Governments around the world are considering and increasingly approving legislation that seeks to reduce the public’s exposure to the advertising and promotion of alcohol. While there remains uncertainty about how far these restrictions will go, marketers need to start thinking about how they will respond and prepare themselves for this new reality of ‘dark marketing’. Matthew Weiss explores two critical questions – what impact does this have for brands and what strategies can be adopted to stay top-of-mind.
Lessons from tobacco mean we can expect to see the following changes in the market:
- Big brands get bigger: As brands come off-air, exposure and consideration levels decline, and consumers are more likely to choose the brand they are most familiar with. The impact is greater on smaller brands than it is on large brands, because large brands have already established an impact on their consumers minds.
- Price matters more: When consumers are less able to make a choice based on brand affinity they are more likely to make decisions based on price. Contraband and value brands both increase their share of market where legislation limits traditional forms of advertising.
- Existing brand perceptions are set: When ATL is banned the image a brand has, be that positive or negative, is the one it gets saddled with. It is much harder to change these perceptions once restrictions are introduced.
- New products are harder to launch: Without ATL to help introduce products to large numbers of consumers quickly, the commercial case for launching new liquor brands is harder to make. New brands are less likely to succeed although established brands will continue to drive and potentially increase their innovation pipeline as a way of maintaining a dialogue with consumers.
The net result of all these changes will require brand owners to review their existing internal structures and their brand portfolios with a critical eye. They will need to consider the role each brand and marketing executive plays and where finite resources are best allocated.
Strategies to adopt
The term ‘dark marketing’ can be interpreted in two ways. The first is ‘marketing within a legislative environment’ – a less than view. Another more positive way to interpret ‘dark marketing’ is to think of it as ‘carefully designed and executed marketing strategies that aim to recruit and influence audiences without necessarily directly engaging the prospective target with the brand’.
Much depends on the specifics of legislation within a given market and how the legal department within an organisation chooses to interpret this. However, the overriding priority for any brand faced with this challenge should be to move from broadcasting to recruiting their audience. Every channel of communication and every activity should be in service to this recruitment drive. Building and investing in a database that allows the brand to develop opt-in one-to-one communications will be key to success.
Here we outline some of the more common strategies that could be explored by brands facing a ban on traditional forms of communication:
- Maximise availability and visibility: When media channels are off-limits it is vital that brand’s maximise their impact in-store. The first priority should be physical availability; non-availability in certain stores becomes a message in itself. The role and importance of POS merchandising becomes critical and it is no coincidence that tobacco merchandising is now often the best managed and designed display in store and in duty free.
- Find yourself a surrogate, ideally with a conscience: Indian liquor brands cannot advertise on TV, but the law does not stipulate that these same brands cannot sell other products using the same name. To maintain awareness, some Indian liquor brands have turned to advertising water or club soda instead. While the product is different and has limited distribution, the tone and imagery is all ‘on brand’ so brand salience is maintained. Less controversially, surrogate branding can be used in more positive ways while still maintaining brand awareness. Hayward 5000, an Indian beer, has launched the Hausla Buland Academy, ‘a facilitator to develop your career’, that provides expert guidance and skills development to help men reach their career goals. The academy can be legitimately promoted in ATL.
- Change the name: Brand owners have also found ways to adapt to the restrictions around brand name usage. In France, where sports sponsorship is banned, Heineken has retained its association with the rugby Heineken Cup by calling it the H-Cup.
- Make the pack the experience: It goes without saying that pack design is important, but the role it plays changes when this is all you have left. Often sighted as evidence of a brand in trouble, in a dark market increasing the frequency of core pack redesigns is an effective way to keep consumers engaged in your brand.
- Define and invest in your brand iconography: The value of treating your iconography as a key asset should not be underestimated. Phillip Morris International recently announced it may sue the UK Government if a law mandating plain packaging for cigarettes is introduced to “seek fair compensation for the value of its property”. They say this because they see huge value in their brand iconography. Iconography can play two roles for the brand. Its traditional role is to trigger recognition. Like the Marlboro Chevron. The second more subtle role, is to cue the narrative in some way. In other words the icon does the job, traditionally filled by TV, of bringing the brand positioning to life. Used in this way, brand iconography is there to imbue meaning not to simply trigger recognition.
- A simple narrative goes a long way: The development and deployment of brand icons imbued with meaning will only be as good as the brand narrative upon which they are based. In a dark market what you can say is limited, so getting the brand narrative crystal clear and as simple as possible should be a priority. Johnny Walker’s online film ‘The Gentlemen’s Wager’ and its link to the fashion e-tailer Mr Porter is a good example of a strong narrative executed with imagination using digital channels.
Start now, don’t wait for the legislation. Governments are as aware of the lessons from tobacco as marketers, so they may well be quicker to legislate against some of the tactics discussed above. The brands that succeed will be the ones that are first to see this as an opportunity to develop new ways of engaging with consumers, rather than clinging to traditional methodologies. A refrain from tobacco companies is that they could have done more, earlier. Engage your teams and agencies now and you may be surprised with the creative thinking a tight brief like this will generate.
Mathew Weiss is managing director of Brand Union, Cape Town. This post was first published by Business Day.
IMAGE: The Marboro ‘chevron’
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