Marketers need to direct flow of talking points

With new media taking control of communications away from companies, our panel of experts meet in Geneva to debate how marketers can safeguard brand reputations and engage with their target audience.

  • CHAIR: Mark Choueke, Editor, Marketing Week
  • Matti Naar, Strategic planning director, Ikea
  • Tim Wragg, Chief executive officer, Millward Brown Europe
  • Helen Ashton, Head of research marketing and planning, Visa Europe
  • Omar Mahmoud, Chief of market knowledge, Unicef
  • Dan White, Chief marketing officer, Millward Brown Europe
  • Elena Fedeli, Global media manager, Indesit


Marketing Week (MW): Consumers are using new types of media all the time. Do brands need to become ’communications companies’?

Matti Naar (MN): We are a furniture retailer. We are not a communications company. My boss, the founder of the company, believes the product range is our identity and that it should speak for itself. Communications relies 100% on customers and consumers. Their behaviour is changing and we need to respond to that in our communications. We are getting opportunities and new tools to do that, but everything is about having a conversation, dialogue and connection with customers.

Tim Wragg (TW): All our clients know the value of communications. I don’t think that is in doubt. That passion for engagement, communication or participation as a means of building brands is there. Is the nature of ideas changing, though? Has it shifted from TV advertising, which always starts with great ideas? Do we need a different type of idea that works on all platforms, for example an idea that can translate to being a new game or a new mobile app?

Helen Ashton (HA): Historically, we started with TV advertising, whereas now we have to think differently as to why we are using other media and what the route into those channels might be. Consumers are able to do the communication themselves, so your control over how that dialogue works is a lot less. You need to adapt and figure out how you are going to interest them.

MW: So where does the role of communications begin and end in an organisation?

Omar Mahmoud (OM): This can be a broader question about the conversation the brand is having with the public. Everyone in the organisation is part of the brand, as is any behaviour, regardless of the function. Some businesses that train their people in branding don’t just train the communications department, but also the receptionist and telephone operator, so that when they respond to a call, they answer in a branded way.

Our control over communications is less and less, so we need to train ourselves not just to inform people but in how to manage a conversation. We are moving from a monologue to dialogue. We have less control, but we can have a richer conversation.


MW: How do companies need to adapt their communications skills to these changes?

Dan White (DW): On the one hand, you might need to get fast feedback and quick information so you can respond and react, amplify an opportunity or manage a problem. But on the other hand, that is not much use to you unless you have the flexibility in the organisation to respond. It is not just a matter of measurement, but of structuring the organisation correctly.

MN: For Ikea, the biggest challenge is managing the internal processes of getting the right skills in place. This may include reshaping the organisational structures they are becoming obsolete for the way we should interact with the market. I don’t know if it is an entirely new skill set, but we need additional skills that we do not have naturally in the organisation.

Elena Fedeli (EF): Indesit’s corporate office in Milan co-ordinates the communication of the whole company. We created a big consumer insight department because we understand the need to learn more about consumers and what they want. We have recruited new people skilled in this kind of speciality. For example, within the insight department we included digital people.

The most important thing is to have specialists focused on understanding how the market is evolving, how we can capture that and how we can adapt. We have consumer insight people working with others in product development, media, marketing and communications because we are all connected and all working for the same purpose.


TW: Influencing skills the ability to operate in complex organisations and get broader commitments, to coalesce and marshal have never been more important. The number of different agencies involved to create online campaigns is enormous, and so is the number of departments within a company that you need to marshal initiatives. The pressure on an individual to sell an idea to the business, to get people committed to a campaign, has exploded. You need people who not only know what they are doing technically, but have the project management and influencing skills to make stuff happen.

DW: One trap it is easy to fall into is to create complex systems to cope with the greater complexity [of media channels]. But such a system is impossible to manage. If you have commitment from your company about what the brand really stands for, decisions about which media channels to use and how we use them become easier, and you can trust different teams. They are all pointing in the same direction and can be trusted to do so.

MW: How important is social media in your communications at the moment?

HA: A lot of people watch TV and use Twitter at the same time. There is a lot of effort put into understanding the connection between those two channels. You have to be very clear what your objectives are and how to measure what becomes successful. The challenge for our agencies and us is how you make sure you have the complexity understood and built into the overall picture. The core of it is really understanding consumers and the way they run their lives. It is about going on that journey with them every day and not forgetting that we are consumers too. In our private lives, we are probably all using social media, yet are we using it inside the company? Are we in Facebook groups inside the company? We are not doing that.

OM: When we talk about social media, we often focus on the digital technology and forget the social part. Consumer behaviour has always been social. We need to change our mindset as researchers from trying to understand individual attitudes and behaviour to trying to understand social behaviour, whether digital or not. An important skill now is listening to consumers connecting the dots and understanding what people are saying. Another area that will be more important in future is storytelling.

At Unicef, we work on engaging donors to support causes. There are 22,000 children dying every day in different parts of the world, especially in Africa about 8 million a year. When you communicate this, that does not move people. It is seen as just a statistic. But when you tell a story about a child in a particular village in Mali, whose brother died because he could not get a vaccine and now they can get the vaccine, but they need more for other children in the village that moves people.

Studies show that it is more effective to use emotions and storytelling in communications than rational explanation and numbers. More surprising is that emotions alone are more effective than emotions and reason together. That shows the power of telling a story. There are different ways to do this, but it is something all marketers and researchers need to do listen to get the insight, build the story and then tell it in a compelling and emotional way.

“Our control over communications is less and less, so we need to train ourselves not just to inform people but how to manage a conversation”

MW: How do you determine the business effects of telling engaging stories?

MN: At Ikea, we have always wanted to have storytelling as one of the basic components in our communications. We know this is something that engages people, regardless of the medium. There had not been a global direction for us to work with more consistently until two years ago, but we know storytelling will enable us to get better touchpoints with the consumer.

Engagement has always existed in our relationships with consumers. It is just packaged in a new way according to the circumstances of new media channels. We are always going up and down with talk of hard and soft metrics. It comes and goes. When I look at the relations we have inside the company, we are saying in our factsheets and scorecards that you need to have a balance between the soft things that tell a story, and the hard data. We never go for only one or the other.


MW: How should organisations manage their reputations online and in social media?

HA: Our communications department takes the lead, as you would probably expect. That is separate from marketing but we need to work very closely because there is a crossover. Managing issues and problems has to be done together because we need to be able to figure out what kind of messages we need to put out and why people react in the way they do. We need to know what issues they are getting upset about.

TW: When you are troubleshooting online, it tends to be run from a different department from marketing, but it has consequences for the brand. Other companies will run it from the customer care department, where they have online interventions and help solve problems. A good example of that would be BT, which actively goes online and addresses issues before they become big problems.

OM: The other key term relating to brand reputation is trust. It is becoming more and more important. The long-term trend, for example with social media, is that we have more acquaintances and fewer close friends, which puts trust at risk. You are dealing with a lot of people who you do not know very well. You are making connections with companies and people you have never seen.

In data from the past ten years, we see trust in official institutions declining. This is the challenge. The opportunity is that we have more tools whether behavioural economics or neuroscience to understand trust and see it as a threat to reputation, but also as something you can build proactively. Again, it is everybody’s job in the organisation.

MW: How are the role and skills of marketers viewed within organisations?

EF: Ten years ago, marketers were very skilled and prepared, fully aware of what marketing was. Now they are very young and more concerned with how to apply and exploit new technologies, instead of really understanding how they can be part of a global marketing remit. They are more focused and specialised, but they do not have a total view of what marketing is. The risk is that we are working with people who are very good and highly prepared in a specific field, but are not really marketing experts as we used to be.

TW: In packaged goods companies, marketers attract a lot of respect. I think they always have done and they continue to do so. Whether it is GlaxoSmithKline, Reckitt Benckiser or Procter & Gamble, they want marketing skills. In other organisations, it might not be quite the same.


MW: How should marketers go about trying to understand consumers’ habits?

MN: We are continually tracking the interests of our consumers by involving them in our communities, picking out what their needs are and what they are doing in their lives. What we are talking about at Ikea the home is a very important part of people’s lives. We want to contribute to people’s life projects, to making them as good as possible.

We try to observe we send our product developers and designers out to people’s homes. What we see is that there are differences and similarities between people in China and Europe. I cannot generalise and say ’this is what consumers think’, but we have a system to pick up as much as possible.

HA: We need to go on that journey with our target audience to understand their lives. But we tend to forget that, at the same time, what we do at home and what our children do at home counts for something. We should be open, listening and thinking about it from each of these different contexts.

MW: What can brands learn from each other’s communications strategies?

EF: I don’t think we can come to one answer for all companies and organisations. It is different at each business. We learn more information and deeper knowledge from each other about how to improve company organisation, approaches and methodology, to work within different departments and how to work with consumers.

OM: One important area for Unicef is to make more use of the partnerships we have in the private sector, such as those we have with Ikea and Barcelona Football Club, for example. They have a lot of experience in branding and building emotional engagement with supporters.

In the process, we will increase our knowledge of engagement and all the things that you must have in the private sector, from branding and communications to building long-term relationships.


MW: How well equipped are agencies to handle brands’ communications across multiple media channels?

EF: Agencies are not, in my opinion, bringing to the market the right skills, through the people they hire. Sometimes they are not able to provide the right support. They are trying, but the economic environment, the downturn, impacted a lot in the past two years on their way of being proactive and efficient in answering a company’s needs.

DW: The biggest query that we get in the media area is that it is confusing and diverse, so it is a challenge to know where to start. Lots of people say they need partners who can help navigate and make sense of it. People are relieved to realise it is not just they who do not know it all, whether it be new channels, new touchpoints or new media and technology.

Mark Choueke, Editor, Marketing Week
CHAIR: Mark Choueke, Editor, Marketing Week

Matti Naar, Strategic planning director, Ikea
Matti Naar, Strategic planning director, Ikea

Tim Wragg, Chief executive officer, Millward Brown Europe
Tim Wragg, Chief executive officer, Millward Brown Europe

Helen Ashton, Head of research marketing and planning, Visa Europe
Helen Ashton, Head of research marketing and planning, Visa Europe

Omar Mahmoud, Chief of market knowledge, Unicef
Omar Mahmoud, Chief of market knowledge, Unicef

Dan White, Chief marketing officer, Millward Brown Europe
Dan White, Chief marketing officer, Millward Brown Europe

Elena Fedeli, Global media manager, Indesit
Elena Fedeli, Global media manager, Indesit



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