Ed Pilkington: Data is good but culture is key

Ed Pilkington, Diageo marketing and innovation director, Western Europe, on why it’s more important than ever for marketers to tap into culture.

Ed Pilkington Diageo

Culture is a broad term to say the least. It can encompass many meanings, including customs, social behaviours and trends as well as lifestyles, values and habits – all of which change over time.

This subjectivity can often deter corporate teams who opt for approaches that are based in fact and tangible evidence rather than inklings and hunches. This is true in the realms of marketing. It is true in nearly all spheres of modern day business.

In marketing, however, understanding and being in tune with – or ideally part of – the culture you are operating in, and changes in consumer behaviour, have never been more important. Although ‘big data’, reactive moments and bold campaigns will always make up the basis of your toolkit, in order to have real success you or your team must be able to appreciate this and at the same time be tapped into the world beyond the confines of an office desk. This holistic mentality needs to become part of your company culture.

Speak to the needs of customers

The most successful brands that have persisted through the years are those that understand and speak to the everyday needs and concerns of the people they aim to target. There is no doubt that data enhances our ability to derive this understanding, helping us delve into what consumers are doing and why in granular detail. The key to success however is not relying solely on these metrics. Instead marketers should draw from all areas of knowledge, be it culture, experience or data, to develop a keen insight into your consumer.

Marketing and data have become relatively synonymous over recent years with the industry seeing a push behind data-driven efforts in a bid to engage with consumers. The boom in analytic software, data management platforms (DMP) and more reflects an overall shift in approach. For aspiring and existing marketers, an understanding of marketing technology and data analysis are crucial and sought after skills.

Make no mistake, data provides a valuable tool to any marketer. The industry has come a long way thanks to the readily available information now at our disposal. When properly invested in, data and evidence can be used to generate opportunities that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, or to reinforce a pre-existing intuition. But while it is unquestionably your trusted aid, be wary that you don’t solely rely on the data in front of you.

Understand how products are used

The success of the most established and longstanding brands – such as Red Bull, Dove, Apple, Adidas to name a few – is founded in their ability to understand the social circumstances in which their products are used. As a result, they are ahead of and often creating the very trends they aim to be part of. 

And it’s not just your big players. Founder of WAH Nails, Sharmadean Reid, used her perceptive understanding of female, urban culture to propel her nail products. Rather than being a pasttime of the ‘wealthy Hollywood girl’, nail art has become an expression of identify.

Although brands can go direct to the consumer through social posts and more, the best brands are those that speak through a cultural understanding. After all, you can’t simply put a fact or message in front of someone that has no contextual basis. To build a successful brand that resonates with your audience, you need to ensure your team can simultaneously dip into the culture while equally engaging with data in order to identify the implications for a brand and its subsequent growth. You want to look for a curiosity in people and what makes them tick as well as the analysis that underpins it.

Don’t let big moments distract you

Big show stopper moments are pivotal to a successful brand, but don’t let these big bursts of popularity become a substitute for a long-term strategy. As with data, these big moments should be deployed as tools rather than forming the underlying pillars of your marketing activities.

Often an immediate response to a recent event can really pay off. In May we created a limited edition Captain Morgan bottle to mark Leicester City winning the Premier League. The bottle featured Leicester City’s captain Wes Morgan, so fans could toast their victory. In just 24 hours 11,000 bottles were sold. 

But this success aside, we don’t have the luxury of resting on our laurels.

Merge data and culture

Data presents huge benefits and opportunities when sat alongside a cultural awareness and long-term strategy for your brand. A wonderful aspect of the modern world is that we now have the ability to merge data with a deep understanding of culture. The best marketers, whether they be old or new, are those that can appreciate and apply both to their work.

What’s important is that brands understand relevant consumer passion points so they know how to feed into the right cultural elements over the long term.

This is certainly something I’ll be looking from in job candidates going forward, and so should you.