A case study in complexity

Media fragmentation, relentless product innovation and tight budgets have made marketing a more complicated task than ever – according to marketers

The life of the modern consumer is more complicated than ever before, as people struggle against time pressures to balance their work and social lives. Marketers acknowledge the growing complexity, and feel that marketing is being forced to evolve as a result.

This year’s original research by the Marketing Forum, in association with the Future Foundation, shows that an overwhelming majority of marketers surveyed – 92 per cent – believe that marketing has become more complicated as a result of the complexity of consumers’ lives.

Media fragmentation is identified as the root of their frustration, with 67 per cent of marketers citing it as the driving force behind increased complexity. The modern marketer is faced with a dramatically increased number of channels and platforms to deal with. At times, marketers feel, the overwhelming choice of media can undermine the original aims of a strategy.

Two-fifths of marketers believe that the increase in the number of media outlets has made consumers’ media consumption less predictable and fostered a decline in consumer loyalty. Marketers are increasingly concerned that targeted outlets, which aim to capture specific consumers, have increased confusion rather than offering clarity.

Financial pressures are also identified as a problem for marketers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bigger a marketer’s budget is, the less likely he is to agree that marketing is more complicated than it used to be. The survey shows that 22 per cent of marketers with a budget of &£1m or more agree that this is the case, against 34 per cent with a spend below that mark.

The difficulties experienced by marketers on tighter budgets arise from the need to target an increasing number of ever-smaller consumer segments. Marketers are having to balance the need to develop an overall communications strategy with the need to target niche groups.

Short-termism – the pressure to produce immediate effects – was blamed by 57 per cent of respondents for making things more complicated, and 47 per cent pointed to the trend to increased accountability: short-term results are increasingly easy to measure. The idea that marketing builds a brand over the long-term has, it seems, fallen out of fashion.

The relationship between marketers and consumers embodies the complexity problem. A positive feedback loop appears to have developed, in which the fragmentation of consumers’ lives has led marketers to develop more sophisticated methods of marketing to reach them. This in turn has increased choice, making consumers’ lives even more complex.

Marketers are acutely aware that they play a significant role in complicating consumers’ lives, with 71 per cent believing that they contribute to the complexity of consumers’ lives and 78 per cent agreeing that marketers tend to over-complicate things.

The constant need for innovation is a major contributor to this loop, and 46 per cent of marketers say that it is becoming a strain on their job. The research shows that there is a growing feeling that innovation does not always offer consumers something new or different. This is supported by the uneasy idea that branding is often being used to hide similarity, rather than to articulate difference.

Marketers have to meet the challenge of all this complexity, however: 76 per cent of respondents believe that this is the biggest issue they are currently facing. There is a strong feeling that it is a marketer’s job to develop solutions for consumers, and 90 per cent of those surveyed believe that helping consumers to manage their lives presents a great opportunity for their companies.

The survey shows that 60 per cent of respondents believe that branding can make life easier for consumers, providing the brand fully reflects the product proposition. For this to work, a brand must stand up to scrutiny by being straightforward and understandable. This will also help to develop consumer trust in the brand.

Valid market research is essential for this tactic to work, and marketers are realising that standard market research is no longer sufficient for understanding consumer needs. More than two-thirds of those surveyed agreed that there is a need for more innovative research, although only 20 per cent felt that they were already carrying out such research. There is a danger that complex research techniques will only lead to more confusion, so marketers must use research to develop simple and meaningful solutions.

The research highlights the fact that marketers must meet specific needs and not confuse consumers by creating an excess of choice. If a brand is not solving or reducing stress, then it is likely to be adding to it. Respondents to the survey believe that some companies are already getting it right: Tesco received the most praise, followed by Orange, Virgin, First Direct and easyJet. Another interesting example is Ronseal, which is seen by marketers as a brand that achieves clarity and precision through the simplicity of its marketing.

Understanding the difficulties consumers face owing to the growing complexity of life, work and leisure presents not only a major challenge to marketers but a huge opportunity. As expectations, aspirations and anxieties continue to rise, those companies that learn to balance the interaction between the difficulties of modern marketing and the complicated lives of consumers will be the most successful.

Factfile is edited by caroline parry. emma doniger, project manager at the marketing forum, contributed. this factfile was produced in association with the future foundation

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