Building brands in a post-digital world

As a veteran of the marketing industry and a steward of some of the world’s iconic brands like Huggies and Kleenex, Kimberly-Clark Chief Marketing Officer Clive Sirkin has certainly seen his share of changes in the marketing world. It may be revealing, then, that while speaking at the AdAge Digital Conference, Sirkin told his audience to forget about digital marketing—and especially how it’s been done in the past. In a world that’s seemingly on an unimpeded path towards an all-digital age, this may sound irresponsible. But having been in the industry for so long, Sirkin believes that resting on your laurels is a death notice. These days, brands need to invent a business strategy that fits the digital lives that people actually live, which is something most brands have failed at.

Sirkin makes an excellent point, that we’re often talking about how the world is changing or that change is on the horizon. That’s false, he says; immense change has already happened and marketers need to talk about how to align changing consumer behaviors with brands. It’s common sense; Sirkin noted that outsiders could view marketers as “insane”, because despite having a wealth of knowledge and data that is suggesting rapid behavioral changes in consumers, so many marketing decisions are made using tired processes that don’t apply to actual, current reality. He believes that these same old tactics—such as the endless repetition by paper companies that their bathroom tissue is “soft and strong” or the endless parade of automotive beauty shots and zero-down lease rates—no longer generate ROI or build the brand.  But they continue to be utilized because marketers refuse to let go.  There are three reasons for this:

1) The basic belief that change = risk. We’re a species that has always found safety in the known and discomfort in the unknown. But this is an industry that has often rewarded zeal, and part of that is believing in something and taking a risk based on it. Sirkin says we must educate marketers that “standing still guarantees failure.” At Kimberly-Clark, Sirkin says the company gives brand builders the opportunity to take risks and make change.

2) Investment in the status-quo. This can cause brands to fail to see what’s right in front of them. Changing the organizational structure, changing the tools and changing the KPIs are things all companies can do to foster more imaginative thinking.

3) Things aren’t kept simple. The “digital ninjas” in a company often don’t communicate enough in simple terms and make their ideas and potential outcomes accessible. Thus, traditional marketers often resist, on the simple basis that they don’t understand. The digitally-immersed folks can help bridge this gap by making things are simple as possible, and the resulting synergy can inspire change in an organization.

So how are some ways that brands can break through the status quo and build more effective marketing? Sirkin cautions against “bolting on” digital to a campaign. Too often brands start with TV campaigns and work from there, fitting the digital side of things afterwards. Of Kimberly-Clark, Sirkin says “We don’t make ads, we develop programs”, which are based on business needs, not reach and frequency goals. Additionally, Sirkin spoke about the company’s concept of “Participatory Brand Journalism”, predicated on the belief that, to still believe in marketing as a business of communicating one thing, is suicide. He goes as far as urging marketers to kill industry mainstays like the creative brief and focus group. “If you go to the agency and describe a business problem that gets in the way of us making more money, then we will get to a better place much quicker.”

Sirkin also sees an opportunity for some utilitarian, industry-wide agreement. He believes that one of the biggest issues today is the celebration of average performance; that marketers are paying a game with themselves, with who and how they control the data because that’s where ROI is determined. There is no one way to read all this data when it comes to ROI, and that causes business to suffer. Agencies, big data organizations and marketers won’t solve this issue alone, and each one wants to solve it its own way. Perhaps the answer lies in a combination of these ideas, but that can only happen if the gap is shortened.

Sirkin ended by touching on an aspect of the culture that has been built at Kimberly-Clark, which circles back to risk-taking:  that making a mistake is just fine if you keep moving forward. “When the building is on fire, it is okay to jump.” It may sound dangerous, but whoever said risk-taking was safe?

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