How Marketers Might Change to Deliver 'Adaptive Branding'

Seven Ways Clients' Structure, Skills and Approaches Must Shift to Succeed in an Accelerated Environment

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Ben Malbon
Ben Malbon
Greg Andersen
Greg Andersen
The imminent publication of Forrester's new report on the challenges facing clients, "Adaptive Brand Marketing: Rethinking Your Approach to Branding in the Digital Age," is a welcome turning of the spotlight toward client organizations. Without question, agencies of all sizes, shapes and persuasions need to get their collective acts together and transform into leaner, more agile, more creative and more technology- and data-fueled businesses. The best in the business are no doubt all plotting how they can come out of this recession leaner, meaner, quicker, better.

But that's kind of pointless unless clients adapt, too.

We don't have a hold of the report yet, but we're looking forward to getting stuck in, and are intrigued by the "new 4 Ps" presented in the report: permission, proximity, perception and participation; Ad Age covered some more of the detail in a recent article. But the idea of adaptive brand marketing is something we've been kicking around for a while at BBH.

We believe marketing communications are already being forced to become increasingly agile, particularly for more youth-oriented brands. In such a fast-paced and dynamic media environment, relevance is increasingly determined in the moment. Recency matters. Audience and attention are fleeting. Fame spikes -- even for the famous. For brands to achieve and maintain fame in this context, communications for certain types of them must make a dramatic shift from highly polished epic launches to a continuous and diverse stream of messaging and content designed to ride hyper-current cultural trends, consumer attitudes and competitive maneuvering. The performance of this diverse activity is continuously monitored and optimized like a portfolio of stocks -- kill the under-performers and reinvest in the ones showing returns. However, this "continuous beta" mentality is a big leap from 18-month planning cycles and dogmatic, rigid testing protocols, despite its more real-time and real-world feedback.

Just as this is culturally challenging for many agencies, so it will prove for marketing organizations. As marketing becomes more technology-powered, with learning more real-time, it will be critical to identify who is responsible for leading within marketing organizations -- and more importantly, who is empowered to make decisions on the fly. Committee decision-making and hierarchical organizational structures, for all their perceived benefits, won't hold up to the strain of an accelerated process.

So in advance of the full report, here are seven starters on how client structures, skill sets and approaches might change to deliver "adaptive branding." We're learning as we're going, and as usual we'd value your input, opinions, builds or disagreements. We'd particularly like to hear about clients who are exploring new ways of engaging agencies, and new forms of leaner, faster, more iterative and curatorial processes. Again, there's much we can learn from these pioneers. This isn't about knocking clients; it's about identifying and sharing best practices.

1. Consumer intelligence at the center
We wholeheartedly agree with Forrester's points around a more prominent role for research. We all have an increasing number of highly sophisticated, real-time and granular measurement tools at our disposal, especially in interactive environments. Adopting what Made by Many refer to as an "agile measurement" approach becomes more significant; if one can measure everything, one must decide what really matters to avoid drowning or becoming paralyzed. Less, but better measurement, enabling more responsive data-powered marketing, should be the ambition. These observations suggest an elevated role for the insight and research functions that can quickly distribute and integrate learning in real time.

2. Marketing as a catalyst for change within the broader company
This points to a potentially larger opportunity. It's not just the marketing organization that needs to reorient given the now normal digital age, but the company itself should consider how it reorients itself around its marketing organization. In most progressive companies, it is the marketing function that has most quickly and deeply engaged with the new interactive toolkit. This expertise can play a role well beyond the traditional confines of marketing communications. For example, a proper understanding of social-media tools and the proper employment of resulting insights could impact everything from new product/service innovation to customer service to crisis management.

What some, such as Dachis Group, are calling "social business design" is a significant opportunity in which marketing teams could play a leading role in driving efficiencies and creating new models internally. Think of marketing as a revenue source and a genuine competitive advantage, not just a cost. If marketers want a seat back at the big boys' table, this is one potential way of getting it.

3. The networked organization
The structural definitions of, and relationships between, agencies and marketing organizations must change if companies are to ensure access to the very highest quality and leading-edge partners delivering at speed. With the emergence of what Forrester called "the federated organization" (we prefer "networked"), global brand leaders and directors need to be able to cast elite teams of people (talent that spans several departments, companies or geographies) to get the best results and avoid capacity bottlenecks.

This places special emphasis on an evolved role for "lead agency" partners, both providing the conventionally critical services around quality control and coordination, but also performing a new casting-director role for marketing directors; knowing whom to bring into a project, and when, and then managing that engagement. Further, client organizations must foster a culture of generosity and collaboration both within their organizations and across multi-agency teams to get the most out of them. Just as dogs and owners look alike, so do clients and the culture of their agency roster (but let's stop right there with that analogy).

4. Brand leaders as curators
Without question, global brand leaders do need to become more responsible for evolving marketing assets and them adapting to local markets (in many cases this is already happening, for example, with some of the Unilever brands with whom BBH works). However, we believe this evolved role needs to go well beyond adaptation and coordination. We envision an increasing role for both client and agency organizations as not just creators of content, but as curators as well. In a world awash in content, time can be saved by smart curation and the hacking of existing properties. Not everything needs to be conceived of, crafted and produced from the ground up every time. This is particularly important as brands move beyond the development of the traditional "campaign" and start evolving more ongoing platforms that need growing, managing, sustaining and refreshing.

5. Reframing investment timelines
With campaigns evolving into programs and platforms, the annual planning and budgeting framework currently used to allocate monies needs revamping. This is clearly challenging, but if some marketing activity is designed to build long-term, enduring platforms and other marketing is to be more opportunistic, then it seems sensible to begin to think about marketing investment in a parallel fashion. We agree that a more active and fluid approach to marketing investment is the correct approach, but this places even greater emphasis on agile and, as much as possible, live measurement.

6. To fail is to learn
We think client organizations need to find new comfort in failure and place increased value in learning as long as both happen for real, and in close-to-real time. Embracing more of a continuous beta mentality means getting communications into market more quickly and less expensively ... with early real learning as the result. This beta learning can help redirect the program while it's still being developed instead of after its finished. A marketer can spend 10 months of theoretical testing in artificial environments and a highly polished, highly researched program still has a chance of failure, or in many cases creates no real impact one way or another. What good is the post-program audit? The budget is gone and the market has moved on.

7. The time is now
Historically, recessions have proven to be crucibles of change. The current recession is already turning out to be rather more of a complete reset for the industry than a temporary dip in revenues. Structurally, the smartest agencies and agency groups have been quietly plotting not only their future size, but also rebuilding their capabilities, simplifying their processes and gently retooling their skill sets. The smartest marketing organizations must ensure they are doing the same.

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Adapted from BBH Labs post, "So what exactly might 'Adaptive Brand Marketing' be?"

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Ben Malbon is co-founder and managing partner of BBH Labs, BBH's innovation and technology group. Prior to launching this at the end of 2008 Ben was head of account planning in New York and co-ran BBH's brand-invention unit, ZAG.
Greg Andersen is managing director, BBH New York. Greg joined BBH in 2006 as director of engagement planning, and has 18 years experience in both account management and planning.
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