The Marketing Society conference round-up: 5 tips on how to cope with disruption

Business as usual is rapidly becoming the marketing equivalent of a death warrant, says The Marketing Society. So much so that it dedicated its annual conference to “the reset agenda” and how marketers need to reshape their strategy and the way they communicate with customers to cope with disruption. From embracing failure to focusing on social media, here are five tips from top marketers at brands such as EasyJet, Asos and Google on resetting marketing for the future.

‘Embrace the risk of failure’

The conference kicked off with Unilever’s marketing VP Marc Mathieu speaking about how the FMCG giant is working more closely with startups to ensure it remains innovative and pioneering. He said Unilever has to constantly make sure it is “raising the floor”, with it main challenge ensuring that it doesn’t get too comfortable and is proactive in responding to new trends and technologies rather than reactive.

This has led to Unilever adopting a “deploy or die” mentality where it experiments and learns from those experiments rather than waiting for perfection. That is why Unilever has set up the “Unilever Foundry”, a platform through which brands can find startups to work with and try out new technologies such as beacons.

“We have to embrace the risk of failure more than we have in the past if we are to succeed in the future,” he added.

Asos chairman Brian McBride, agreed, saying that while the online retailer is “on a rocket journey to the moon” it didn’t expect that journey to be straight. Asos has had a difficult year, forced to issue three profit warnings, and McBride admitted it had “overinvested” in China, taking on too much too soon without really understanding the market.

However, he said it was “good” to make mistakes because that is the only way to learn.

“We try stuff and if it doesn’t work we try again. We get in and get learnings and learn on the fly, that is better than spending five years on the thesis and never launching,” he said.

Steve Vranakis, executive creative director at Google Creative Lab, said that remains Google’s mantra, with the company aiming to “take the fear” out of failing so that people take “audacious risks”. Without that, he said, Google would never have come up with concepts like self-driving cars or Project Loon, which aims to bring balloon-powered internet to the two-thirds of consumers that can’t access the web.

Look externally

EasyJet CEO Carolyn McCall said companies forced to reset should look to outside help. When she first brought up the idea of allocated seating, after finding that 75% of customers “hated” free seating, she said she was met with a silent room and then mass protests from staff.

That was because how fast an airline can turn a plane is key to profitability and free seating was the fastest way to fill a plane. However, she said they went to Formula 1 to see how they shaved tenths of seconds off pit stops and used those learnings to shorten how long its planes spent on the ground.

“It is the single more successful thing EasyJet has done in terms of passengers and revenues,” she said.

Mathieu said he has also been going outside Unilever to find more inspiration. He said the marketing team over the past couple of years has started attending technology conferences such as CES and SXSW, as well as going to Silicon Valley to meet the likes of Facebook and Google, as well as smaller startups.

“[We are] going to where people are pioneering the most,” he said.

“We needed to trigger brands. Like in our private lives it is easy to get into a routine. The Foundry removed the barrier and raised interest.”

Make sure media budgets reflect audience behaviour

McBride said Asos doesn’t advertise on TV because young people, which make up its core customers, don’t sit and watch TV anymore preferring to watch short clips on YouTube. He said there is “too much spray and pray about it”, with brands that put an ad in Coronation Street having no idea who has seen it

Asos chairman Brian Macbride at The Marketing Society conference
Asos chairman Brian McBride at The Marketing Society conference

Digital advertising, by contrast, is much more controlled, measurable, granular and cost-effective.

“TV advertising is not wrong…. But life has moved on,” he said.

Richard King, founder of new insurance brand Ingenie, said he is focused on social media because that is where young people, who his brand is aimed at, are. The brand also wants to be part of a conversation around education on safer driving, making social media the ideal medium.

Olympian Ben Ainslie agreed. He is attempting to win sailing competition the Americas Cup and bring it back to the UK for the first time since 1851 and says social media will be “critical” to engaging with the British public and building a story around the project.

He said the team will use social media to build a narrative, highlighting the work of the 1851 trust and showcasing areas such as boat design, to try to inspire the next generation of sailors and other, such as young engineers that might move into building boats.

Don’t fall foul of marketing myopia

United Biscuits CEO and The Marketing Society president Martin Glenn had harsh words for any brand that fails to adapt to changing marketing conditions, calling it a failure to “spot and take on board change”. He used the example of the big four supermarkets, all of which are seeing sales decline.

Glenn said there has been “no revolution” in shopping but rather a change in demographics and behaviour that the supermarkets ignored. That is why they didn’t notice the rise of the discounters, which he called the UKIP of retail, or the move away from big stores.

“It is time to move marketing from a useful enabling function at the fringes to part of the business driving growth and change.”

Martin Glenn, The Marketing Society president

Reasserting his belief that “all business failures are marketing failures”, Glenn called for more marketers to make the move to chief executives, saying too many companies are run by accountants that just count money rather than creating growth. He cited figures that show a third of all CEOs running public companies come from a finance background, with just 20% having marketing experience.

Believe in the power of brand

Despite disruptions, marketers must rely on the power of their brands, according to Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland. He said people buy brands because they “only trust someone they can hurt”. Companies that own brands with a valuable reputation are less likely to sell something of low value because they can be hurt, he said.

EasyJet’s McCall admitted that part of the problem at the airline when she joined in 2010 was that the brand had become “blurred” and no one knew what it stood for anymore. She said she had to re-evaluate what the brand stood for and how it was relevant in order to restore it to growth.

She cautioned, however, that companies shouldn’t just leave this until their company is in trouble, saying it is important to re-examine every few years what the brand means to customers even if things are going well.