Trust in your customers to handle the marketing flow

Consumers, armed with the internet, are seeking out only the brand information they want – making traditional ‘push’ marketing irrelevant, warns Alan Mitchell

Many years ago Jeremy Bullmore argued that the way consumers build brands in their heads is similar to the way birds build their nests – picking up scraps of material from here and there in a pretty random and haphazard way. Bullmore’s point was that while advertisers seek to control exactly what information is presented to consumers, the reality is that paid-for advertising is just one of many possible sources of brand impressions. Other sources include chats with friends, families and workmates, articles in newspapers, what competitors say, and so on.

Bullmore was right back then, and he is doubly right now as channel fragmentation and proliferation continue to accelerate. A terrifying chart from BDH/TBWA in the latest issue of Admap underlines his point. It identifies at least 60 different possible connections between brand and consumer, including editorial content (newspapers, TV, for instance), packaging and environmental design, many different advertising and direct marketing channels, “action marketing” (such as events, cause-related marketing), public relations, and so on – many out of the marketer’s control.

But there’s more. Not only are communication channels proliferating, the flows of information within these channels – and its content – are also changing rapidly.

Take this stunning figure from Procter & Gamble chief information officer Steve David. He says there have been 150 million internet hits over the past year from consumers seeking information about products related to P&G’s top ten brands. Proactive searches that is, not consumers responding to marketers’ stimuli. And they’re for a pretty mundane set of categories – certainly not sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. David says: “It’s just amazing. People really want to know more. So we have been doing some soul searching: what is it they are after?”

The heart of this sea change is the internet, which consumers are increasingly using to get the information they want – as opposed to sitting back and receiving the information advertisers want to give them. In the US, for example, 60 per cent of car buyers now use the Net to research models, features and prices before even passing through the dealer’s door. Thirty-eight per cent search the internet for medical advice before seeing a doctor. This way “they feel the process is more in their control to meet their needs,” says David.

In the face of this consumer desire for control over both the communication process and the content of the information communicated, advertisers’ quest to “cut through the clutter” risks becoming irrelevant, suggests David. “What cuts through the clutter? Nothing. The only things I believe are the things I personally search for.”

But that’s not the end of it. As Chris Start, western European vice-president, fabric care for P&G points out, consumers not only want more information, “they want to choose what information they want, how much of it they want, and how they want to receive it. And they want to interact with the information provider.”

So how are marketers supposed to cope with such shifts? P&G is trying all sorts. One intriguing experiment is Tremor, a 250,000-strong database of US-based teenagers that aims to capitalise on the power of independent third-party information. The database is made up of just one type of individual – what P&G calls “connectors” who love getting and passing on information. These “connectors” aren’t easy to find. Only about one in ten teens fit the profile, and it has taken two-and-a-half years to build the database.

But now, says David, “we’re giving them content and information to help them do what they like to do.” So when they were told that the last ever episode of the TV saga Dawson’s Creek was about to be shown, they spread the message and its audience share jumped from six per cent to 15 per cent. A seeded message about a new line of Gap clothes generated a sales jump of more than 25 per cent.

On another tack, P&G’s European fabric care division has launched a website – scienceinthebox.com – that in Start’s words “puts aside our concerns about confidentiality” to enable allcomers, from primary school pupils to research chemists, to access the level of knowledge they want about the science behind P&G cleaning products.

With virtually no publicity, scienceinthebox is already receiving over 10,000 visitors a month: “Frankly well above our expectations,” says Start. In yet another experiment, David digitised a P&G-backed academic book on everything you need to know about hair and posted it on the Net. It has since attracted over a million hits and become the main driver of traffic to P&G’s Pantene website.

Where do trends and experiments like this point us? According to Glen L Urban, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at MIT, the combination of changing technologies, consumer attitudes and behaviours is creating “an overwhelming convergence of forces”, driving companies in the direction of what he calls “trust-based marketing – partnering with customers to jointly succeed”.

“Evidence is building that the paradigm of marketing is changing from the push strategies so well suited to the past 50 years of mass media to trust-based strategies that are essential in a time of information empowerment,” he writes in a new paper called The Trust Imperative.

Urban isn’t just talking about traditional trust in companies’ products. He’s talking about trust in companies’ information and communications, including honest, comparative and warts-and-all negative information because “whether or not the company admits it, the data is out there”. Proactively publishing such things positively builds trust, he argues.

Channel proliferation is already a major headache for many marketers. But we also need to add David’s and Start’s other key criteria – an information process that’s under the consumers’ control, and information to meet their (rather than the marketers’, or brands’) needs. Taking these added ingredients into account, “the evidence suggests a rate of change that is closer to revolution than evolution,” suggests Chris McDonald, planning director at BDH/TBWA. Clearly, some companies are aware of this. Is yours?

Alan Mitchell, asmitchell@aol.com

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