“There’s a narrative in the world that brands are outliving their usefulness,” says Andrew Thomas, President of Southeast Asia & India at Ogilvy PR. And he’s right; in many ways, consumers no longer need to be guided on what to use or buy. They are savvier and better informed than ever before, and trust peer-to-peer interactions far more than marketing. So are brands still valuable in 2015? And if so, how can they ensure they stay that way? In an attempt to find out, Thomas picked the brains of a panel of marketing heads from all over Asia.
Tug of war
One of the challenges many brands face is the constant conflict between the urge to stay ahead of the competition at all costs, and their core values. Lynette Poh is Director of Marketing Communications at the recently rebranded Singtel, which has placed its customer-centric principles at the forefront of its new public identity.
“That human touch is something we struggle with constantly,” she says of the tricky balance between fostering better, faster technology and retaining trust in the long term. This is reflected in UX design; clarity of information isn’t exactly something the telecoms industry is known for, but the Singtel website features easily digestible information on FAQs like how to avoid data roaming charges while abroad. “Customers want reassuring, they want some hand-holding,” says Poh.
Genuine utility is also at the heart of sportswear retailer Decathlon’s customer experience, as Southeast Asia Head of Marketing, Clarence Chew, explains. Initially unsure of how to approach the Singapore market due to the price of commercial premises, the company eventually decided to go digital-first, so that people would be familiar with the brand before the store opened.
In addition to doing all the usual things (streamlining the eCommerce experience, tracking online customer behaviour etc.), Decathlon also ensured that each customer service staff member actually played the sport they were hired to advise on. This way, even though a customer’s first interaction with the brand is through a screen or over the phone, they still get that all-important peer-to-peer experience.
Chew actually believes that there is more value in this approach than in hiring a famous athlete as a brand spokesperson. Rather than paying for “in your face” marketing featuring someone like Usain Bolt, each customer enjoys a contextual shopping experience. By taking a step back and waiting for people to come to them, Decathlon are empowering people who are passionate about sport to tell their stories on the brand’s behalf, cultivating first generation advocates in Singapore way ahead of the physical store’s grand opening in December.
But what about a legacy brand? Can Coke, for example, be as fluid and flexible as Decathlon while still remaining true to its hundred year heritage? According to Pratik Thakar, VP of Asia-Pacific Creative & Content Excellence at Coca-Cola, the answer is yes. Sure, there are certain things about the Coke brand which may well never change (the iconic bottle, for instance, was designed over a century ago to be easily recognised in the dark or even when broken), but he claims Coke remains fresh by constantly seeking and teaming up with people who like their product, creating a wider culture of creative partners. And it’s hard to argue with the results. Recalling the personalised ‘Share A Coke’ campaign, Thakar reminds us that “people were queuing up all over the world… and that applies to Singapore, to Siberia, to Chicago.”
A brand walks into a bar…
So yes, it is possible for brands to remain useful and appealing to the shrewd 21st century consumer, even if only in small ways, like helping them avoid a large phone bill, or talking sports with them, or giving them a soft drink with their name on it. And most importantly, of course, by continuing to listen.
At the end of the session, each panellist is asked; if their brand were to walk into a bar, how would they behave, and what would they order? All three answer without hesitation, demonstrating that they know exactly who they are and what they stand for.
Chew describes Decathlon as walking in drenched in sweat from a workout, and ordering a cold pressed juice. “If the bartender didn’t have that, I’d ask him to innovate something, and then buy a round of that new drink for everyone in the place.” Poh imagines Singtel as the friend that you would be meeting in the bar for a good catchup. And Coke? That’s easy, says Thakar: “Coke would be the bartender!”