Why do senior marketing staff lag on the use of new communications technologies? Her MBA project research throws up some interesting answers to what should be a vital industry question, says Mmaphuti Rankapole.
I recently conducted research as part of my MBA studies. The idea behind my research project was to establish how brand managers have used technology to adapt their practices in response to fast-changing consumer empowerment. Put simply, the core question behind the project was this: how do marketing decision makers use technology to engage an increasingly techno-savvy and social media aware market?
Theoretically, the primary role of a brand manager is to increase brand value. In today’s economy, brand value must be understood as more than simply the value of the exchange between a company and its users through a purchase or transaction. In its widest sense, brand value incorporates:
- Value ‘in use’ – resulting in a bond that makes it easier for users / consumers to ‘come back for more’
- Linking value – value that is created through positive word of mouth; generated through voluntary engagement (feedback) about how brand activities can be improved and value created by public perceptions of the brand’s status as a valuable member of society
Marketing literature argues that brand value increasing activities in the above areas (especially linking value) are facilitated by the use of evolving communications technologies. Fair enough. My research sought to establish to what extent this notion is being put into practise by local brands and brand managers.
The research focused on how local marketers use new technologies to undertake the key activities of marketing, namely: creating, offering, communicating and delivering and exchanging brand offerings. Measurement of impact was also included in the research.
I carried out qualitative research among 15 marketing professionals from different industries in South Africa. All but one of the respondents was based in Johannesburg. Although the research initially focused on brand managers (three were interviewed), it soon became clear that responsibility for decisions on the methods used for delivering marketing activities frequently resides at higher organisational levels. The rest of the sample therefore consisted of more senior marketing professionals.
The research revealed that, at a theoretical level, marketers understand that their practice is evolving. Key theoretical shifts reported by respondents include:
- A move from ‘marketing at’ to ‘marketing with’
- A move from ‘passive’ to ‘live’ systems
- A move from Integrated Marketing Communications to Interactive Integrated Marketing Communications
At a practical level, however, the respondents expressed significant difficulty in translating the theory into reality.
A key issue was that of perceived control of the marketing function among senior staff. Conventional marketing training and education appears to centre on a management mind-set that calls for marketing executives to ‘be in control’. New communications technologies, which are inherently fragmented and flat in hierarchical structure, undermine this clearly defined idea.
Roughly translated: the use of new communications technologies in marketing reduces senior decision makers’ sense of control over their work.
Interestingly, however, avoiding the use of new communications technologies does not necessarily deliver improved management control. Respondents expressed the opinion that new technologies are giving consumers ‘strength in numbers’ that could ultimately result in marketers losing their perceived ‘power’, regardless of what approach they take to using such technologies within their own work.
Younger marketers, generally operating at brand manager level, appeared to understand the exciting marketing opportunities offered by new technologies, which they expressed a desire to use. They also expressed, however, significant difficulty in addressing the need to utilise new technologies with senior staff members.
In terms of current communications practises, communications technologies were reported as being used, but largely still for ‘marketing at’ consumers. The most common use of such technologies was reported as being for general “communication”, often with an emphasis on short term promotions.
This was followed by ‘deliver and exchange’ use, aimed at improving the consumer’s access to products. Interestingly, many marketers reported that once digital platforms were activated in such a manner, the brand often found itself ‘forced’ into dialogue with consumers, using the platform they provided. Nonetheless, the idea of using consumer feedback and conversations for the co-creation of brand value was reported as being limited. Because of the lack of marketer involvement in these conversations in most organisations, the research indicates that these projects commonly find a home in the corporate affairs department, or in newly established digital departments.
The use of technology for ‘research’ purposes was reported as limited to projects deemed as “not too risky”. Current thinking appears to be that much research is ‘too serious’ to be carried out effectively via new digital platforms.
‘Measurement of impact’ – even of limited technology-centric marketing activities taking place within a brand’s integrated communication plan – was revealed by the research as contentious. The current sluggish economic climate has resulted in a reduction of resources available to marketers, most of whom remain attuned to the tried and tested methods of traditional advertising and measurement.
‘Likes’, ‘Friends’, ‘Fans’, ‘Impressions’ and ‘Entries’ were not seen as quantifiable marketing measures justifying increased expenditure in the digital space. Measurement of these metrics was, according to respondents, unable to reflect a clear increase in brand value, despite the volume of user data currently being generated through mew communications technologies. Marketers currently express a desire to stick to traditional methods of analysis, backed by well understood metrics. This begs the question: what is the right metric, or set of metrics, to use when measuring the impact of digital communications campaigns? The jury is clearly still out.
The path ahead for South African brand managers and senior level marketing professionals is unclear in terms of the adoption of communications technologies, given that it is obviously not a strategic option to ignore the likes of Facebook and Twitter – platforms and ways of interacting that have gained profound traction across the world. There is much industry hype around the ability of new communications technologies to grow brand value. Delivering on the hype seems, in a South African context at least, appears fraught, due primarily to marketers’ own uncertainty on how to approach the new paradigm.
A first step could potentially be for more marketing professionals to seek to express, in quantifiable terms, the opportunities and challenges inherent in technology adoption. This could be a crucial move that enables brands to keep in touch with modern consumer lifestyles. One could be forgiven for instinctively thinking this would already be the case, but the answers to my questions make it clear that this is not so. Quite the opposite in fact. Many senior marketing professionals appear to feel threatened, rather than empowered, by the communication technology revolution.
Ultimately, I believe the research reveals that it is up to marketers and their partners to form strategic, research based partnerships able to define a clear way forward. A way that defines a commonly understood set of tools, checks and balances that will allow us to turn digital brand building theory into reality.
Those who face the challenge head on will surely reap the rewards.
Mmaphuti Rankapole [B.Comm (Wits), MBA (Gibs)] is a category executive at Tiger Brands. She writes here in her personal capacity.