughter of founder Joe Hardy, 84 Lumber currently operates more that 250 stores across the U.S. and it’s planning to expand further by putting up new outlets on the West Coast.
Sunday’s Super Bowl ad comes as the company is in the middle of a recruitment campaign.”
But there may be more than just employment at stake—from 84 Lumber’s Website:
Brand Activism When Done Right Means Both Living and Speaking a Brand’s Values
One can make the case that what 84 Lumber is doing is using a platform and compelling storytelling that supports the values which are true to the company. It took a chance to communicate those values on such a large stage and as a result—has the attention and awareness of a broader audience. Is this what the brand hoped to achieve? Likely—but there may be deeper foundational forces at play.
Brand Activism in a Politically Charged Climate
Given recent events regarding Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S.—the world is debating with itself. Individuals are questioning traditional institutions such as government and media and an air of uncertainty remains constant. In this world, brands are beginning to become more vocal around the issues they know their consumers think about and in the next four years at minimum, as brands look to fill the trust gap left by government and media—Brand Activism will become part of how they are built and maintained.
If a brand is irrelevant in our lives—it is a brand on the decline. Some brands have to work harder than others to remain relevant. Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and other brands that we interact with on an hourly, daily or weekly basis are easily made relevant in our lives given our interactions as users. Other brands often have to work harder to remain relevant.
This year’s Super Bowl is a good gut check for brands who will be working to remain highly relevant in the hearts and minds of consumers already in a committed relationship with the brand as well as those who aren’t. Advertising and brand storytelling often reflects the culture, trends and increasingly the societal issues of the day. But in bringing the three together it also presents a tall order for today’s brands who will likely hit the target with some and totally miss with others:
The context of which we live in often reflected by entertainment, news, media etc.
What’s getting our attention at the time—things that impact how we live and work ranging from technology to art, music etc.
The topics of our time reflecting social-economical and cultural context. The things we debate or deem critical to society.
Many advertisers during this year’s big game find themselves at the intersection of culture, trends and societal issues. As a result, they are going to need to answer the question of “was it worth it” in a more nuanced ways. On face value—measuring the effectiveness by a Super Bowl ad in terms of views is the most traditional way to do it. But for brands who are dialed up at the intersection of culture, trends and societal issues—measuring views will not be enough. They must also break down sentiment indicators such as:
• Positive Responses (media, social, search)
• Negative Responses media, social, search)
• New Subscriptions and Followers
• Lost Subscriptions and Followers
One of this year’s Superbowl Ads which is operating at the intersection of culture, trends and societal issues is Audi—taking on equal pay through its ad and subsequent hashtag #Driveprogess. From Adweek:
The 60-second spot, posted Wednesday to YouTube and Facebook and closing in on 5 million views as of noon Friday, has a remarkably high ratio of negative sentiment—almost 40,000 dislikes to just 4,000 likes. There are two separate criticisms—one, that the ad is simply leftist propaganda; and two, that it is hypocritical because of the company’s heavily male leadership team. (Audi AG’s board of directors, too, has six men and no women.)
The Pressure to Remain Relevant for Brands In a Politically Charged Culture is High
2017’s Superbowl advertising is a reflection of today’s culture in that brands increasingly feel the need to be a part of the dialogue despite societal divisions—so we’re likely to see more brands attempting to be relevant at the intersection of culture, trends and societal issues. As a bonus—it also demonstrates a level of “responsibility” especially if the brand feels like it’s taking the right stance on the right issues. However, success in this space cannot be discerned by reach alone. Sentiment metrics will become increasingly important for brands asking the question:
“Was it worth it’?
We’re entering a new era of consumer activism as a result of societal divisions, a lack of distrust in once trusted institutions such as media and the mainstreaming of peer to peer information sharing enabled through social media. But how far should brands go to take a stance?
Source: Vanity Fair
The answer to this question is as complex as the issue itself. For some brands, it’s a matter of public perception, for others— a matter of principle and for others, it means aligning the values of their brand with the values of their consumers:
Taking a Stance Is Not Without Risk
This Sunday, Budweiser will be airing an ad that takes on the issue of immigration head on. It does so in a powerful and emotive way—tying it to to its heritage and making the case that the brand would not be what it is today without immigration.
Source: The Virginian Pilot
Budweiser’s message for what they stand for and believe in is clear—but the question left unanswered at this point is how the message will resonate with the millions of consumers who have affinity for the brand. Will some cheer the move while others feel alienated by it? Will the typical Budweiser consumer appreciate the not so subtle stance? For every action there is a reaction which prompts a response from brands and for Budweiser, what’s yet to be seen is the full reaction to their message.
Balancing Consumer With Brand Activism
If we’re seeing a perfect storm for consumer activism, then by logic the cause and effect becomes a form of brand activism. And this is where brands will need to do a gut check on their values and the alignment with the values of their consumers. Much like how social sentiment and search engines provided indicators for what people REALLY thought about Donald Trump—brands will have to have the finger on the pulse of their core consumers now more than ever. The stakes could not be any higher for the relationship between consumer and brand.
Consumer Activism: Just Getting Started
Since the inauguration of president Trump, we’ve seen protests seemingly organized on a dime whether it be The Women’s March, The March for Life or the recent immigration protests at local airports. These actions, however will not be limited to the protests in public but also in protests of the purse or at least the #hashtag. Case in point—when Uber announced that it would be removing surge pricing to pick up the slack caused by NYC cab drivers who joined immigration protests it was seen by some customers as profiting from an issue they vehemently disagreed with.
And from this, the #Deleteuber “movement” was born with people screen grabbing their deletion of the app, swearing allegiance to Uber’s competition and encouraging peers to do the same. While consumer activism isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination—today’s record levels of distrust in once trusted institutions (see Edelman’s Trust Barometer) combined with peer connectivity sets the stage for a dramatic increase of the phenomena.
From Brand Awareness to Consumer Activism
For brands to raise their level of readiness in an era where consumer activism becomes more commonplace—marketers must think about four key stages in addition to the traditional funnel. Each stage carries with it a positive or negative impact for a brand.
+ Positive: Consumer has general awareness of a brand and its values and finds them relevant
– Negative: Consumer has low awareness of brand and its values and brand is not relevant
+ Positive: Consumer has a high affinity for the brand and preference as a result
– Negative: Consumer has low affinity for the brand and does not show loyalty
+ Positive: Consumer will recommend brand to others and actively promote it
– Negative: Consumer will speak negatively about brand and actively criticize it
+ Positive: Consumer will actively defend or take action which benefits brand
– Negative: Consumer will actively take action which damages brand (reputation or financial)
Earning Trust in an Era of Consumer Activism
Emerging societal demands and divides combined with peer connectivity provide the perfect storm for consumer activism and brands must find ways to earn not only the loyalty but trust of their consumers. Edelman’s 2016 Earned Brand study outlines that most brands engage consumers in a way that interest and involve them but fall short of getting them invested to the point where consumers would advocate on their behalf or act as “activists” in their favor.
Some brands are taking a proactive stance as this emerging dynamic intensifies. *Starbucks recently committed to hiring 10,000 refugees in in five years while clearly articulating their values. AirBnB announced that stranded refugees could stay for free and Lyft pledged a million dollars to support the ACLU.
Handle With Care: Consumer Activism Will Force Brands to Examine Their Values
If nothing else, consumer activists will force brands to ask themselves “what do we stand for”? The biggest risk for a brand in dealing with a low trust environment is to act inauthentically, contrived or in a way that feels opportunistic. Still, consumers will continue to evaluate brands not only by how relevant they are in their lives—but how responsible they feel they are. Or to put it another way, how much they feel they have in common in terms of their values. If a brand today cannot express or articulate those values—it risks leaving its intent and action open to interpretation.
*Starbucks is an Edelman client
Even more common.
We find ourselves in an environment where everyone seems to be acting like an “activist” for the views they find themselves aligning with. The rub? It’s not easy being a good activist. The worst ones tend to alienate others because they become so deafening, vociferous and one dimensional in service of their cause—they become difficult to relate to. The best ones are able to mobilize those who share their views while building bridges to those who don’t. But many of us are mistaking being engaged for taking action or skipping taking action all together and leveraging social media as a form of activism. These things are not the same and build off one another.
Awareness In Today’s Filter Bubble
One of the most impactful societal measures of social networks is that they’ve become our go to sources of information, news, opinions, and an ever stream of feedback based on what’s happening in our world. However, as the recent U.S. election underscored—networks are flawed by design in that we often surround ourselves with peer groups “like us” which creates a phenomena that’s been labeled “filter bubbles“. Our awareness is filtered by our often likeminded peers—and so a steady stream of content and feedback loops that are reflective of our own bias reinforces the way we see things.
Engagement vs. Action
Another side-effect of social media is that it tricks our brains into thinking being engaged is actually taking a tangible action.
It is not.
I was recently reminded of this when I read a story about a mosque burning down not long after the Trump administration has signed executive orders to pause immigration from select countries. My first inclination was to “react” to the story and then share it with my peers to raise awareness. I stopped myself however because I realized that although I was engaging around an event that troubled me—I wasn’t taking any tangible action to change the outcome of the event. I stopped myself and made a donation to the Go Fund Me page associated with the story. Only after that did I share the story and encourage others to take similar action. Engagement is desirable and on social media—likes, comments, shares are all forms of engagement but they are not outcome altering actions and many of us have confused engagement for action.
The Risks and Rewards of Social Media Activism
Social networks have empowered us to in some ways mimic the dynamics of activism. It gives us a street corner, a megaphone and even a soap box to stand on so our friends, business contacts and peers know exactly what we stand for. And like the crowds who pass the activist and megaphone—some if not many will engage, after all most of us share the same filter bubbles. But for how long? After passing the activist on the street corner, when we just want to get home after a long days work—we begin to tune out the words no matter how sincere or earnest. With the megaphone and empowerment to become an “activist” for our beliefs and values comes the burden of alienation—there will be times when people just won’t want to engage, no matter what their stance on an issue.
What’s happening to our social newsfeeds? They’ve become a reflection of what we’ve curated over time. In some cases, they are a daily validation mechanism for ourselves and like minded peers. In other cases—they foster dialogue and debate. But they aren’t a substitute for taking meaningful action even if a like, share or comment satisfies our urge in the moment.
If you’ve come here looking for the latest thinking on virtual reality, drones and autonomous driving—you’ve come to the wrong place. Marketers are an interesting bunch—we pride ourselves on “being in the know”, with some good reason… Part of our jobs are to stay one step ahead of the game so we are better prepared for the changes that inevitably effect the business of our industry. But in the pursuit of staying ahead of future trends—we often overlook massive shifts that need to be operationalized over the next five years, if not decade. In the pursuit of keeping our eye on the ball—I’ve identified six near term trends influencing the business of marketing:
From Media Channels To Media Ecosystem
Blame Digital. Just when we were getting used to shifting efforts and dollars to reflect not only print, television, radio and the internet—the internet itself has fragmented into a million tiny little pieces which blur the lines between paid, owned, earned and even social when it comes to dollar spend—and that’s not even getting into how it all get’s measured. Case in point—in the past year, MTV has seen it’s traditional television viewership of the Video Music Awards decline 34%. However if you look closely at the numbers, digital views including Facebook Live Streaming increased 70%. The problem here? MTV has yet to monetize the ever fragmented and complex digital media ecosystem and still relies on traditional TV advertisers to make money.