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 / Spring 2009 / Issue 54(originally published by Booz & Company)


Digital Darwinism


Courting — and Counting — Consumers
by Ajaz Ahmed

Digital platforms transform the traditional marketing and media ecosystem into an intimate, immersive, accountable environment, in which consumers can interact with brands at every level of the purchase funnel. This environment engages consumers by providing relevant, interesting value in the form of an idea, a product, a service, an experience, or an application, rather than just a marketing slogan or jingle. It benefits marketers by furnishing a direct, uninterrupted view of the consumer and a measurable, efficient read on the return marketers are generating on each investment.

This accountability and intimacy are particularly important now, when a cluttered and highly fragmented advertising market has made “buying fame” prohibitively expensive. At the same time, traditional advertising has lost its storytelling charm and evolved instead into predictable, often bland, and largely invisible mix-and-match executions that are not memorable or inspiring.

It’s not really surprising that old forms of advertising should fail to translate well in a new digital world. Traditional brand campaigns were developed for broadcast television producers. Today’s campaigns, however, need to connect directly with Web-enabled consumers. Those consumers are not captive viewers. They are discerning critics who use the Internet to pick through and make their own sense of masses of information. Marketers that are not prepared to engage in substantive, deep, genuine conversations with these consumers will be marginalized. On the other hand, those marketers who find arresting ways to make their brands connect with consumers stand to profit.

For example, in preparation for the launch of Xbox’s Halo 3, Microsoft Corporation was looking to tap into the devotion of its global fan base and stimulate early interest in this latest release. Working with the game developers, AKQA created a Web site with a 360-degree virtual tour that im­mersed fans in the latest incarnation of the Halo world and gave them all the detail they could want on the denizens of this futuristic realm. AKQA also created an alternative reality game called Iris, which drew in fans with clues delivered in newspaper circulars, by conspiracy street teams, and via coded cell phone ringtones to help them discover the origin of the Halo universe. Betting on gamers’ avid interest in the details of the charac­ters’ backstories, and on their love of quests, paid off. More than 300,000 consumers downloaded the ringtones, and preorders exceeded 1 million units, helping to make Halo 3 the most successful entertainment game re­lease of its time.

Modern marketing is not primarily about technology; it is about ideas and experiences that get people talking, provide real entertainment value, or render a useful service to the consumer. Indeed, these marketing ideas and experiences need to be crafted with the same discipline as the underlying product so that the two become indistinguishable. To achieve that goal, agencies must bring together new capabilities in content creation and distribution, interface design, e-commerce, and new product development.

Take, for example, Nike Inc.’s Play­maker, an application that allows amateur or semiprofessional soccer teams to easily organize matches online. In this case, marketing takes the form of a tool that helps managers and players solve an everyday problem. By launching it, Nike is sharing its passion for sports and encouraging more people to participate.

To effectively engage consumers in the new digital space, marketers need to define more clearly the values that underlie each of their brands, and to instill those values throughout the marketing program, since every interaction with a customer will effectively become part of the brand. In assessing digital opportunities, executives must start asking the overarching question: What new capabilities and services will enhance the value of our branded product to our customers? The answer to that question is the ultimate lesson of the digital world. It’s not what sounds good or looks cool that ultimately matters — it’s what works.

Ajaz Ahmed is chairman of AKQA, the world’s largest independent digital agency.

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  1. Booz & Company, “Marketing & Media Ecosystem 2010: ANA Annual Meeting CMO Roundtable (PDF),” October 2008: Presentation detailing the survey data.
  2. Matthew Egol and Christopher Vollmer, “Major Media in the Shopping Aisle,” s+b, Winter 2008: Overview of new marketing initiatives in retail locations showing how one corner of the ecosystem is being transformed.
  3. Leslie H. Moeller and Edward C. Landry, with Theodore Kinni, The Four Pillars of Profit-Driven Marketing: How to Maximize Creativity, Accountability, and ROI (McGraw-Hill, 2009): Detailed guide to practices and organizational processes needed to implement marketing metrics and increase accountability for marketing spend.
  4. Christopher Vollmer, with Geoffrey Precourt, Always On: Advertising, Marketing, and Media in an Era of Consumer Control (McGraw-Hill, 2008): How the digital age has reshaped all marketing imperatives and the industry as well.
  5. HP advertising campaign (video)
  6. Nike Web site: Online community for runners that gives Nike key insights into that target market.
  7. For more articles on marketing and sales, sign up for s+b’s RSS feed.
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