Ashoke Agarrwal: Big Brands, The Digital World and The Promise of Brand Platforms

03 Feb,2022

Ashoke Agarrwal

Ashoke Agarrwal

By Ashoke Agarrwal

Time was when all a brand manager had to do was decide on the season’s marketing mix (summer and winter), get the agency to produce a new mass media campaign (or refurbish the existing one), and kickback.

It all changed with the emergence of digital marketing. Managing brands is now a daily grind. Digital campaigns have shelf lives measured in days and, many times, hours. Pricing and price promotions are a flux controlled by rising e-commerce. Competition now stretches beyond the cosy, almost collegiate set of yesteryears to, driven by the phenomenon of contract manufacturing, e-commerce and D2C, into a kaleidoscope of threats.

How have the older big brands in traditional FMCG (personal care, home and garment care, packaged foods etc.), durables (white and brown appliances, electronics, auto etc) and services (banks, credit cards, insurance, hotels, restaurants, travel, movies, broadcast/ cable TV etc) met the challenges of the digital age? To my thinking, their performance, by and large, has been poor and, at the core, indolent.

Old habits die hard. The old brands are still stuck trying to run an AIDA (Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action) based on what is essentially mass marketing.

At the cognitive level, everyone in the marketing team of old brands will enthusiastically endorse the notion that the digital world allows for one-on-one interactive communication with the individual. However, dig into their marketing communication plans, and one will discern the same laziness of yore when message targeting was left to the vagaries of communication channels. The difference is that now they have added Google, Facebook and Instagram to the mix. And of course, the lexicon of performance marketing – likes, shares and clickthroughs – to the mass media metrics of reach, OTS and GRPs.

How many brands today are anchored in the essential promise of the digital marketing age? This fundamental promise is the ability to carry out cost-effectively and efficiently one-on-conversations with not just thousands but millions of individuals. And in the process generating not just sales but loyalty, increased lifetime value of each consumer and even passionate brand advocates.

This is a model of marketing I call EIDA – Engagement, Interaction, Delivery, Advocacy.

If there are brands keyed into this essential promise of digital marketing, they are most likely the disrupters who are upending existing categories. Even among them, going by my personal experience in India, these disrupters, spoiled by VC burn money, soon fall into the big-spending lazy AIDA framework of broad-spectrum targeting, consigning the EIDA framework to discarded business plans.

Let’s get back to where we started this article – the big, successful brands in traditional FMCG, durables and services. It is, to my mind, a shame that nearly all of them have botched the promise of the digital age. With the resources, ecosystem and talent at their disposal, they could have been at the forefront of a new marketing era. Instead, primarily due to their failure, we have a marketing paradigm that is ever more dysfunctional than the pre-digital one, with marketing dollars now funding tribalism, conspiracy and hate-mongering through increasingly influential social media platforms. Unfortunately, the Arab Spring was not the only promise of social media that has been so severely belied.

When I ponder the many ways successful brands could better use the digital world – the one idea that strikes me as robust and viable is positioning the brand not just as a product or service but as a platform for something larger than itself. Only a successful, well-resourced brand with high credibility could create a good platform with broader social acceptability. To my mind, this is a unique, as yet non-utilised, competitive advantage that big brands have in the digital age.

Can a big brand in any category have the opportunity to build a platform larger than itself or its category that has wide social acceptability?

To my mind, yes. In some categories, the platform idea might stare one in the face. In others, it might require brainstorming and creative thinking.

As an example, let’s take Ariel in the fabric care category. I admired the Ariel campaign that promoted the idea of more equitable burden-sharing between genders. Can Ariel go beyond and promote a platform that a) enables the community to share ideas and experiences in this area b) enables individuals and others to offer workshops, tracking tools and other enabling services and products. Incidentally, when it comes to equitable burden-sharing, the flow is multilateral – woman-to-man and man-to-woman. In fact, it can go beyond gender to age – young-to-old, old-to-young, work – organisation-to-worker, worker-to-organisation. In other words, the platform could be about two-way responsibility sharing. Creative ideation and careful build-up could evolve the platform into a brand asset and a societal asset.

How can such a platform be used as a brand asset? In myriad ways. I am sure the many marketing minds reading this already are brimming with ideas on ways to kickstart the EIDA cycle. I will be glad to take a conversation in this regard offline.

So if Ariel built the responsibility-sharing platform, what is Surf – an equally large fabric care brand – to do? Well, the ladder up from fabric care can go in many directions. For example, fabrics and garments are how an individual signals her mood, character, class and ethnicity. So Surf could build a platform where people discuss clothes are and can be used as social signals. The platform can then expand to all forms of social signalling other than clothes.

It must be kept in mind that the theoretical possibility of brand platform existed in the pre-digital era. However, it is only the cost-efficient reach of digital media, the burgeoning fields of data mining and analytics, and AI that makes it possible for brands to build platforms with viable levels of ROI. Furthermore, the likely emergence of the metaverse over the coming decade will add further dimensions and depth.

I have deliberately chosen the rather mundane category of fabric care to illustrate the potential of brand platforms. Making the point that almost any product category offers exciting brand platform possibilities provided that the brand is thriving and has the resources and credibility. And that more than one such brand in the same product category can build effective platforms.

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