Ashoke Agarrwal: Societal Distancing and Brand Strategy

28 Apr,2022

By Ashoke Agarrwal

 

Ashoke AgarrwalOver the past two years, social distancing has become a part of the lexicon. As the pandemic fades into an endemic, the term will, I believe, continue to do so, even if only as a part of the stand-up routines and “three guys walked into a bar” kind of jokes.

 

However, another kind of distancing has been a part of human society for over three decades now and continues to gather force. I call it Societal Distancing (SD).

 

SD is the force that, in the modern world, is increasing the separation between families and individuals. With the coming of affordable air travel, telecom and the internet, The Economist magazine, in the early years of the millennium, proclaimed the death of distance. Yet, paradoxically, even while geographical distances have shrunk and communication channels ever open, the socio-cultural and socio-economic forces that created communities of purpose have weakened.

 

At the core of this weakening, I believe, is the media’s changing role.

 

In the last three decades of the 20th century, mass media in every society grew in influence and occupied a central role in socio-cultural and even socio-economic life. In India, for example, a handful of newspapers, magazines, and news channels reached vast swathes of people and established a common datum of socio-economic and socio-political truth. An understanding of the gestalt that everyone, more or less, agreed upon formed the basis of social interactions. At the socio-cultural level again, a handful of popular films and entertainment channels had everyone humming the same film music tunes, gossiping about the same superstars and debating the same plot twists in the latest potboilers.

 

Then, in the dying years of the 20th-century, shifts in technology and economics led to an explosion of mass media. As this happened, news media took on partisan positions. Whether this was primarily due to the economic necessity of differentiating oneself in an increasingly crowded market or by society itself fragmenting on more partisan lines is up for debate. In a way, a classic chicken and egg problem. It probably was both factors interacting and reinforcing each other.

 

Even in culture and entertainment, proliferation leads to more refined segmentation in terms of language and demographics.

 

The upshot was that society lost a common understanding of the world and the issues confronting it. This understanding previously formed the platform for interaction, agreement and sometimes civilly agreeing to disagree.

 

With this fraying began the era of Societal Distancing (SD).

 

When social media gathered force in the early years of the Millennium, many thought it would take the place of mass media of yore and provide the platform for everyday discourse and community building.

 

The Arab Spring of the early 2010s, with public uprisings against authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, seemed to prove to many the positive power of social media. But, unfortunately, the optimism soon faded, as did the uprisings.

 

Today, social media is seen as the primary incubator of fissiparous tendencies in society and a haven of conspiracy theories and bigots.

 

In this age of SD, the individual is either an alienated loner or belongs to an amorphous tribe with social, political and cultural paradigms that put one tribe in a constant state of conflict with other tribes.

 

The core premise of the art and science of marketing and brand-building is to give the consumer what he wants.

 

In the pre-SD age, basic demographics – age, gender, social class, education level, occupation, income and location – would reasonably predict their lifestyle, attitudes, consumption behaviour and aspirations.

 

This principle does not hold in the SD age.

 

Nevertheless, most marketing and brand managers seem to ignore this fact. As a result, marketing, product, and brand strategies are still primarily based on demographics-based segmentation. With the rise of digital advertising, marketing communication budgets were beginning to shift towards behaviour-based targeting. However, with increasing privacy-enforcing regulations like GDPR and the move by Apple to enforce a no-tracking default rule on its devices, the power of digital advertising to target behaviour is weakening. Therefore, it seems that brands and marketers will, in the post-cookie world, get back to marketing communication budgets mainly focused on demographic segmentation.

 

The efficacy of demographic segmentation is likely to fall further as Generation Z becomes a key target. The two characteristics of Gen Z that should be of primary interest to marketers are:

 

:: They are a generation more aware of marketing than any previous generation. As a result, Gen Z constantly decodes all marketing messages’ intent and consciously discards all so-called “hidden persuaders”.

 

:: Their primary goal in life is to gather unique experiences and experiment with varied self-identities. In a way, Gen Z aspires to hyper-individualization of a fluid self.

 

So how is marketing and brand strategy respond to the increasing inefficacy of traditional approaches to segmentation and messaging?

 

The answer lies in adapting one-to-one, fully customized targeting as the principal marketing communication mode. Mass targeting should, in this scenario, be used only as a brand awareness and recognition tool.

 

The digital age’s actual yet unexploited marketing promise allows for a cost-effective platform to nurture and build informed one-to-one interactive communication with individuals at scale.

 

With the maturing of AI, the potential efficiency and effectiveness of dynamic one-to-one communication will further improve. In an earlier column in MxMIndia, I have written about Concierge Intelligence (CI).

 

The coming of CI will make the individual an equal partner in communication with brands enabling her to become an initiator of one-to-one contact with brands and facilitate context-rich conversations.

 

I have outlined the above strategies that can enable marketing to deal will the SD age. However, the world should make a more significant effort to move past the SD age in the broader societal context.

 

In his seminal book – “The Third Pillar: The Revival of Community in a Polarised World” – Raghuram Rajan outlines some prescriptions toward that end.

 

However, the age of SD is upon us and is likely to last for decades. And brands that adapt their strategies to the SD era are likely to be the outright winners.

 

Ashoke Agarrwal is a veteran advertising professional with around four decades in advertising and marketing services. Agarrwal, a chemical engineer from IIT Mumbai and a postgraduate from IIM Bangalore, is a pro-entrepreneur with past and current ventures in market research, advertising, CGI, e-learning and brand consultancy. He writes on MxMIndia every other Thursday. His views here are personal.

 

 

 

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