Why Marketers Need to Reorganize Around the Most Powerful Behavior Principle of All: Utility

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The word cloud of marketing change bombards us with new tactical imperatives almost daily -- in targeting, engagement, commerce, community and mobile. Each of these silos is so complex it's spawned its own industry, and the complexity causes a lot of disjointed marketing efforts.

To plan a more complete response to the new world, marketing needs to reorganize around its unifying principle: utility.


We've crossed the Rubicon in smartphone adoption (54% mobile-market penetration, per the latest ComScore figures). Holding the world in your palm changes expectations, and those expectations raise the bar on marketing. Marketing will be judged by how useful it is, now that we have an unprecedented infrastructure of delivery and activation.

As consumers, we're gravitating instinctively to that which saves us time, deepens our experience, widens our connection, gives us more control or increases our social capital.

The more we do, the more we expect.

Above all, utility is a response to, and a requirement of, the inevitable time crunch in a tech-sped world.

Think about it.

When's the last time you clipped articles and notes, put them in paper files, and then went comparing products a week later? Thought so. Instead, you do it all within minutes by clicking links.

Utility, however, imposes a higher responsibility on marketing and a corresponding shift in mind-set and execution. In particular, it introduces a product focus to branding and a direct-marketing discipline to media.

Nike Fuel Band goes well beyond shoes and clothes.
Nike Fuel Band goes well beyond shoes and clothes.

Advertising giants built the brand business on sentiment, which falls short in an age where I want to do something. Marketing can't just communicate your ethos anymore; it has to deliver access to your brand through mechanisms that let people experience the value in everyday life. That means the brand job only starts at aspiration and has to incorporate a range of technologies for realization.

That's why Nike Fuel Band wasn't just the innovation of the year; it's the first full-utility footprint. Adidas recently bet its stack on Energy Boost, an energy-return system for sneakers, but there's no way it will close the gap. Adidas remains stuck on the sole of the shoe, whereas Nike has engineered a system for the soul of the athlete. For Adidas, the work is done once you've laced your shoes. For Nike, the work is done when you're a new person (and they know and support you like no brand ever has).

A similar systemic construct reframes media. Media has always been perceived as being part of an activation chain. Now it has to be the chain, and we have to prove it.

Utility also requires replacing the chain of faith with a chain of actions. We need to plan and monitor how our messaging bounces along the stream of consumer interaction, and through the path of commerce. For example, retargeting extends utility to display advertising, and smartphone point-and-shop apps (e.g. WiO and Shazam) start to fulfill on the commercial potential of interactive TV.

Branded content brings utility to advertising when it gives the audience things to join, support, buy, etc. Links, QR codes, test plans, personalized minisites and deals all raise the bar on what's not only on offer, but also what's measureable within that offer.

We're conditioning ourselves to act with our new media-delivery systems, so we expect interconnectivity with a click. The message to marketers: Your content needs to let me activate on my terms.

Utility also means we need to understand consumer behavior after seeing ads, not just before. The weight of marketing research has been on targeting. Now we need to create the lens for the complete activation spectrum.

No particular kind of agency owns utility or the marketing experience it creates. That's an opportunity for service providers and a reason for client marketing teams to step up. Somebody has to lead the team, and more than likely it'll be the client once again.

And that's not a bad thing. Much as many agencies have gotten into the habit of outsourcing thinking to media via the RFP ("Tell us your best ideas for our business"), many clients have played the same game with the growing cadre of agency hybrids. Getting to a central organizing principle -- the shape of the utility spectrum a brand aims to manifest -- is the first bold step toward making all the pieces work together, and creates a common ground for media, advertisers and marketers.

That just might be the highest responsibility a client CMO has today. Marshal agencies around what matters and set requirements -- from the questions we ask to the utility of the constructs we create -- that bring order to the chaos. Done right, utility turns the escalating speed of consumer reaction to a brand's advantage.

Fred Pfaff is president at Fred Pfaff Inc (fredpfaffinc.com). Art Cannonis lead strategist at Fred Pfaff Inc.
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