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Revenge of the Brand Nerds

On May 9, 2006, more than 1,000,000 viewers watched Channel 7’s sunrise program transfixed by the trapped miner’s drama unfolding in Beaconsfield. As host David Koch unforgettably clambered into the ambulance to embrace rescued miner Todd Russell, few would remember that only 4 years earlier the program was a virtual non-entity.

The program that had averaged only 90,000 viewers as opposed to all-powerful Today’s 420,000 in 2002, had proved that a sound strategy and innovative marketing can turn the tables on the most established market leader.

Clearly, a television program is as much of a commodity to be packaged, distributed, sold and supported as any other product or service. So the lessons to be learned by sunrises’ come from behind success apply as much to baked beans, debt collection services and anti virus software.

The main point is that smaller, challenger brands now have a greater ability to challenge the top dogs of their markets and industries. These ‘brand nerds’ have more tools available to them to pull off previously unimaginable market share turnarounds.

So what has changed? Why do perennial also rans stand a greater chance now than, say, 10 years ago.

The answer is on our computer screen, tucked away in our mobile phone, and nestled within our PDAs. As these forms of communication are an essential part of our lives, so they are with our customers and consumers.

Far too many trees have been felled to breathlessly explain the amazing power of online advertising, email and SMS marketing. We’ve been fed stats highlighting the phenomenal growth of the use of technology for over 6 years now.

The result is that most marketers have thought about how their products and services can benefit from the 14,000,000 Australians who regularly use the internet along with a mind blowing 18,000,000 mobile phones. Interactive TV already has a toehold here with the possibility of ‘ad stripping’ TiVO just around the corner.

OK. We’ve run some banners on a few websites, we send the occasional email to our clients and we include our web address in our ads. All sorted, right?

Wrong. The opportunity today lies in the incredible levelling of the playing field that this surge of consumer involvement offers nimble marketers. It’s the brand nerds that have been overshadowed by the uber spending market leaders for years that have taken to these new communication channels and are profiting as a result.

This is why Cetaphil, a pharmacy only therapeutic skincare brand nerd with plain packaging and a medium price point has become the fastest growing product in its category.

Not having the luxury of an enormous advertising budget like some of his larger competitors, Cetaphil’s Kirk Koelmeyer decided on a strategy of consumer involvement. What advertising was done offered an incentive – free product samples – for people to go to the Cetaphil website.

Once having signed up, consumers are emailed on a regular basis with skincare tips, news and comments from other Cetaphil consumers. The opt-in Australian email database is now over half the size of Cetaphil’s US database and is the engine room of the product’s consistently strong growth.

A big part of sunrise’s success can also be sheeted home to viewer involvement. Their ‘ROSwall’ – Responses of Sunrisers – an on-set whiteboard that reflects viewer emailed comments is an example. Another is the ‘Sunrise Family’. Over 120,000 Australians have signed up also to receive offers from Sunrise sponsors, emails from on-air presenters Kochie, Mel, Nat and Barrets and even invitations to events.

The reason that brand nerds have gravitated to newer ways of competing is that, quite simply, they have to. Smaller brands, while always under pressure to justify their existence, are now battling even greater challenges just to stay afloat. Grocery brand nerds, for example are currently being forced off the shelf due to the launch of supermarket own premium housebrands.

Just because you’re small, however doesn’t mean you have a mortgage on alternate marketing approaches. Targeted brand nerd strategies can apply equally to bigger brands; it’s just that the traditional marketing systems are so entrenched with many of the monoliths, that they have been slow to react to the changes in the behaviour of their markets.

Proctor & Gamble, one of the world’s largest and savviest advertisers, has not been one of them. According to Bernard Balderston, P&G UK Director of Media “The trend at P&G over the past 10 years has been to spend proportionately less on television advertising and more on other media. We need to be more flexible about where we spend our advertising dollars as consumers have far more control over what advertising messages they receive than they used to.” As a result, fifteen years ago, 95% of P&G’s advertising budget was spent on television, now that figure is roughly 80%.

In the US, Ford, General Motors and Absolut Vodka will reportedly spend 20% of their respective marketing budgets online in 2006.

Still in the US, the entire marketing budget for a brand nerd beer – in that country at least – called Foster’s is being switched to online.

The essence of the opportunity is that marketers in organisations large and small are still learning about the best ways to harness the new channels that are available to us and our customers.

There are, however, key lessons that have proven to be effective for Australian brand nerds. They are:

1. Create an Audience

While this is a light bulb thought for many traditional marketers, it has been assumed knowledge for generations of direct marketers. The knowledge gap mainly exists because Australia does not have an ingrained DM history like the US.

Having said that, all marketers are familiar with audiences. When we buy media airtime and space all we’re doing is attempting to attract and influence someone else’s audience. So now that’s it’s much easier to do, why not create your own audience?

Every DM expert will confirm that the best list / audience / database is the one you create yourself. And there’s no simpler or more cost-effective way to create your own audience than via the internet.

Give your audience a reason to go to your data collection page via traditional or online advertising, search and promotional campaigns and watch the opt-ins grow. Every touch point becomes an opportunity to build an asset that can yield dividends for years to come.

Online data capture gets past the age-old conundrum of how expensive it is to process and data enter written forms, coupons or entries. On the internet, consumers do all the hard work.

SMS is another simple and effective tool you can use to create your audience. One of the major advantages of SMS, of course is its immediacy. Again, wrapped up with an incentive, building a database via SMS is an essential brand nerd marketer’s tool.

2. Keep ‘em Coming Back for More

When we stop watching TV programs or reading magazines they usually disappear quickly. So it is with our newly acquired audience. Bore, abuse or bombard them and they’ll be gone forever.

Successful brand nerds have an advantage here. Because mainstream media becomes more expensive every year, by necessity they are more below the line oriented. As such, brand nerds are used to thinking up lateral ways to engage their customers that don’t involve $10,000,000 ad campaigns.

What this era of connectivity has done is to re-frame perspectives on promotions, loyalty programs and incentive schemes. Considered poor relations or afterthoughts in previous times, these programs are now seen for what they can be: effective ways to maintain customer attention long enough to make more money and build brand relevance.

How many of us fly Qantas because we’re only 12,500 Frequent Flyer points away from the trip we really want to take? How many of us buy our beer or wine from Liquorland because of the Fly Buy points?

Some may say such programs are bribes or disguised discounts. Whatever way you view them, effective engagement programs work. The big difference now, however, that they are no longer just the domains of large corporates.

The advent of the internet has slashed the cost to create and maintain even the more complex programs.

So the brand nerd’s monthly email newsletter with tips, offers, coupons and customer testimonials can strategically stand shoulder to shoulder with the well-established BTL programs.

3. Keep in Touch

Woody Allen said “80% of success is just showing up”. As a marketer, how often does your brand ‘show up’ in your customers’ consciousness?

Imagine proposing marriage to the love of your life and then not seeing or calling her for the next 6 months. Do you think you’d still be engaged after that?

This is exactly what brands do all the time. Having blown their budget on the big re-launch or the POS or the DM campaign, that’s often it for any proactive contact until next year’s budget kicks in. So your relationship with the most important people in your marketing world is at the mercy of budget constraints rather than what actually works for your consumers.

Not any more. With the opt-in email database that we’ve created and the content we’ve crafted, now we can maintain our place on the shopping list in an interesting and welcome way.

What successful brand nerds today have learned to do is use email and SMS to keep building the brand and giving their customers more reasons to buy. Not just because it’s cost-effective, but also because it works.

4. Happily Ever After

Now for the caveat: if you’re looking for excitement, TV shoots in exotic locations, rubbing shoulders with celebrities, these strategies won’t do it for you. Brand nerd marketing budgets don’t usually allow for such frivolities anyway.

What these strategies will do is consistently create stronger and more profitable relationships with your customers. If your strategy is sound and your implementation matches what your market wants, the impact should show up on your bottom line and market share figures sooner rather than later.

All you need to do is keep rolling it out. Regular emails, online surveys, special offers, new promotions and then start all over again. It’s as simple, boring and predictable as that. But gosh it’s effective!

In addition to the beautiful simplicity of this plan, what increases the robustness of the opportunity even more is that so few marketers who should be doing it actually are.

Perhaps it’s because many are stuck in the old paradigm that they learned in their formative years in the industry. While the internet and email have effectively existed as commercial channels since 1995, it’s only in the last few years that there has been any scale with more traditional organisations. Whatever the reason, the field in relatively clear no matter what industry you are in.

If there’s one thing that regular surveys of ‘What are the World’s Biggest Brands’ teaches us is that new brands can always force their way into the minds of consumers. Who knew about Amazon, eBay and Google just 10 years ago? Now they’re worth billions.

Toward the other end of the scale is today’s brand nerd. With a clear and specific strategy, nimble guerilla tactics and dollop of patience, greater rewards await. For marketers and their target markets.