Amid this year’s many challenges, companies are experiencing a significant shift in marketing and storytelling strategies, learning vital tactics that will be carried over to a post-COVID world. That was the message for marketers at a virtual event sponsored by Ad Age in partnership with Verizon Media in late November.
The two-day event, moderated by Ad Age President and Publisher Josh Golden, focused on important lessons for attendees—all while participating in a virtual wine tasting and Vosges chocolate pairing led by sommelier Vitalii Dascaliuc.
“We are witnessing a fundamental shift in the expectations that consumers have [for] corporations,” said Marinn Jackson, head of premium sales and strategy for Verizon Media, outlining the discussion’s agenda. “Today, the vast majority of consumers are more likely to purchase from brands if their values align with their own. We've got an overwhelming volume of content for people to choose from. In order to break through, brands and publishers must create compelling experiences for audiences.
“Finally, we are living in a COVID reality,” she said, “so immersive technology is going to address a number of challenges marketers are facing when people can't sample products, they're not going to football games, they can't take a trip around the world, and the future is going to belong to brands that are authentic and innovating.”
Here are six key takeaways from the event, which featured an all-star panel of industry players from both the brand and agency sides.
1. Storytelling is important, but don’t let the meaning get lost in the narrative.
“People remember stories. That’s all people remember, and that's all they'll ever remember,” saidTim Maleeny, president and chief strategy officer at Havas. Maleeny urged creatives not to think of brand storytelling as some new fad, because that just shows that they lost their own narrative.
Marcia Lesser, head of RYOT Studio, Verizon Media’s branded content arm, added that brand storytelling is not just about moving product—it’s about knowing your audience on a more human level and creating authentic connections. “It’s critical to focus on how the mission of your brand is relevant to this moment,” Lesser said. “That’s the evolution of conveying brand purpose—and it goes hand in hand with asking ourselves every time we endeavor to create something, ‘Are we actually helping people or just trying to sell something to them?’ ”
Brian Collins, founder and CCO of Collins, a strategy and brand experience design agency, agreed that the focus on meaning is more important than ever. “The conversation isn't about the stakeholders or even with the stakeholders,” Collins said. “The conversation now is about the stakes. What's at stake? Every choice that every marketer makes either accelerates grievance or creates generosity. It's that simple.”
Said Maleeny, “If you think of your brand as a protagonist and the landscape it's on, you can quickly turn out stories so that everything you do is a piece in a bigger mosaic.”
2. Advancing technology is inevitable, so use this new at-home reality to your benefit.
The beauty of storytelling is that every new advancement in technology can be like another brush or eyeshadow palette on the vanity—if you know how to use it properly. Alison Karp, executive director at Wavemaker who leads all L’Oreal business, knows this firsthand.
“What’s really interesting is that the same tenets that are important for beauty—curiosity, voyeurism, sampling, testing boundaries—are really driving all of the new storytelling innovations,” she said, noting that advancements in augmented reality (AR) such as filters that allow consumers to “try on” false eyelashes or shades of lipstick are helping to drive sales. “Tech is giving us all those tools and opening doors that make it more engaging, immersive, explorative.”
Kwame Taylor-Hayford, founder of creative company Kin, sees this type of use as the right way to dip your toes in the AR pool. “You need to approach it from the perspective of providing real utility to people and a modicum of entertainment,” he said. “The advent of 5G, the acceleration of technology and our ability to connect, having these more robust and high-fidelity networks—it was only a matter of time before virtual information started to leap [off] the screen and exist in a physical space.”
If there has been any silver lining for brands during this pandemic, it’s that new demographics have had a chance to really experience advancing technology, said Kelsey Whitaker, head of innovation and content at Mindshare. “Things that were just for a Gen Z population, for example, are expanding into other demos and across categories,” she said. “Brands that might be particularly risk-averse or may not think that they have a right to play in that territory are seeing that consumer expectations change, and they are opening up to certain technologies that normally they wouldn't have the courage to jump into.”
Said Karp, “I’d like to believe that these beauty implementations are actually driving the AR technologies,” noting that they’ve allowed consumers to see an easy, tangible reason to embrace tech while giving brands a tactical motive to build on it.
3. Do not confuse a consumer’s engagement with intent.
The old adage says that all press is good press, but when it comes to consumer habits, intention is what really matters. Yvonne Abt, VP of media and data strategy at Sony Pictures, illustrated this by talking about what she looks for in the data. “In the world of our studio, we create a lot of content. That content can drive engagement, but not necessarily intent.
“For example, we'll drive tens of millions of trailer views for a film like ‘Spider-Man,’ but then it is up to us to parse through the data noise to figure out how many of those viewers are actually interested in purchasing a movie ticket, or at least are giving us breadcrumbs to lead us to think, ‘Okay, we want to speak to you guys again.’ “ Abt said. “That's become even more important now that COVID has turned everything upside down.”
Amy Lanzi, head of commerce at Publicis Media, said that while intent is often the most challenging thing to determine, it’s also the most important to measure. “Of course we also look at all the other metrics in terms of total commerce sales, but what consumers are telling you with the types of search terms they're using is their intent,” Lanzi said.
“People go to social to rant and to complain and make noise,” said Kareem A. Harper, the director of analytics at RYOT Studio. “People use search to learn and discover.” He cautioned against brands and companies ignoring key digital signals, which could include anything from product issues and concerns to brand affinity.
Abt agreed. “When we measure volume, it's hard to parse out how much is positive sentiment and how much is negative sentiment,” she said. “That's a good example of noise. You could be erupting on social platforms, but if they're all hating on your trailer, that's not where we're going to try and measure intent. It takes a lot of iterative measurement, campaign over campaign over campaign over campaign, to figure out what are those leading indicators for your business. For us, search has shown to be the most correlative.”
4. When the going gets tough, be nimble and resilient.
Creatives have always had to think on their feet, but because of these particularly strange times, Lesser says brands must be ready and willing to change course. “One of the things we probably talked about the most consistently with all of our marketing partners this year,” Lesser said, “is being really mindful of connecting the brand's mission to the moment. You are going to have to pivot quickly and decisively based on resources, based on what's going on in culture and society, and the brands that can embrace that spirit and be nimble are positioned to really continue on with great work.”
One example of this internal connection with the brand’s mission that Deborah Wahl, global CMO at General Motors, is particularly proud of is “crab mode.” This new feature on their latest Hummer, in which all four wheels rotate to allow the vehicle to move diagonally, came directly from talks with the all-terrain enthusiasts in their own engineering department. “Our team of engineers—who are unbelievable off-roaders themselves—were like, ‘We have to build this in, this is the thing that everyone wants, and this is how we're going to do it,’” Wahl said of the new feature unveiled on Oct. 20. “When you tell stories, you reach into the things that are common to all of us, the things that we react to as human beings.”
Said Angela Zepeda, CMO at Hyundai, “We've all gotten past knowing how to preplan and get it right the first time.” Her team came up with a number of branded programs to help meet consumers where they are, such as people who had never left their home state before or those who wanted to take socially distanced and safe road trips to visit national parks. She said the brand metrics got a life from the feel-good messaging, and it gave their own team at Hyundai a mental boost as well. “Don't panic, and be flexible,” Zepeda said. “That's definitely the mantra moving forward.”
5. Embrace the user when considering AR—and do it quickly.
David Ross, RYOT Studio's director of innovation, advocated for brands allowing their users to be another line of communication, especially when moving into immersive technology such as augmented reality. “User-generated content is important and the ability to create your own AR,” he said, noting that when other users can then interact, comment and build on that information, that information will make the content infinitely more shareable. “That ability is now here, and we have to take advantage of that.”
And that’s not something new or scary—it’s just the next step in an evolving industry. “With the advent of the internet, doing microsites and having banners brought in a new revenue stream, e-commerce, etc.” Ross said. “There are now all-internet based companies, so I think embracing augmented reality and virtual reality is the next step.” For example, he pointed to AR gateway apps. such as Pokémon Go. that seemed unusual five years ago have now become a $3.5 billion industry.
Jacqueline Parkes, CMO for ViacomCBS’s entertainment and youth group, agreed. “A couple of years ago, none of us would have been talking about TikTok, and today, that's all we're talking about, whether it's politics or advertising,” she said. “Consumers are looking for immersive experiences: AR, VR—technologies that allow consumers to get closer.”
Two legacy brands—Volkswagen and CVS—each found ways to use this type of technology to reach consumers who were newly homebound. For Jochen Sengpiehl, CMO at VW, this meant reimagining how to promote a new reveal when they could no longer travel for production and marketing. “The big surprise for us was creating a simulated TV commercial in-studio without any movement of the car,” Sengpiehl said. “It really had the feeling of standing in the middle of Norway, watching the Northern Lights, and it was so successful that it generated 18 million and we spent 10% of a normal ad. It was a big surprise for us … [and] it's also a revolution for the production industry.”
At CVS, CMO Norm de Greve says the marketing team leaned into the company’s position as the second-largest beauty retailer in the U.S. and decided to use remote direction of talent to produce the next iteration of its BeautyIRL ads. “We selected talent and sent them boxes of product, and we directed them over the internet in their home,” he said. “And we got the footage back, and it all worked really well.”
Said Ross, “The quicker that we adapt and are able to give people the content where they are, it's a win-win for everyone.”
6. KPIs aren’t the be-all and end-all—consider the KBI: key behavior index.
Even as companies and brands are swimming in available data, one metric is often lost in this sea of numbers: actual impact.
“We've seen this incredible explosion of the importance of first-party data, not just within the four walls of marketing, but across marketing and commerce and service,” said Jon Suarez-Davis, SVP of marketing strategy and innovation at Salesforce. “When we look at all these data sources, what are the true signals that are altering behavior? It’s not supposed to be some fluffy metric—we're literally trying to understand when you're using data and people are engaging with the content, what is the behavioral change right from that interaction?”
Suarez-Davis referred to this metric as the KBI, or key behavior index, while Harper called it engagement philosophy. Whatever you call it, it’s about the intent behind the numbers, and understanding that will help you better understand your consumers. For Sharon Boddie, media principal at Amazon Prime Video, this year has produced an interesting KBI: escapism.
“We have all these crazy formulas and all this data-crunching, and we know all those numerical KPIs, but for us during COVID, it's actually escapism” that is driving viewers, Boddie said. “I don't know if that's going to change after COVID, but seeing all the backend metrics, it's driving the rest of the numbers.”
But again, this depends on your demographic. Lisa Morris, VP and head of marketing for Philips, said the pandemic helped her team see that one of their most overlooked metrics was truly the most important for their consumers. “We had a real awakening in April when everything locked down and we went back to the basics—actual time spent on site. We had a campaign about healthy routines that had an average time spent on-site of 16 minutes,” Morris said, which was an almost unheard-of session duration. “That just shook everything we ever believed about busy consumers and not having enough time.”
Harper said that you have to know and understand what the intention of your consumer is, and learn to sift through the data to find what is most meaningful for your own business. “What are those key indicators in terms of behaviors taken in an owned environment that we can capture and then correlate to a positive business result?” he said. “If you look at most marketing models, they're using the traditional metrics, but you can't expect a data scientist who is swimming in data to know, ‘Oh, hey, a store lookup should be weighted a lot more heavily than these 50,000 ad impressions.’ It's about thinking outside the box in terms of the long-term value that someone's content can provide.”