I was recently asked for an interview. The key question was: “what keeps you, as a marketer, awake at night?”
Interviews concentrate the mind wonderfully. They’re like a switchback mechanism, returning thoughts to what we have forgotten and taken for granted. Random and unstoppable, the ideas flow to challenge preconceived assumptions.
My answer to the question was that I tend to sleep rather well, rarely dream and never have nightmares (though I’m told that I snore too).
That is not to say that I don’t have concerns about many of the big issues which confront marketers today.
Technology – in the form of social media, e-commerce and mobile systems – is changing the shape of marketing. Some people even argue, wrongly in my view, that technology, especially social media, is making marketing redundant by empowering consumers and putting them in control of content and messaging as well as giving them almost infinite choice of when, where and what to shop for.
Brands still have to brand
The redundancy claim is not true. After all, brands still have to brand, and companies still have services and products to sell, and bring to market. But there can be little doubt there is a power shift underway in favour of the consumer.
Then there’s ‘big data’. New data gathering technologies have given companies the ability to collect masses of it while mining granular data points to help marketers recognise patterns and forecast trends. It’s a form of metastasized market research. It means marketers must have far greater numerical and analytical skills than they’ve had (or got away with) in the past.
So in my view what’s really changing isn’t the idea or discipline of marketing as such – which has always been about acquiring and keeping customers – but the role, responsibilities and profile of marketers. Not only do they still have to be creative polymaths with a keen eye on, and knowledge of, their markets, but they have to understand how technology is altering communication, sales and distribution channels while shaping consumer behaviours.
Analytical and creative marketers
Marketers have to become much more analytical with data without losing creativity, and they need to be much cleverer with numbers, not only in dealing with big data but also in holding their own in the boardroom when it gets to debates about the company’s financial performance and marketing’s contribution to it.
Understanding what the technology can do is a challenge, but knowing what impact it has on consumer behaviours and how to use it is another. I think marketers are struggling with it all. Many marketers feel like Denzel Washington in the movie ‘Unstoppable’, trying to get the runaway train to slow down and stop. Only technology in real-life seems to be doing the opposite, getting faster and uncontrollable. Marketers have no other choice but to figure out how to use it to their advantage.
Western consumers and Generation ‘Y’
How are consumers changing? I’m speaking of western consumers here. To my mind The Great Recession has had a huge impact on their behaviours. They’ve become more frugal, careful with money, and emerged as savvy value shoppers.
Supermarkets are falling over themselves to compete on low price while offering more. Affordable, mid-priced fast fashion retailers are doing well out of the new consumer too. That was unheard of pre-2007. Here I’m talking about the 99 percent of consumers, not the 1 percent who can still splash out on luxury goods with nary a thought for their bank balance at the end of the month.
Then we have a big cohort of millennials (Gen Y, as they’re also called) coming through into the workplace and those lucky enough to get jobs are certainly predisposed toward buying sustainable products that in some way or another can reduce environmental or societal impacts. That’s not surprising as they know the well-being of the planet is in the balance and that their cohort will live long enough to face a very uncertain if not bleak future.
Chinese companies in Europe
That’s the big picture. For CEMS360 there are niche challenges such as dealing with clients from an Asian culture who have a completely different value-set and mentality compared to European firms. It’s fairly common knowledge that the Chinese are enamoured of western brands, especially in the luxury categories, though China’s new middle class are flocking to European mid-range premium brands too.
Yet many Chinese businesses either don’t understand the brand-building process for their own firms and products – in which case they’re not prepared to make the necessary investment – or are impatient with the idea of developing brands, in which case they don’t want to invest the time.
Consequently a large part of the CEMS’ acquisition effort is spent educating Chinese clients on the basics of marketing and branding – a pre-101 crash course, if you like – to convince them of marketing best practice that will minimise their risk of failure. When you mention ‘risk’ and ‘failure’ the Chinese listen intently.
Since Chinese firms are keen on buying distressed European assets, technology and brands, CEMS has gained traction. In 2012 Europe was the biggest beneficiary of Chinese overseas direct investment, taking 33 percent of its global investments. Many Chinese SMEs are owned either by self-educated businessmen who ‘came up the hard way’ or former engineers and financial managers.
China’s difficulty with branding
The irony is that conceptually it is harder for Chinese owners and senior managers to apprehend the development path taken by the very same western brands which they admire and appreciate so much. It is little wonder that apart from Lenovo, Haier and Huawei, few western consumers can name a ‘global’ Chinese brand.
However, the Chinese are very fast learners, and we believe we’re doing our bit to help clients get up the marketing and branding learning curve quickly.
There is another irony here as well: the Chinese are technologically very adept and as we know, skilful with numbers and statistics, but not skilled at marketing in the way I defined the discipline earlier: ‘art, science, alchemy’.
They have the strengths many western marketers need, and western marketers have strengths the Chinese would benefit from. They can learn from us, and we from them.
These are incredibly interesting cultural challenges that CEMS360 accepted from the outset. Our company has learnt how to manage them along the way in the pursuit of new growth opportunities coming from Asia to Europe.
Despite the Great Recession, it is far from doom and gloom, as long as marketers know where to look for value-creating opportunities.
As I mentioned earlier, these are random thoughts. Go with them where you please.
- Phil Mead