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Rethinking Marketing Strategy For The Digital Age

2013 April 3

Steve Jobs liked to say that it’s not enough to kill bad ideas, you have to kill good ones too.  That’s because good strategy is about making choices and it takes more than intelligence or even instinct, it takes discipline, one of Jobs’ most overlooked qualities.

Marketing strategy is particularly difficult because, as I’ve noted before, the rules have changed.   A generation ago, brands mostly strove to create buzz and “drive awareness,” now they need to build compelling experiences that keep consumers engaged.

However, the old tasks have not gone away.  We still need to run TV ads and in-store promotions, man conference booths and hand out brochures, but now on top of that we have a whole new world of algorithms, apps and devices to master.  To meet the new challenges, we need a new strategic approach, a new mindset and new organizations.

Identifying Objectives

It used to be that marketing strategy focused on the sales funnel.  You would get people’s attention, tell them about your product or service, convince them why it should be their preferred option and then drive them to action.


While there were important steps along the way, the thinking was that the more people you put in the front, the more would come out the back.  That model, although it wasn’t 100% accurate, was true enough to build the great brands of the 20th century.

Now it’s broken.  Put up an attention grabbing TV campaign today and consumers won’t flock to the stores, but to the Internet.  Their activity will leave a data trail, which your competitors will use to retarget your consumers with competing messages before a purchase event can occur.

So, by spending money to build brand awareness and walking away, you’re much more likely to enrich your competition than yourself.  In the digital age, marketers must change their focus from grabbing attention to holding attention by focusing on three core business objectives: Awareness, sales and advocacy.

3 Pillars

While there are more elaborate path-to-purchase models available, I’ve found that complexity often obscures principle.  Excess sophistication leads nowhere unless it leads to greater understanding.

Simple metrics such as awareness, sales and advocacy will give you an accurate snapshot of your brand’s health and how you can best improve it.  In some high involvement categories with longer sales cycles, consideration and loyalty can also play a role, but research has shown that loyalty especially can be misleading.

Most importantly, clarifying marketing objectives is an analytical process, not a conceptual one.  You are not trying to understand the “consumer mindset” or the “brand essence.” While those are worthy activities for developing positioning and executional concepts, they have no place in a discussion of business strategy.

What you want to know is where you’re winning, where you’re losing and where you have an opportunity to improve your competitive position.  Period. Once you’ve achieved that, you can move on.

Forming a Tactical Approach

Identifying clear objectives is important, because it allows us to set priorities. No budget is unlimited and identifying a particular area of need not only allows us to focus our creative energies, but budget money as well, to where we can best improve our business.

However, simply identifying priorities is less helpful in forming a tactical approach, so the next step is to overlay the basic objectives model with tactical strategies that will help us create solutions targeted to a particular brands needs:

Digital Strategy Framework

The above chart shows the three core brand objectives aligned with six tactical strategies. Mere platitudes and a “one size fits all” approach will not do, so once we’ve identified a particular area of need, we want to focus on building an approach designed for that specific task, rather than chasing the latest fad.

Perhaps not surprisingly, awareness and sales problems can largely be solved with conventional strategies augmented with new digital tools.  Advocacy, however, is a largely new area and requires new thinking.

Let’s look at each area in brief:

Attention and Evaluation:  While awareness has been de-emphasized in the digital age, it’s still extremely important, especially during a launch or when there is a particular brand attribute that needs to be communicated.

For example, when Mercedes wanted to promote their new zero emission “F-Cell” hydrogen fuel technology they got people talking about it by driving an “invisible car” across Germany,



Consumers who were intrigued by the campaign and searched the Internet for more information would inevitably be led to the company’s promotional page for green initiatives, the Wikipedia page or one of the glowing reviews about their revolutionary new car.

It’s important to note that while Mercedes is a well known brand, very few people know anything about hydrogen fuel technology and even fewer are actively considering a purchase.  Mercedes’ goal here is not necessarily to drive consumers directly to dealerships, but to get them to start thinking seriously about hydrogen cars.

Recency and Proximity:  Marketers have long known that to drive sales, you need to reach people at the point of purchase.  Digital retail solutions, however, are taking the concept to a whole new level as Tesco showed with their virtual stores at Korean subway stations.



Rather than trying to drive consumers into their stores, Tesco was able to insert the shopping experience into their daily commute.  The strategy helped catapult Tesco to a leadership position in the Korean market.

Value Exchange and Community: While building awareness and driving sales are objectives that most firms are familiar with and know how to manage successfully, advocacy is a relatively new area and one in which many marketers falter.

Brands that seek to increase advocacy need to create product, social and content experiences that increase perceived value.  Nike’s Fuelband program is great example of how a brand can connect with consumers by building a unique marketing asset:



A crucial point here is how Nike not only creates a value exchange with consumers, but how it builds a community.  A vibrant community has nothing to do with how many followers you have, but how they interact with each other.

The genius of Fuelband is not in the technology, but how it allows consumers to cheer their friends on and receive encouragement themselves.

Small, Scalable Bets

While all of the strategies above have won awards for their creativity, what’s most impressive about them is their complexity.

These are not simply the product of an exciting brainstorming session followed by a few caffeine and adrenaline fueled all-night sessions in order to get the tapes on air by deadline.  They are the results of years of testing and learning.

Mercedes has been experimenting with experiential marketing for years. Tesco had its share of trials and tribulations as it built up its web fulfillment operations in Korea to the point where the virtual store idea could actually be made to work.  Nike’s Fuelband isn’t a one-off, but an evolution from Nike+iPod.

All of these involved the entire organization, not just the marketing department and a few partner agencies.  They required a series of small, scalable bets across the enterprise that were integrated into a seamless whole.

The implications are clear, the era of the big idea is over.  The future belongs to organizations that can create effective collaboration across a wide variety of skills and capabilities.

The New Marketing Organization

There is probably no greater creative organization in the world today than Pixar, which has won over two dozen Academy Awards and whose average gross for a film (over $600 million) puts every other studio to shame.

In a classic HBR article, Pixar founder Ed Catmull, explains that the secret to the company’s success is an open non-hierarchical environment where it’s safe for everyone to offer ideas across boundaries of position or functional discipline.  Feedback is frank, but not vicious and there are no stars at Pixar (can you name even one?).

Now think about the typical corporate marketing organization, with often adversarial relationships between departments, partner agencies and suppliers, glorified turf wars and personality cults.  Clearly we need a new paradigm.

If marketing practice has changed so fundamentally, why do our marketing organizations look so much the same?

– Greg

23 Responses leave one →
  1. April 3, 2013

    Absolutely brilliant piece.
    Coke did something similar in China to engage customers by airing a game in place of a TVC a couple of months ago.
    Combining efforts across departments resulting in a holistic marketing experience is the future.

  2. April 3, 2013

    Thanks Kumar. Would you mind posting a link to the Coke campaign?

    – Greg

  3. April 3, 2013

    Thanks Kumar.

    – Greg

  4. Shilpi Dutta permalink
    April 3, 2013

    Well researched and good piece of info. Thanx for sharing!

  5. April 3, 2013

    Glad you liked it (and thanks for sayoing so!)

    – Greg

  6. linda allen permalink
    April 7, 2013

    Great article with valid points about modern marketing. Kudos for creating a valid dialogue!!!

  7. April 7, 2013

    Thanks Linda!

  8. April 7, 2013

    Hi Greg,

    Good article

    The basic nature of marketing has not changed.

    It has always been about the relationship and the exchange. Good marketing (and there has not been a lot of it admittedly) has always had a focus on establishing and nurturing the relation ship first and the commercial exchange later. Social Media/Digital media is changing (perhaps) the way the relationship is communicated. If more providers/sellers get to understand that better (not a lot to really say they have yet) and invest in using the media better, then indeed marketing will get better

    But marketing is much more than just the communication. There are at least another 3 P’s in the mix to consider.

    I am going to put up your article on some sites for comment.

    Best wishes to you

  9. April 7, 2013

    Thanks Brian,

    I think it’s true that the basic nature of marketing hasn’t changed, but the basic tools and technology has changed so much I think how we have to practice it has transformed.

    – Greg

  10. April 7, 2013

    Technology is always changing Greg and it will always have an impact on business/marketing.

    I started off my involvement in eCommerce/eMarketing with Telex machines (boosted by the telephone for International Marketing. Apart from my then limited actual knowledge of marketing concepts, I was doing then a lot of what I do (and consult about) now. I understood the power of creating an ongoing, strong relationship.

    You no longer post your articles to any of my LI groups?


  11. April 7, 2013

    That’s true. Strong consumer relationships are more important now than ever.

    – Greg

  12. April 16, 2013

    Interesting article Greg, thanks. It is the complexity that is now so difficult for many small businesses to deal with. The digital era has brought many opportunities and advantages but it is far from intuitive to work out how best to build a marketing strategy around it.

    I have clients who are very confused about using social media and also struggle to find the time to utilise it effectively. Some have outsourced this, but there is a real danger that this could backfire if the supplier does not understand their business sufficiently.

  13. April 16, 2013


    That’s an excellent point. However, one important thing that many people forget is that the level of complexity is not completely out of your control. Often, what seems like complexity is really just a failure to think things through, which inevitably results in a muddle.

    That’s why it’s important to put objectives first, middle and last. Throughout the entire process you need to continually ask whether the proposed solution will solve a specific (and identified) awareness, sales or advocacy problem.

    Unfortunately, all too often, marketers start with the solution (We need a social strategy! We need an app!) and then move forward without any idea of what they are trying to achieve. The result, inevitably, is that nothing is achieved.

    Finally, while I love to beat up on social media marketers (many are crap), have your clients briefed their agency effectively? Have they made their objectives clear? Do they know what they are themselves?

    – Greg

  14. Neno permalink
    April 16, 2013

    people remain the same. people don’t wanna change their habits. they love them. they find pride in them, their whole existence relies on routine.
    it’s our wishful thinking that’s wrong.

    experts move too fast. much faster than ordinary people. predicting change, evaluating possible outcomes, forecasting new “trends”…

    play easy. take your time.
    maximize traditional, experiment in new.

  15. April 16, 2013

    Thanks for sharing Neno.

    – Greg

  16. April 18, 2013

    Good response to my comment Greg, thanks. Definitele true though that many people I know are just daunted by the whole prospect of digital marketing.

  17. April 29, 2013

    Nice article, and I really liked the new way you depicted the marketing approach with awareness, sales and advocacy.

    For one, humans have an innate propensity for simplyfication and generization. Big Idea is an appealing simplification of business successes and stories behind them. It feels naturally good and easy to grasp (and to imitate, as you correctly pointed out).

    Many confound also concepts of creativity and innovation. Creativity, while necessary, is not and shouldnt be an objective of marketing or any other business activity. As David Ogilvy famously quipped (paraphrased) “To be creative for sake of creativity, one might leave his house every morning with a pair of different socks hanging out of his mouth.”

    Lastly, one point, that I think you could have mentioned as well, especially in the advocacy and awareness parts is the recent trend of gamification. It is primarily deployed for customer loyalty (advocacy) and branding (awareness and advocacy) objectives.

  18. April 29, 2013

    Good point Hayk. Gamification is certainly an important emerging concept, although I think it would mainly fall under “Loyalty” which I classified as a secondary objective, or within either a content or a social value exchange.

    In any case, it is a very interesting area and I think we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of its potential!

    – Greg

  19. September 10, 2014

    Definitely outstanding portion.
    Coke does a thing similar with China to interact with customers simply by airing an activity rather than the TVC two months back.
    Merging efforts around sections creating a holistic advertising and marketing knowledge will be the long term.

  20. October 27, 2014

    Hi Greg! I enjoyed reading your article! I’m in the process of switching my marketing strategy because I feel that there is something in my current strategy that is not effective anymore in the digital age. After reading your entire article, I learned and formulated some strategies that I need to review. Thanks for the inspiration Greg!

  21. October 27, 2014

    Nice to hear! Thanks John.

    – Greg

  22. November 24, 2014

    Excellent article! The sales chart was very interesting and i agree that the pattern pointed out the factors in sales marketing – sales, advocacy, and awareness; which are the keys to a good marketing strategy.

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