In the world of ‘pull’, push the facts, and the product will sell

Marketers are currently throwing all sorts of stuff at the wall to see what, if anything, sticks. Flavours of the month include engagement (“we’re all in the entertainment business now”), product placement, database-driven marketing and word o

Marketing brands as information services could be the best way to talk to your customers, and save on media costs at the same time

Marketers are currently throwing all sorts of stuff at the wall to see what, if anything, sticks. Flavours of the month include engagement (“we’re all in the entertainment business now”), product placement, database-driven marketing and word of mouth, and they’re all offered in at least 57 varieties.

The problem with these experiments, however, is that they still assume that the century-old messaging paradigm of brands remains intact – even as the conditions that generated this paradigm disintegrate before our eyes. The more marketers and their agencies fret about the question “how can we get our brand’s message across in this rapidly changing environment?”, the more irrelevant it becomes. In a search and pull environment, narcissistic “look at me” messaging agendas don’t have much traction.

So what’s the alternative? For a hint of what may be in store, check out www.pampers.com.

The difference between this site and most other brand websites is that its content is driven not by the messaging priorities of the brand, but by the information priorities of the brand’s users – in this case, parenting.

Sure, the website carries Pampers ads and promotions, as you would expect. But there is also a strict division of labour between advertising and editorial, with the editorial offering all sorts of easy-to-access information about child development, sleeping problems, health, play and learning (to walk, to speak), as well as useful services such as an immunisation calendar, chat facilities, and so on. “It’s not really a brand website,” explains Pampers UK brand manager Guillaume Tardy. “It is a parenting website. It is strategically not promotional. We try to keep as close as possible to what mums are thinking about.”

Just rewards

Guess what. Because it focuses on the needs of the brand’s users rather than on the needs of the brand, it is being rewarded with extraordinary traffic/ 240,000 unique visitors every month. One and a half million page impressions. Engagement, opportunities for database marketing, and word-of-mouth recommendation all come “free” here, as a by-product of something else.

Thus, for example, users who register on the website get a regular newsletter tracking their baby’s development. One piece of information – when the baby is due – drives the content of the newsletter from before birth to toddlership. So far, 500,000 mums have registered. “The newsletter offers a fantastic set of tools to transform to relationships marketing, and it is very cost effective too,” says Tardy.

Even though the website was never intended to replace any other aspect of the brand’s marketing, says Tardy, it is nevertheless becoming “progressively more and more integral to the brand”. But the price of this success is abstinence – no pushing the product. “We are giving information that goes beyond traditional brand boundaries,” says Tardy, and user attitudes are quite clear. “Anything that can help them is welcome, so long as it is not intrusive. But as soon as it gets too promotional or brand-centric, they immediately switch off.”

Procter & Gamble (P&G) is not the only company experimenting with the emerging theme of brands as information services. Leading suppliers in every industry have enormous amounts of expertise, insight and knowledge, most of which stays resolutely hidden inside their own four walls. For internal use only. But why not re-purpose some of this knowledge and expertise as an additional service to the customer?

Dow Corning has been experimenting with this idea for some time now, offering facilities ranging from the simple ability to search its product databases to get technical product and pricing information, through to access to expert systems and proprietary information. “Premier” customers have access to the company’s intranet, with the ability to post questions and get help from the company’s experts.

No quick fix

Making it work hasn’t been easy. As a global company, Dow Corning has to deal with customers from many different industries, following different regional practices and using many different languages. Even more difficult, perhaps, has been understanding what information customers want and need, and how they want to access it. “We have been designing ‘decision trees’ for six or seven years now,” says global strategic marketing manager Geert de Backer. To make them user friendly, he says: “We have had to dissect every type of problem confronted by customers, and to consult many different disciplines – marketers, technical people and so on.”

Coutts Bank is taking a different tack on the same theme, by encouraging peer-to-peer customer communication around specific information needs and priorities. According to Perry Littleboy, the bank’s head of marketing and business development, what Coutts’ well-heeled customers often really want is not a financial service per se, but help in solving the problem that leads to the need for the service. Of course, Coutts has a lot of expertise in dealing with these problems, but what clients really value is the opportunity to talk with other clients with similar problems – whether it’s succession planning for a family business, the challenges faced by female executives or strategic philanthropy.

The trend towards brands as information services is accelerating because it brings so many strands of change together. Yesterday there were strict divisions of labour between producers who produced and media owners who communicated – between “the product” which offered consumers value and “the communication” which sent messages saying “buy this value”. Today these divisions of labour are fading. Media owners are losing their “gatekeeper of consumer attention” status, while producers are becoming information providers in their own right.

By doing so, they are discovering they can offer extra layers of value to consumers and create new ways to differentiate their brands, while helping those brands reach audiences without having to pay huge amounts of cash to media intermediaries.

By addressing the broader problems that consumers are using brands for, information services also offer brands a way out of product-defined “prisons”. Look at how www.pampers.com has helped Pampers associate itself with “better parenting” and not just “better nappies”.

The information service approach fits the trend of consumer content consumption: from “push” to “pull”. And it means making the most of new media opportunities, rather than mourning the loss of old media strengths.

Old media messaging is all about aggregates and averages: total audience figures, costs per thousands and so on. The 30-second TV ad is the ultimate product of this averaging environment. It presents exactly the same amount of information to all viewers, even if some would like to know less and others would like to know more. It presents exactly the same content to everyone, even though some are interested in X and others are interested in Y. And it presents this information at one and the same time, even if some users might be interested tomorrow and others yesterday. In other words, it’s a straitjacket.

Better than average

Brand managers and media buyers work hard within the limits of this straitjacket to find the right average (what is the best “same” content, time etc?). But however good they are, averaging always creates mismatches and therefore waste.

Today, however, communication is being “de-averaged”. Those not interested needn’t be bothered, and those who are interested can delve deeper if they want to. Those who are interested in X can find out about X without having to bother about Y. (P&G has a separate website – scienceinthebox.com – for teachers, students, researchers and lay individuals interested in the science behind their everyday products.)

Complex as today’s trends are, and difficult as it is to gauge the exact pace of change, the bottom line is simple: to be successful, your product needs to be worth buying. So should your communication – if not, why should anyone bother buying it?â¢

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