Marketing’s New World Order: Consumers Talk Back—and Everyone HearsPublished: March 11, 2010 in Knowledge@Emory
Pepsi was once the king of Super Bowl Sunday.
Perhaps more than any company outside of Anheuser-Busch, Pepsi seemed to craft its entire marketing strategy—its entire brand image, even—around that all-American Sunday in February. Pepsi made it a point to outspend not just its archrival, The Coca-Cola Company, but almost everybody else, too. This is the company, after all, that spent $5 million to feature Michael Jackson in a Super Bowl ad back in 1984. In later years, the company ran spots featuring Ozzy Osbourne, Bob Dylan and Justin Timberlake.
“Pepsi always outspent Coke on the Super Bowl,” says Tim Halloran, a Goizueta adjunct marketing instructor and brand management consultant. “That was their big deal.”
That is, until this year.
For the first time in 23 years, Pepsi ran no ads during this year’s Super Bowl. None.
Instead of investing in a flashy 30-second spot, the company poured money into creating a new online social media campaign, the “Pepsi Refresh Project,” through which it promises to hand out millions of dollars in support of “ideas that will have a positive impact.”
“This is a huge departure,” says Halloran. “For Pepsi to walk away from the Super Bowl, it really gives you an overarching idea of where the trends are today.”
In other words, Halloran says, it’s a whole new marketing ballgame. And Pepsi is not alone on the playing field.
As social media networks and developments in high technology continue to break down traditional barriers between companies and consumers, and as those customers become increasingly sophisticated and discerning about the products they buy and use, companies are being confronted with enormous changes in marketing and brand management, Goizueta experts say. Gone are the days of the marketing one-way conversation, with a company telling its customers what to think about its products and services.
Today marketing has truly become, for the first time ever, a two-way conversation. Whether companies like or not, these newly empowered consumers are—through blogs and YouTube and Facebook and Twitter—playing an increasingly powerful role in brand management. And while Goizueta experts say traditional television advertising, print advertising and other elements of old-school marketing may never completely vanish, they do believe that the practice of marketing has been fundamentally changed.
They warn that if companies want to keep up—if they want to hold onto their customers and protect their brands—they have no choice but to embrace this new world order.
“I wouldn’t say traditional marketing is in decline, but it’s definitely changing,” says Sandy Jap, a chaired professor of marketing at Goizueta. “A better word might be ‘expanding.’ It used to be that brand management was about the message we sent to our customers. Now, with the Internet, customers have a voice and they are very empowered. Today, brand management is more about answering the question: ‘How do we have a real conversation?’ The toughest thing for marketers, I think, is to realize that they need to think about listening, and not just speaking.”
“With social media, it’s not just a one-way conversation anymore,” he says. “The relationship goes beyond that. It’s a two-way conversation, with the brand not just talking to the consumer, but also the consumer talking back to the brand.”
A few smart companies, Pepsi included, have acknowledged this. And they have taken action, launching fascinating and innovative campaigns to keep that “conversation” going—even at the risk of suffering some bad press in the process. Engaging in that conversation, Jap and Halloran say, means these companies are also opening themselves up to criticism—public criticism.
Domino’s Pizza makes for a great example. Facing sagging sales and a weak reputation in the increasingly competitive pizza marketplace, the company last year launched a monumental campaign not only to redesign its pizzas, but also to remake its reputation.
To do so, Domino’s took the bold step of seeking feedback, direct from customers, about its product.
Most of that feedback, it turned out, was negative.
“Customers were lambasting Dominos,” Halloran says. “People in focus groups were telling them, ‘Your pizza tastes like cardboard.’ So the company went in and captured [on film] all of these focus groups and then used those sessions as the foundation of the campaign to change their pizza. They went to the homes of people who were in those focus groups and asked, ‘Did you say our pizza tasted like cardboard?’ Then they’d give them some of the new pizza, and they’d love it, of course. But I’ve never seen a firm go to the level of slamming their own product, or at least a previous version of their own product.”
It was a risk. But the campaign worked. And that’s in part, Halloran says, because of its unique structure—part traditional marketing, part social media marketing. At the root of the campaign were those focus groups, a tried-and-true method straight from the old school. But after using that feedback as the basis for its makeover, Domino’s continued the conversation in a strictly 21st century fashion.
The company trumpeted its makeover in blogs and on Twitter and Facebook, launched numerous new promotions and, recently, also used social media tools to attack its top rival, Papa John’s. The new Domino’s “Stop The Puffery” campaign calls on Domino’s customers to call out companies and individuals that, like Papa John’s, overstate their own worth. The company even created its own Twitter hashtag: #puffery.
“It gets back to that two-way dialogue,” Halloran says. “It shows the consumer base that the company is really listening to them.”
No firm, however, has proved itself more willing to listen than Mars, makers of the colorful candy brand Skittles. Skittles recently ditched its entire homepage—all of it—and opened the space up entirely to feeds from Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube. The candymaker essentially handed its home on the Web to the general public. Anyone visiting Skittles.com is not only greeted with corporate messaging, but also with thoughts about Skittles, either positive or negative, from all corners of the globe.
The move generated enormous hype and also made Skittles the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter.
“That’s really risky in a way,” Jap says. “Because sure enough, you had people on there who were saying how much they hate Skittles. So if you’re willing to have that conversation, you’re going to have to be willing to hear it.”
According to Jap, some companies just might not be there yet.
Even those firms that are actively experimenting in social media and appear interested in participating in this new two-way conversation seem to experience some trepidation over where marketing is headed.
This hardly comes as a surprise, says Jap.
For decades, companies have held almost complete control over their brands, but that is less and less the case.
And that, she says, can take some getting used to.
“Some companies are embracing this new environment more than others, but most are scared stiff,” she says. “It’s a very different dynamic. It’s not what we have historically taught in business schools. It’s not what we’ve been trained to do. It’s kind of like blind date—some people are good at managing a conversation and listening in a two-way conversation, and others are not. Well, some firms are just really bad at going on a blind date.”