New Communication Mediums Bring Opportunities and Challenges
South African consumers will, in the not too distant future, be confronted with how brand managers choose to use new mediums.
There is a scene in Steven Spielberg’s movie Minority Report, set in the year 2054, when the lead character walks past billboards that recognize him through retinal scans and call out personalized advertising messages. As with all near-future science fiction offerings, the glimpses are of a future we suspect our children may inherit. However, for brand managers the future is likely to arrive a lot quicker than expected. Whilst pervasive retinal scans may be reserved for generations to come, billboards that contact passersby are already here.
Interactive billboards are only one of several new and rejuvenated advertising mediums that are offering brand managers new communication opportunities while at the same time challenging existing advertising and business models. It’s a brave new world and one that South African marketing and media companies are already starting to embrace.
The emergence of these new communication mediums – in-game advertising, interactive outdoor media, blogs and cellphones, to name a few – is due in part to the relentless progression and adoption of technology, consumers’ changing entertainment patterns, and the faltering of traditional advertising mediums in the face of an increasingly fragmented and detached audience.
The Internet is typically the first thing that comes to mind when one mentions new media or new mediums for brand communication and is therefore a logical place to start. Beyond the original model of banner advertising and Google’s success of delivering text advertisements alongside search results, the Internet is offering new ways for brand communication and discussion.
At the forefront of this new communication are weblogs or, to give them their more common name, blogs. A blog is simply an easy-to-use, template-driven website that can be set up and operated by someone with limited technical know-how and for a small monthly fee.
Technorati, an international search engine that tracks blogs, estimates the number of blogs in existence at over 40 million with tens of thousands of new blogs created each day. Blogs are relatively unknown in South Africa but their numbers appear to be growing quickly although exact figures are unknown.
Whilst the majority of blogs are personal ramblings and many fall by the wayside after the initial excitement gives way to the reality of having to maintain the blog, others can exercise great influence over a brand, either positively or negatively.
Computer maker Dell discovered the power of blogs in 2005 when a frustrated computer owner complained on his blog about Dell’s poor customer service. The blog gained attention, 10,000 hits a day, international media coverage and eventually a refund from Dell: but not before Dell’s brand had suffered damage.
On the other side of the equation, blogs have proven themselves adept at communicating and promoting corporate brands as they offer a more personal, accessible and credible medium than traditional websites. Microsoft, often attacked for its monopolistic business practices, has famously allowed staff members (about 3,000 of them) to maintain blogs – even ones critical of the company – as it gave the company a more human face.
Blogs need to be on every brand owner’s radar, either as a tool to communicate and promote their brand or as a medium that needs to be scanned to help stay on top of what is happening in the market or is being said about their brand. Here are a couple of guidelines for maintaining, coexisting with, or responding to blogs about your brand.
• If you are thinking of starting a blog, remember they work best when they are authentic and confront issues in an honest way. Blogs must be credible with their audiences otherwise they will be filtered out.
• Blogs need to be updated on a regular basis, preferably several times a week, otherwise they drop off the radar. Think about what you are going to write about and make sure your topics are relevant and informative.
• If a member of your organization decides to start a blog, don’t try to prevent them or control what they say: they will find a way to blog freely even if it is under a pseudonym. The best way to influence what is being said is to ensure your staff know what your brand stands for, what is being done to achieve that and what the issues facing the brand are.
• To understand what is being said about your brand and its industry, tap into the blogosphere (collective name for all the blogs out there) and identify those of relevance to you. If you don’t want to do the research yourself, data vendors such as Factiva also offer services that track millions of blogs to alert brands to what is being said about them, their competitors and the market.
• If you find something on a blog that is critical of your brand, trying to get a court injunction to close the blog down is nine out of ten times not the best way to proceed. Rather respond either on the comment section of the blog or through traditional media channels. Never assume that no-one is reading the critical blog.
Closely aligned to and evolved from blogs are podcasts: essentially the same concept but as an audio file that can be downloaded and played on computers or on a portable audio device such as Apple’s iPod. Like blogging, the technology to record and distribute a podcast is within the grasp of many people with limited technology background or experience.
Blogs and podcasts introduce us into another relatively new development in brand communication, namely consumer-generated content where brand owners allow their consumers, often online, to express their opinion about the brand and what it means to them. Kao Corporation in the United States asked girls and young women to help it develop a brand positioning and message for its Ban deodorant after research showed its existing messages weren’t working. The result of the campaign, in which consumers submitted their basic advertisements, was a change in the marketing message from product benefits to an association with the emotional challenges facing young women.
Consumer-generated content challenges traditional brand rules by letting the client into the process, thereby generating consumer insights and advertisements that consumers perceive to be more real simply because they are made by people who use the brand and don’t just sell it. It is a very powerful tool, but one which brand managers must use with caution to ensure their brand experience isn’t usurped by anti-brand activists. This happened to Chevrolet when their campaign to create consumer advertisements for the Tahoe SUV was best remembered for the anti-SUV advertisements created by environmentalists. The more successful consumer-generated campaigns to date have tended to include a stage where the submitted work is assessed before being released to a wider audience.
Getting the customer involved in the brand doesn’t stop at influencing how the brand is communicated, it also extends to designing the product. North American shoe designer John Fluevog invites enthusiasts of his footwear to submit their own sketches for footwear. He posts the submissions to his company website and lets visitors to the site vote for their favourite design, with the most popular designs being manufactured.
Whereas consumer-generated content lets the consumer into the marketing mechanics of the brand, product placement tends to go the other way, taking the brand into the entertainment world of the consumer. Product placement is not new, although the practice is rapidly expanding in traditional media such as television and moving into new areas like comic books and video games. Research house Yankee Group believes brand spend on in-game product placements and advertisements could grow from its current level of USD 56 million to USD 732 million by 2010, a figure that Massive Inc. – a Microsoft-owned broker of advertising and brand placement in video games – believes is too low by about USD 1 billion.
In-game branding takes two main forms: first the billboards and advertisement that people pass in the normal course of their game play are sometimes paid-for brand messages. Secondly the equipment that gamers can choose to use, such as a make of vehicle, equipment or clothing, could actually be a paid-for product placement.
To understand the potential of this medium we need to explode a myth and understand the role of the Internet. The stereotype of video gamers being pale-looking 16-year-old boys isolated in their dark rooms behind a computer terminal is wrong: a study by the Ziff David Media Game Group in 2005 found the average gamer to be in their late twenties or early thirties and a third of gamers were female.
The role of the Internet is that virtual advertisements used to be hard-coded onto CDs containing the game so that a brand communication remained present and static for the life of the game. Now, with more games connecting to the internet, new advertisements can be changed in the background to take the position of advertisements that have expired: media buying in the virtual world.
In-game brand communication and product placement holds the potential to change how people pay for games with talk of brands subsidizing the cost of games that contain their products. Car manufacturers are already distributing, for free, driving games that only use their vehicles.
Local media strategists believe that broadband limitations in South Africa as well as a relatively small gaming market will hinder the spread of in-game advertising, but this view has not stopped a group of entrepreneurs from establishing Nanogames Multimedia Developers, which plans to offer advertisers the option of renting advertising space in their games.
The fact that in-game advertising will be part of many brand managers’ future is not in question, what is is when it will happen. And when it does there are two questions that brand managers are going to need to answer.
• Firstly, what do they know about the gaming market? Initial research has surprised people out of their stereotype complacency. Now a more detailed and ongoing understanding is required. This is essential if brand communications and products are inserted in the appropriate games in the right context.
• Secondly, how is the effectiveness of the advertisement or product placement going to be recorded and measured in the virtual world of the gamer? This is already starting to emerge internationally, but work is still required.
What South African brand managers and their marketing service companies are more excited about is the ubiquitous cellphone as a medium for brand communication. Internationally cellular communication is a well-established medium with SMS and multimedia downloads frequently utilized in brand campaigns and services. We will concentrate on two newer cellphone applications.
The first involves coded images – typically a square comprising tiny white and black blocks – which appear on billboards, the side of buildings, in magazines, etc and can be photographed by a camera phone that decodes the message which either provides them with information or refers them to websites where they can enter competitions, download ring tones, etc. The codes, known as QR codes, can also be downloaded onto cellphones, where they can be displayed on the screen and, once read by a scanning machine, be used as tickets to gain entry to events, obtain discounts or product samples.
The benefit for brand managers using this technology is that by placing the coded images into traditional printed mediums, whether it be print media or outdoor billboards, they can easily extend the interaction with their market and provide more value-add. The challenge they face is to continue adding real value to the medium so that it does not become a short-term novelty.
The bluetooth communication capability built into most modern cellphones links us back to the interactive billboards mentioned at the beginning of this article. Billboards, already seeing an upswing in their appeal with the introduction of electronic displays, are now reaching out and contacting passersby with bluetooth technology. There are at least two South African firms, Brandscape Marketing and BlueCasting South Africa, that have imported this technology.
With a bluetooth transmitter embedded in the billboard, a brand advertisement will be able to strike up a electronic conversation with a passerby carrying a bluetooth phone allowing them to download information, entertainment, vouchers as well as the ability to transact via their phone.
However, the potential of interactive billboards (the bluetooth transmitter doesn’t have to be in a billboard and can be placed anywhere) carries the threat of overpowering and annoying potential consumers with invasive and unwanted messages transmitted to their phones as they pass within a
100-metre radius of interactive billboards. Owners of the technology and brand managers are exploring a couple of options to overcome this problem.
Proposed solutions include opt-out (person receives first communication and chooses not to receive any further from that brand or billboard), or opt-in (a person either downloads software to only receive communication from certain brands or makes their cellphone bluetooth discoverable near a billboard). A third option is to replace, or complement, bluetooth with infrared transmission, available on most phones. This requires people to go up to the billboard and initiate the interaction between billboard and phone.
While none of the proposed solutions are completely satisfactory, they are a move in the right direction of recognizing that with the power to reach potential consumers in, until recently, unfamiliar surroundings comes the responsibility to protect the privacy of the consumer from unwanted brand communications.
Each new medium briefly touched on in this article presents brand owners with new opportunities to reach their market but ones that often require a rethinking of current business models to make full use of the medium as well as overcome challenges. What is certain is that South African consumers will, in the not too distant future, be confronted with how brand managers choose to use these new mediums.
Patrick Collings is a partner in Sagacit Brand Agency and author of the Brand Architect, an internationally respected blog on brands and the marketing services industry. He has been at the forefront of new media development in South Africa for the last ten years.