Three ways to use programmatic for brand objectives

Programmatic buying has more uses than simply maximising the clicks you get on online display ads – it is also being used by brands for a variety of more subtle purposes.

Programmatic buying, which uses audience data to place targeted advertising across multiple media properties, presents marketers with a significant opportunity. Done in the right way – with the right insights, audience targeting and controls in place – it has the potential to be both powerful and scalable.

It is often seen as a means of generating direct responses, but as these brands show, programmatic has numerous applications and can achieve several types of objective.

1. Tailoring the customer experience: Thomas Cook Airlines

With a goal to be the best leisure airline, Thomas Cook Airlines is an expanding business with aggressive growth targets. It is currently developing its fleet, opening new routes and refurbishing existing planes.

“We are competing against global brands with big budgets so a key target for us is to increase awareness,” explains Helen Atkinson, online partner marketing manager for Thomas Cook Airlines Group. “We looked to display advertising as a medium that could increase brand awareness and help us reposition the brand for the modern independent traveller.”

In this context, the brand has seen programmatic as a way to be clever with its ad spend. Working with Infectious Media, Thomas Cook Airlines launched its programmatic strategy in September 2014, carefully pin-pointing an audience that would be receptive to its message. “With travel being such a low-margin business, we need to fill airplane seats and we target down to which airports customers fly from and which routes they fly,” explains Atkinson. “Driving customers to book at an aggressive ROI target is hard, but getting them to book from one specific destination to another is even harder: we saw programmatic advertising’s ability to target display advertising with this level of accuracy as a major opportunity.”

A core part of Thomas Cook Airlines’ strategy is to drive sales of specific flights by targeting based on airport vicinity. It will typically start the month with targets of which flights it wants to enhance and use location targeting to advertise within a specific airport catchment area for a flight destination the brand wants to sell. For example, it uses one set of creative when advertising a flight from Glasgow International to Antalya, Turkey, and a different one when advertising a flight from Bristol to Gran Canaria, Spain.

Another core part of the airline’s strategy is deriving revenue from seat upgrades and add-ons. After a customer has booked, there is typically a window of opportunity for them to upgrade or add to their in-flight experience. Thomas Cook Airlines uses advertising to drive them to spend more, treating themselves with meals, extra baggage allowance or perhaps a move from economy class to premium class.

“We use our first-party data of what customers have purchased and if they upgrade to inform the campaign,” says Atkinson. “Although a relatively small pool, this is working well to drive more ancillary revenue from customers.”

2. Brand building: Nestlé

Nestlé, one of the early adopters of programmatic, continues to be enthusiastic about the benefits that can be derived from it, including optimising in real time and the reduction in overall advertising costs.

In recent work with agency Jellyfish, the Nescafé Dolce Gusto brand worked to drive sales of its coffee machines, while maximising the cost-efficiency of its display advertising. By taking a programmatic approach, it successfully maximised sales without compromising on an advert’s viewability or brand safety.

The campaign gave the brand a chance to use audience data and resulted in more adverts in view, which generated a greater layer of brand awareness. “When you match data to buying inventory in real time, it is one of the most powerful ways to drive a brand message,” says Gawain Owen, Nestlé marketing communications digital lead, whose remit includes the digital strategy for Nescafé Dolce Gusto.


“We might have nice creative but actually brand building needs the fundamental of direct response – at the end of the day, if my advert is not being seen by human beings it makes no sense spending money.”

He continues: “Programmatic allows for greater targeting and eliminates waste. To be successful in programmatic you must be prepared to make changes to the way you approach digital media and understand that data can be a driver to greater efficiency.”

Broadcasters and advertisers have made recent moves to open up additional inventory in display and video and this shift is sparking greater interest in programmatic within Nestlé’s brand portfolio. “It is crucial that you work in partnership with your agency,” advises Owen. “And be prepared to challenge each other on a daily basis.”

3. Reaching a new level of creativity: O2

Mobile phone network O2’s entry into programmatic ensures it is speaking to its consumers about the right things. Typically, the network provider uses the audience data that flows through programmatic to be able to understand where someone is within their purchase journey and, therefore, where they are in their customer lifecycle.

This means that if an existing customer is about to come out of contract, the brand can start serving them product messaging and tariff information. As soon as they purchase, it will characteristically start sending them information on ‘My O2’ and Priority, its rewards programme. When they start using their contract a little more the brand will message them about additional products, such as a data bolt-on for someone with a high propensity to use data-heavy sites like YouTube.

“The first phase we have gone through is that we have taken the information on the consumer and built automated product bags and used the Amazon-style decision engine process to recommend products to them,” explains Dan Michelson, innovation and capability lead at O2.

“The second phase is building an agile production process and being more sophisticated about how we use things like weather and news stories. We are potentially able to understand more about the content they are looking at online and able to weave that within our advertising, changing the core mechanics based on where they are and what sites they use.”

The brand is working to get the most out of programmatic now, with a strategy of becoming hyper-relevant to the consumer. A good example of this is a campaign that O2 is currently testing around ticketing at live music events, offered through the Priority scheme.

If the brand accesses a large number of tickets, it can start targeting people within music websites, changing the creative asset to be applicable to the band that it has the tickets for. It can also look at what bands are playing at their local venue. If a smaller artist at a local venue is more relevant to a consumer, it can use that as the hook for the consumer rather than just a big name across all messages.

Looking ahead, Michelson is interested in how the industry is going to start getting creative agencies thinking about programmatic in a very different way to just standard assets. “There is a fantastic return on investment using programmatic versus standard [ad buying], especially when we are honing in on tight audience groups,” says Michelson.

“In the future, we want to be able to get to a point where we have an infinite amount of creative variants that can be completely relevant to every single consumer every time we advertise to them, rather than having to serve out generic messaging.”

Programmatic offers the precision and speed of technology, which, if married with human creativity, can deliver impressive business results. Marketers need to be clear on objectives and ensuring the right data is utilised, and to exploit the potential of programmatic advertising businesses need to gain a detailed understanding of how it works for their brand.

Helen Atkinson, Gawain Owen and Dan Michelson will be sharing their knowledge at Marketing Week’s Get With The Programmatic conference in September.