The beginning of a new year always brings a healthy obsession with what’s next. In the marketing community, we’re no exception: many of us have thought deeply about the latest trends and technologies to predict what will dominate the conversation in 2016.
There’s more to consider than ever before. Our role keeps evolving: we’re strategists who understand Big Data’s impact on targeting customers, technologists who think about the user experience from first touch to contact form, even analysts who back up every dollar spent with the elusive “ROI.”
In many ways, it’s been a great evolution—with new responsibilities and technology comes a chance to make and measure an impact on the bottom line. Yet it also means more complexity, and too often that means losing sight of the one thing that underlies it all: the customer.
At Sullivan, our most successful work in 2015 centered on the question that matters most: does this change my customer’s experience for the better? We see this as the imperative for 2016 and beyond, and believe it will manifest itself in five ways:
1. The customer journey will be priority one. For all of the effort we spend sharpening positioning statements, it’s important to remember: customers don’t see them. They only experience this high-level work (or don’t) via communications touch points: a new product demo begets an email, an email begets a conversation with a sales representative. Knowing your customer’s path—their day-to-day challenges, rational concerns, emotional mindset, where and how they spend time—is the only way to ensure your brand actually comes to life.
Many companies are making this seamless experience their biggest investment. Retailers like North Face obsessively map out their buyer’s journey, from store visit to ongoing loyalty programs. Through our work with American Express FX International Payments, we’ve reimagined the new client onboarding experience. And in higher education, we helped Cornell Tech use its position as a new school to build a story that influenced students, faculty, and partners at the right moments.
2. Brands will be built from the bottom-up. Today’s large companies can be unwieldy: conglomerates that bring together a wide range of products and services, across industries. These disparate parts don’t always clearly tell together as part of a larger story from the top-down, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. On the contrary, marketers are working at the product- and service-level, talking to customers and sales people to understandhow they’re interacting, then drawing threads across these answers to build a larger story about a company’s value.
In our work with ADP, conversations with sales people revealed that they frequently solved misperceptions small business owners had about their individual offerings. Our “Mythbusters” thought leadership series not only codified these lessons, but helped shape a broader story about a company that provided solutions far beyond payroll. Similarly, our work with Merrill Lynch across many products and services—Merrill Lynch One, its Wealth Allocation Framework, and Alternative Investments, to name a few—helped clarify the company’s evolving goals-based wealth management approach, and its evolving role within Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
3. Companies will stop “helicopter parenting” their brand identities. Historically, marketers have spent time and energy policing every creative expression, smothering anything deemed “off brand” and enforcing rigid brand guidelines in an effort towards consistency. It’s only natural to protect what you love—but it’s time to let design evolve with the customer need and channel, not stagnate with what the guidelines dictate.
Companies like Airbnb have realized the best approach is a flexible, active identity that encourages sharing and conversation. Our own work with Cornell Tech focused onfacilitating community ownership of the school—and, by proxy, the brand—at every step, and their efforts made the work better. Even NASA has gone flexible: as nostalgic fans clamored for a return to its beloved “meatball” logo, NASA embraced the noise, and helped bring it back on a series of special-issue communications.
4. Employees will become key brand ambassadors. There is more competition than ever to recruit and retain the same group of elite talent, and marketers have realized that employer branding is no longer an afterthought. First, it’s proven that a happy, proud workplace means more efficient, productive employees—and an honest internal message goes a long way to building this type of environment. But internal branding drives the bottom line in another way: it equips your employees to go out and share your story with external audiences.
The Hyatt Thrive program, which turns the hotel chain’s employees into vocal brand ambassadors who can talk to guests about the company’s impressive sustainability efforts, is a great example. Similarly, our work with Wolters Kluwer, a leading professional services and technology company, helped rally employee engagement—and in a space obsessed with being perceived as cool, gave employees a sense of real pride in their relentless pursuit of detail and innovative solutions.
5. Content marketing success will be measured by relevance—and engagement. Marketers can’t enter a meeting without hearing that “content is king,” but it’s not always clear what that means. Too often, great content is mistaken for a lotof content—saturating your customers and employees across every channel, with no clear plan for what lives where and for what purpose.
But marketers are quickly realizing that volume isn’t what matters; instead, it’s relevance. For example, our app with the National Baseball Hall of Fame was built on this idea, curating the museum’s rich library of photos, videos, and audio to serve up the right artifact from baseball history at the right moment and place. Brands like GE, GoPro, and Maersk have grown their investment in social media for the same reason,creating small but pivotal moments over time with customers that add up to larger value.
Above all, we will see that while the marketer’s role is complex, our value is clear: we drive sales by creating the best customer experience possible. In 2016 and beyond, we’ll continue to orient ourselves around defining and prioritizing how to do that best.