Monday, May 16, 2016

Optimizing Media before Message- is startup marketing missing the hidden pot of gold?*

It’s closer to campaign time and the launch countdown has started:
Product Availability: Check

Distribution Set-up: Check 

Product Inventory: Check
Creative: Check 
Ad-test: Check
In the campaign war-room marketers are frantically talking to media spin doctors, terms like CTR, GRP, CPC are being bandied around, competitive quotes are being taken and even audits are being conducted to ensure that media monies are spent spent wisely and deliver bang for the buck. The plan rates are compared with benchmarks- going into highly quantitative and rather nuanced analysis of how much is the team spending in reaching people (or brand’s TG) and if it’s all meeting the industry benchmarks. Digital has taken this to another level of sophistication- the media is now optimized by month of year, week of month, day of week, time of day, number of characters and is sharply targeted towards right segment to instigate a particular behaviour.
A week into the campaign- after outdoor is up or front page ad has been published or 20% of Digital budget is spent, the same team is again running from pillar to post trying to understand why the campaign has yielded zilch response….mails are floating thick and fast and all options from terminating the campaign to sacking creative agency are mooted.  
Sounds familiar? We can understand.
How we wish that in the (very rightful) melee of making the marketing dollars work harder by optimizing the media, someone had asked a pertinent question- have we optimized the message?
Media is not the message
The biggest mistake that startups (and often even traditional firms) do is in confusing media with message. Push Notifications, Facebook, YouTube, Google, TV, Radio, Print- they are just media. Brands are not built by media blasts alone- it’s built by consistent and coherent messaging that adds on and delayers the broader brand story. In this sense, message is the core DNA of the brand, it determines its long term success. Media is just a vehicle to deliver that message. Unless dedicated efforts have gone into optimizing the message, media can only give a short term blip in top-of-mind awareness- and as any marketer will tell, this is absolutely no indicator of a successful brand. Isn’t it ironic then that majority of efforts are spent in optimizing the media rather than the message?
A good media plan is no substitute for non-optimal message
A good well-optimized media plan with a suboptimal or me-too message is a sure shot recipe for disaster. The brand will end up resting on media props- and will need constant investment, more funds and bigger discounts. It triggers a vicious cycle leading to a highly non-differentiated brand that stands for nothing in particular. While the mantra of “Jo Dhikhta Hai Who Bikta Hai” could work very well on sales and trade marketing side- it fails miserably when it comes to media.
Consider this- the big-3 in Indian e-commerce space cumulatively spend millions of dollars in advertising, but can a consumer really differentiate between Flipkart, Amazon or Snapdeal ? I.e., Other than telling who is bigger or whose founder is cheekier. (Amazon atleast seems to be trying to communicate that they understand the indian consumer better with ads like ‘Aur Dikhao’. Flipkart built the category with an amazingly simple yet convincing campaign using ‘Kids’ , but now the brand mostly does tactical stuff).
Is there a consumer loyalty factor that helps one brand over the other? The game of outshouting on media without paying attention to basic product truths and unique brand story may gratify personal ego of the founders / brand custodians but is of little help beyond that. It’s mostly going to be a game of one-upmanship where the winner is decided basis the flavour of the season or by a new round of funding- definitely not a very favourable situation for a brand to be in.
Message optimization delivers both short and long term returns
Commonly startups as well as traditional firms feel that stuff underlying message optimization like “Positioning” or “Brand Purpose” is meant for another day- when brand has acquired certain size and stature. The truth is, unless a brand optimizes its message it can acquire neither size (organic and sustainable consumer pull) nor stature (strong consumer loyalty and affinity).
A common refrain we hear during our discussion with founders and CEOs for not optimizing the message is- “It’s a tactical campaign- the purpose is to get immediate results”- hidden somewhere in this statement is an admission & an assumption. Admission is that not every messaging needs to be or can be consistent with a broader purpose or positioning. And a (very wrong) assumption that a messaging in sync with brand purpose is purely “thematic” and does little by way of driving immediate business. Let’s answer these one by one.
First- there is a way to link each and every piece of brand communication to a broader brand purpose and there are many brands (like RedBull, Apple, closer to home brands like Indigo, Paper Boat) that have demonstrated it time and again. Saying that it can’t be done, to put it mildly, is a lazy way out and is an absolute injustice to the product or service that brand is supposed to deliver. We cannot deliver suboptimal message in the garb of a “tactical” campaign. After all when a brand is spending millions of marketing dollars on a full page newspaper ad, an outdoor campaign, a television campaign and is monitoring every penny on the basis of reach, media cost etc. why it shouldn’t ensure that the message creates an advantageous long term perception or reinforces an existing belief?
Research has shown that brands having a sense of purpose and those that optimize on their message deliver a better long term return to their shareholders than those without one. Also, a well-optimized message in sync with broader brand purpose can deliver better business results with lesser media money.
Barking up the wrong tree
It’s common for marketers to pin the blame of failure of a highly visible media campaign on creative agency. However we completely forget that a creative is as good as the brief- it runs on GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out). In the absence of a clear brand proposition, the creative agency is handicapped and will invariably resort to either of the 2 routes- tried and tested category generic stuff (remember Deodorant ads?) or completely provocative- both do little to help the brand business. A well-defined brand story and purpose whereas acts almost like a “master brief” for all agencies- and ensures that every single piece of communication is well-optimized
Another big fallacy is to assume that an ad that performs well in ad-testing will help in long term brand building. Ad-testing just checks the communication “route”, it cannot say if messaging is right or wrong. It’s naïve to think that just because ad is performing in ad-test, the message is optimal. With our marketing experience we can say with reasonable confidence that clichéd or safe routes are the best ones to make ads successful in testing- so a successful ad is no measure of an optimized message. However a brand communication that’s based on a well optimized message has high probablility to perform successfully in ad-testing. It’s pertinent to remember that purpose of communication is not to make an “ad-test certified” ad.
So who will bell the cat and how?
An optimized message rests on the bedrock of a credible story and brand purpose. Building this brand story and purpose isn’t the job of “strategic wing” or planning function of creative or media agency. In fact giving this job to any of the regular agencies is a big pitfall because a brand story & purpose isn’t debatable, it cannot have “exceptions” on Digital, once done it cannot be “tweaked” to suit a media opportunity and it cannot be “modified” to suit a more clutter breaking creative. Rather it is the definitive master brief for all the agencies and it clearly defines brand guardrails for all of them.
It also cannot be done through “brainstorming” in a room, coining catchy taglines, conducting 1-day market dipsticks or leveraging secondary knowledge. It has to come from within- from founders or top management. It requires a patient understanding of target consumer- his motivations, beliefs and anxieties, of the founder’s purpose- his core reason for starting the product/service, of category- the existing truths, beliefs & norms and of competition- it’s pros and cons. It requires making trade-offs- it’s as much about understanding what brand is not as it’s about defining what brand is?
To conclude
Optimizing message by building a brand purpose and story is a painstaking process and it takes time but it isn’t impossible- regardless of the stage business is in. A well-researched brand story, purpose and positioning spans across media, time and campaigns. The process of building it yields rich insights into business, category, competition, and consumer and hence has a lot of strategic implications as well. Net, its money and time well-spent.
Hence there is absolutely no reason to defer message optimization. In fact, it’s like marketing insurance- a little time and effort (probably about 1% of media money) spent on message optimization ensures that remaining 99% of the marketing spends communicate the right message that has higher chance to deliver business results.
*A BusyBeeBrands perspective