For many brands, the past year has been a race to remain relevant and provide as seamless an experience as possible in the digital channels where consumers are increasingly spending their time—from social media to ecommerce to videoconferencing tools. When the main goal is to keep the lights on, communications have predominantly been focused on facts and functionality. But is there a role for emotion and opinion in digital marketing that has been overlooked?
At Campaign's Digital360 Festival, CMOs from across the alcohol, beauty and financial-services industries—all of which were disrupted in some way by the Covid-19 pandemic—debated whether there is a role to provide more than promotions and services in digital marketing, and in what platforms brands should seek to have a point of view or tap into consumer emotion.
Suresh Balaji, the CMO of HSBC APAC, is a pragmatist who believes digital marketing should mainly be functional.
"I don't think we should push hard to push humanity into it," he said. "The customer doesn't give a dash whether your banners are soft or not if they're looking for something functional at that point in time. You will be doing more disservice to your brand by talking about something fluffy when the customer is actually looking for certain information or they're in the purchase cycle. Then you're not having a conversation, you're becoming very tone-deaf."
In the session, two-thirds (67%) of attendees stated that they believed that digital marketing is focused mostly on function rather than emotion, according to an audience poll.
Mika Kanai, the general manager of corporate media and digital marketing at Shiseido China, takes a more platform-specific view.
"Marketers need to be aware of the nature of the communication that is needed to perform well [in certain platforms]," she said. "In ecommerce specifically, it is quite different from the traditional perspective of brand marketing. It's much more functional and benefit-driven: Consumers don't search for emotional keywords on ecommerce platforms. Product usage is a more important connection time with the consumer."
But Kanai warned that shifting marketing communications too much into platform "has its own danger in terms of losing the opportunity to communicate what the brand stands for from an emotional perspective."
This is where engagement-driven platforms and online forums become important tools.
"Take platforms where consumer interest is about the content and engagement through the content, naturally there are more opportunities for us to talk about different angles," Kanai said. "The other way is through consumer-to-consumer communication within a group of people who have a similar point of interest. Brands want to facilitate the conversation, through a chat group, and be a connector."
Yann Soenen, the VP of marketing at Pernod Ricard China, noted that using digital channels to understand consumer sentiment, rather than simply to push content, is "fundamental to the way we need to approach marketing".
"It's very much about understanding your consumer targets, your tribes you want to be part of with your brand, understanding their passion points and then identifying how you can be part of the conversation rather than trying to plug a message," he said. "Then you're able to generate a relationship with your consumer, generate conversation and have them actually create content. That's very powerful. And that's the way you build trust and loyalty to your brand.
"As marketers, we have a duty to use digital not to simply push content and overlook emotions—actually it is the opposite, we need to leverage digital technology to better understand with data who are consumers are, what they feel, and then react to that appropriately."
HSBC's Balaji cautioned against brands focusing on emotion and brand-building without investing in their product or ensuring they have a seamless digital customer experience.
"If a brand is hugely emotionally appealing to you, it's all hearts and minds, and it's all goosebumps, but it completely doesn't deliver on its product, will consumers buy it or not?" he questioned.
"The key is to ensure that the promises are followed in some way," he continued. "I could have the best car in the world and it sounds amazing, but in the morning, when I have to drop my daughter to school and the car doesn't start, my love for the brand drops like a lead balloon. And then if I call the after-sales service and they don't pick up the phone, it gets even worse. When I complain on social media and the social media doesn't respond, it's getting even worse. I may love their advertising, I may love their WeChat channel and their influencers. But the minute the functionality doesn't follow through, that's the end of it. So there's a big risk in marketers and brand managers trying to set up huge expectations for the brand and ending up under-delivering."
Pernod Ricard's Soenen pointed out that while a standout campaign "gets you the chance to be tried", he agreed that the quality of the product will define whether a consumer will come back or not.
Social media: Risk versus reward
Social media is a powerful tool for brands to deliver on customer service, have a one-on-one relationship with prospective customers and refine their brand voice. It is an empowering but unforgiving medium in which brands can be instantly cancelled for striking the wrong chord or failing to do their due diligence.
It's especially sensitive in China, pointed out Shanghai-based Kanai, where there are countless examples of brands facing boycotts on Weibo and WeChat after causing offence.
"In China there have been some big incidents in terms of social crises, and some of them could have been avoided," Kanai said. "The most significant case is when new brands come into China and there is not enough respect for local culture, or trust of the local partners in China trying to do the right thing for the context of the market. That is very disastrous, and it is really hard to recover."
Brands also need to be aware when working with celebrities to understand their personal views and ensure they align with the brand, she said.
Despite the risk, Kanai believes that brands should seek to have a point of view on social rather than simply push marketing.
"There's always some risk points for brands in social, but the question is, is the risk worth taking or not?" she said. "If the brand has a very specific point of view that they strongly believe, then I think it's the right risk to take, being mindful of being able to react to different consumer sentiments and being ready to step in, in the right way."
An audience poll revealed an overwhelming 79% of attendees actively seek out or support brands that are willing to be human and have a point of view.
HSBC's Balaji provided three fundamental rules for brands in social media: it's not just a broadcast medium, have a conversation with consumers; ensure you have customer service people available to respond to customer queries; and don't be afraid.
"We will not [always] get it right, but rather that you be there to partake in the conversation rather than customers talking among themselves about you," he advised. "As we all know, reputation is what people say when you're not in the room, but with social, the opportunity is to be in the room and still build your reputation."
Infusing humanity into technology
Digital technology provides an opportunity for brands to create better, more convenient services, in Balaji's view. But in order to use technology to enhance humanity, this requires significant human intervention, he believes.
He pointed to artificial intelligence as an example. It's a technology that, in its simplest form, uses historical datasets to identify patterns to predict the future. But simply inputting historical data without understanding context can lead to problems such as AI bias. It also doesn't take into context a change in consumer attitudes and regulations.
"If we look at some of the advertising back in the day, in the 1930s cigarettes were being advertised as used by doctors," Balaji said. "I'm not casting any questions about what was moral at that point in time, but you would never be able to say it now. What we think is moral, immoral, ethical, unethical—advertising has changed a lot in the last many years. And it evolves even faster now.
"If we just look at history and try to get the AI to repeat history, then all of us have a big problem as marketers. But if we intervene, to say, that was the history, but we will try and predict the future and create an overlay for the future, and we will set some guardrails. That is a role of a really good marketing leader. To say, where is the Zeitgeist? Where's the world going? What constitutes good, what constitutes bad, what constitutes hope, what constitutes how we want the next generation of consumers to be using our products and services? All of that is not going to come from the machine, it is going to come from people."
Three-quarters of audience attendees (75%) said not enough is being done to ensure the digitisation of services is sustainable and good for humans.