TECHNICAL KNOCKOUT

Undoubtedly, marketers must embrace technology – but it brings its own special set of problems.

Addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland recently, Intel’s chief executive Andy Grove exhorted European leaders to make greater use of computer technologies as they prepare their countries for the global economy: “Without new national efforts, future generations of Europeans will be left with a technology deficit,” he said.

Obviously no-one had told Grove that a wave of digital euphoria has been sweeping across the European marketing scene for at least two years. “The blue-chip marketing departments of The Times Top 1,000 are more advanced in their use of digitalised information than all the other areas of their company put together,” says Andy Bass, marketing manager for Toshiba UK’s notebook PC division. “I just don’t see how they can operate in any other way.”

Marketing has become “immediate” and you have to embrace the medium of immediacy, which is digital. While he was still at the launch of a new desktop range of PCs in the US, Bass was able to transfer the digital presentation over to his UK marketing team by e-mail from his portable. “It was in the hands of my guy co-ordinating a presentation to our UK launch team within minutes,” he says. “He was able to present a quick run through of what was being said in the US, more or less live. By the time I got back the info was old hat,” adds Bass.

Digital technology is driving the customer loyalty process and the Internet has turned traditional marketing on its head. “The age of digitisation is making the ability of the marketing manager to control the situation very difficult,” continues Bass. “Some years ago, you could more or less stay on top of what was going on in your local country. You can’t now.”

Two years ago Toshiba’s customers were telling its UK salesforce about new product developments first, thanks to customers’ access to the Internet. “We weren’t switched on digitally to tell them ourselves,” recalls Bass.

As a rule of thumb, computers used to be launched in the US first, followed by Europe and the rest of the world. Often there was a time lag of a month to six weeks before non-US marketing teams got to know what was coming down the product pipeline, a distinct handicap dealing with the corporate market always clamouring for advanced information.

“If we’d decided to ship a product on April 1, and I had planned to tell my corporate customers about it on March 1, my US counterparts launching on February 1 knocked up product pictures and details on the Web, so overriding my ability to control my launch to my customers,” says Bass. “Now, all that has changed. We have to keep an eye on worldwide launch schedules and make sure internally we are ahead of what’s happening.”

Toshiba UK has also digitalised its price lists, range brochures and data sheets, and established direct links to its advertising, direct mail, and fulfilment agencies. Leads and warranty card details are loaded on to a database and e-mailed to the fulfilment house nightly: “We take 3,000 to 4,000 leads a month for our products. We just send the file over,” says Bass. “The ability to integrate a database with that sort of service is very powerful.”

Five years ago, the technology to do this either didn’t exist, or it was far too expensive. But the technology has become more accessible and affordable; now, the dilemma of “how” you should manage your media mix has become paramount.

“When digitisation of information arrived, it seemed to offer, for the first time, the ability to store information in a single, reusable form, which was readily modifiable to suit all purposes,” says Ray Taylor, chairman of Revolution, a design and marketing communications consultancy. “But with the advent of the Internet, CD-Roms and interactive multimedia, our clients have become frustrated by the need to produce customised versions of digital information for each specific media.”

One such client, Microsoft, is solving this problem by dictating that all imagery should be held in a form suitable for use on the Internet, and that all other media (such as print) will have to make do with this imagery.

“As a result, we can expect to see more and more material which doesn’t fully exploit the potential quality of each medium,” adds Taylor, “consisting instead of simple, low-resolution images designed to exist within the constraints of the Internet.”

So where do marketers and designers fit into the picture?

“If anything, they’ll need to acquire a new mindset if they are to continue to produce good looking, and of course effective, material that will stand out in today’s crowded digital market,” says Taylor. “Having to work with increasingly basic imagery, the emphasis will rely more on word communication. The challenge for them now is to get their heads round creating really succinct and targeted copy.”

Of course, this should only be the job of the marketer, not the IT specialist or consultant brought in to work on the project. After all, marketers know their customers far better than anyone else. But to be effective, they must get a better understanding of just how the medium works – how to use the technology creatively and effectively to strengthen their business offer rather than detract from it.

It’s all too easy for marketers to become seduced by new digital media without really understanding what exactly it can offer. You should be clear about what you want to communicate and to whom.

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