Wharton Marketing Conference 2017: “Invisible Branding” and Human Elements Key Features in the Digital Age

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At the Wharton MBA Marketing Conference on “Connecting with Customers in the Digital Age,” speakers from Jetblue, P&G, J&J, Siggi’s Dairy, Urban Outfitters, Comcast, Glossier, Philadelphia 76ers, Cotopaxi, world-of-mouth consultancy Fizz, and analytics company Bluelabs provided lots of insights into the ever-evolving world of consumer marketing.

A couple of key themes that I noticed were “invisible branding” and how important human elements remain in marketing despite our increasingly digitized world.

“Invisible branding”: Some trends in current consumer marketing suggest that while consumers might want less blatant advertising, they seem open to brand messaging in a more subtle, non-overt way. Here are some approaches that illustrate “invisible branding”.

1. The role of traditional communication has fundamentally changed. For example, Tesla, which is revolutionizing personal transportation, communicates exclusively through word of mouth and earned media coverage, but not through ad campaigns. Traditional advertising seems to have a new additional role as trigger for consumers to share their experience and thoughts about the advertised brand with their social connections. Moreover, advertising content is increasingly tailored to the context such as a specific website or situation.

2. Marketing through influencers plays a significant role. It works well especially for smaller, often budget-constrained brands that put great emphasis on authenticity and genuinely connecting with consumers. Ideally, influencers are selected from the pool of engaged customers, who are passionate and knowledgeable about the product category and brand, recognized by the brand community as trustworthy experts, and intrinsically motivated to be brand ambassadors. For consumers, interacting with non-corporate influencers might add a sense of discovery and being in the know about “cool” brands and products.

Apart from online influencers on social media or corporate websites, real world influence and TV still have their place. Chocolate milk is an example where appealing endorsers such as high school varsity athletes, cheerleaders, as well as high school coaches were targeted to ultimately reach high school students, a generally difficult-to-market-to segment, to revive the declining chocolate milk category. These influencer groups were credible role models for consuming chocolate milk as a post-exercise recovery beverage, thus helping to reposition the category from an indulgent to a nutritious drink. Another example is “untrendy-turned-cool” Rainier beer, which was featured on local Seattle TV at inexpensive post-midnight hours, through entertaining segments featuring local improv actors, a group well connected with local bartenders, who are crucial influencers at the point of purchase.

3. Creative consumer engagement is another way of “invisible branding.” Initiatives like Jetblue’s award-winning “Reach Across the Aisle” campaign, which prompted passengers on a flight to unanimously agree on a destination for a free round-trip flight to the agreed-upon destination, and outdoor gear brand Cotopaxi’s 24-hour, team-based Questival adventure race fit the respective brand’s personality, while engaging consumers in a fun way around culturally and socially timely topics of interest.

4. Since consumers want relevant, personalized offerings and messages, they mostly don’t mind behind-the-scenes data analysis and targeted reminders to nudge them to complete a purchase, for example when their shopping process consists of a series of website and store visits or when they put items in an online shopping cart but abandon it.

Human elements: Just as artificial intelligence and robots have made a foray into our lives, it was interesting to hear how crucial the human factor, face-to-face interaction, and emotional intelligence remain in marketing.

In addition to the observations above about peer-to-peer word of mouth, employees seem to be recognized as powerful brand creators and ambassadors. For example, Cotopaxi’s sewers help design the “Del Día” collection of backpacks by freely choosing the colorway of each piece they produce, thus creating one-of-a-kind items. The Philadelphia 76ers recognize their employees as powerful brand spokespeople, whom they educate on the brand and have equipped with branded 76ers merchandise.

At a time of data overload, advanced analytics and technology, brands are increasingly looking for talent that, in addition to being analytically savvy, is good at interpreting data, communicating insights, and convincing management to implement data-backed recommendations.

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