The Death of The Consumer Journey and The Rise of Micro-Marketing

I have asked Costas Papaikonomou (CP), founding partner of innovation powerhouse Happen, to discuss with me (FP) the theme here below. The purpose is to spark useful conversations about the evolution of the Marketing and Brand job.

Spoiler alert

FP – The consumer journey, defined as the sequential experience of a Brand proposition and communication, is dead. Micro-marketing is the new reality: an expansive, concentric movement, where Brand identities are designed one micro-step at a time. I am going to exaggerate the differences between past and present, hopefully to highlight the greater power that we all have today. I am using the present tense in most parts of this piece, as I feel we have been stuck in a permanent freeze for the past thirty years.

CP – To paraphrase Frank Zappa: it might not be entirely dead; but it certainly smells funny. It appears many principles remain valid, but the context, and with it consumer expectations, have shifted.

Intro

FP – Journey: I love this word. There is something so educative about it. The consumer journey is part of the survival kit of all marketeers. This is the recipe for success, the way to grow a Brand. But something has changed lately. This word has become tired, and the theory of a progressive dive into a brand’s vast universe no longer reflects what is happening today.

The innovation and consumer journey

FP – We are in the nineties. Innovation centers are global and powerful. Marketing professionals wander from ideation to concept to full go-to-market strategies, in one seamless journey. We spend months from category studies, ethnographies or initial focus groups, up to the final quantitative validation, passing through industrialization tests. We know, with unbreakable faith, what we are selling, what we want to say and who to say it to. So much so, that we build an entire creative and media infrastructure around ‘the’ message that we are to unveil to the general public. At the heart of the whole process is the consumer insight, our sacred fire, identified thanks to standard research. No more doubts. That is it for the next years after the launch. We are finally ready to burn Capital Expenditures (Capex) on the altar of the innovation funnel and launch.

Step two. The birth of every new product generates millions of individual consumer journeys. Awareness, consideration, purchase, satisfaction and, finally, advocacy. A ritual, where Brands end up being loved again and again for who they are and the story they tell. Per Kevin Roberts, the goal is to create a Lovemark.

CP – Could it be consumers have become more promiscuous, poly-amorous, less in love with one and more in love with many? I suspect it works both ways. Whereas in the old days Brand teams could craft an ideal – hypothetical – picture of their ideal target consumer, now a great idea can appeal to many more people than it was originally intended for: groups who share excitement and attitude, rather than birth date and income levels.

The journey is dead. Why?

FP – The journey is a de-risking exercise, taking place before cutting two large checks: industrial and media investments. The ‘old world’ looks for good enough archetypes, and the mitigation of all risks is a clever branded idea to be pushed through powerful, classic media. Upper funnel is the big distortion, before trading in the lower funnel. Stay the course, milk it and revise it every few years, only if you need to! Brand equity and communication are the life savers. Macro-marketing efforts hold a disproportionate share of mind, winning over people’s micro-nuances. Market leaders have all the time to get exposed and they always win, thanks to an effective and narrow trade and media network. Consumers travel almost through a tunnel. What do consumers owe Brands at the end of it? Love.

The wake-up call. Growth in the past years has been captured almost entirely by small Brands with lean innovation budgets. No matter the industry, big Brands are failing to create value.

CP – What’s more, the rotation amongst these smaller competitors is tremendous. Many are not around for very long and go out of business, if they ever intended to be in business for much longer than creating that one product they felt the need to make. That one product that stole the Big Brands’ revenues.

FP – So what’s driving this change? If it’s not media fragmentation, the advent of online or a sudden dry-out of big CPG, what is it then? It is us: human beings. Or, better, it is technology that finally unleashes the full power of the human mind, which learns and thrives, hates and loves, creates and simplifies not in a sequential way, but in an expansive fashion (to paraphrase S. Firestein). The consumer journey is never linear. While innovating, we should worship the benefits of conscious ignorance, rather than full ownership of an idea. Innovation is going to land in a much better place if we expose ourselves even when we are not ready, and then perfect a Brand offering as we go. We will unlock unthinkable growth opportunities, only if we feel that we are never truly done. People out there will never be satisfied with a pre-set path. The opportunity that we have today, thanks to technology and data, is to better serve consumers. We can help solve real-life problems. For example, the Dollar Shave Club is a revolution from the bottom up, an open, unfinished, participatory forum about Men’s grooming. It takes the whole village to build a Brand.

CP – Let’s go back to that village fifty years ago, to the cornershop selling wares to citizens passing through its aisles. The owner knew exactly what every regular customer wanted, and probably stocked in accordance. Big Brands have simply had too many – too variable – customers to look after and tried to overcome this by simplifying in profiles, statistics and gross generalizations. And guess what? Modern social media and computing power allow us all to go back to that time of knowing each customer individually.

Whose Brand is it anyways? Or, who is your Brand?

FP – Advertising effectiveness has been decreasing overtime. Thanks to social media and big data we now know how poor our guesses are. Nowadays, the critics and non-purchasers are just as instrumental for a business as the lovers. The new recipe for success is to launch as soon as possible, even on a small scale, and adjust the proposition as it goes, using loyalists, one-timers and zero-timers alike. It is no longer a progressive absorption of something that is external and eternal. Brands are open-sourced, and must mirror who people are: ever changing vortexes of emotions and decisions. Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, these are the names often cited as examples of evolving platforms. They are companies who thrive on endless exchange with the outside world. This is true, so the counter-argument goes, but it is Silicon Valley, it is the exception of big tech. Ok then, let’s talk about CPG. Could we not look at Coca-Cola as more of a canvas of communal innovation in the world of drinks, health and sugar control? Can this openness go beyond the boundaries of product and extend to supply chain? Can we not buy or rent equipment for its flexibility, short runs and social impact? Can we not lose control over Brands completely? Technology allows for the launch of products with an ever-shifting core and consumer insight, like for iPhones or smart watches. What do we do now? Observe, steal, test, execute, start over, but whatever you do, do it fast. You’ll be surprised: consumers reward generously those who help them fix problems. They are your Brand.

CP – And, they want to grow with you. But even in today’s promiscuous, fast paced interactions, growing meaningful brands takes time. Even those that started this decade as tiny players and successfully grew to challenge big Brands, did so thanks to the focused and persistent people at the helm. People with nowhere to be promoted to other than growing their own jobs. Rotation is low and market knowledge amongst small Brands relatively higher, because their people stick around.

Stop talking, start seeding

FP – In this new set-up, the upper and lower funnels fade into a blob-like movement. Nowadays, Marketing professionals need to listen more than talk. Integrated promotions no longer exist. It is about a dis-integrated exchange of ideas where an infinite number of small seeds (posts, images, short videos, tweets – you name them) are sown across the immediate neighborhood of a Brand. If we look at the success of most craft Brands, expansion into broad appeal, and then final purchase, are the result of a dialogue made by a multitude of micro-voices. So, if a structured communication and media plan cannot secure desire anymore, is social media the new way? Technology amplifies our intellectual power, but it also amplifies our ability to adjust. I have been working closely with a Marketing start-up in the world of fashion accessories in the past year, and what shocks me is the marginal efficiency of every conversation that we entertain with people via social media. Every dialogue is improved step by step, gathering more feedback and more following. Do you have something creative and grand to say? Break it into small bits, seed it via social media, observe, play, modify, and start over.

To recycle John Wanamaker’s adage, we live in a world where both halves of traditional advertising money are a waste. Winning is always hard. Micro-communication will not make success easier to achieve or faster, but it will make successful businesses create higher, long-lasting value.

The power is micro

FP – I am not praising chaos. I am looking for better chances for innovation and communication to deliver what they are supposed to: consumer value. The new word that I am looking for is micro. I think it captures how things are today. It is micro-marketing that has the courage to launch a draft, face the fire, correct the course and start again. Micro-marketing creates advocacy by hearing more than saying. The new innovation process is a de-structured series of micro-launches, looking for the best shot to scale up. Brands are experimental. One of the hottest trends today is brand collaborations.

CP – This is what entrepreneurs call “skin in the game”. It is how small brands act and big brands forgot to. The classic CPG marketeer’s role has devolved to creating things that are abstract, with details handled by others and launch dates far away. They are literally as distant to the effects of their decisions as a Soviet bureaucrat. What small Brands do well is ensure the same people create, act, launch and reap the rewards (or learnings) of their actions. When you continuously improve with small steps, you never need to revolutionize your way out of trouble.

Summary

FP – In summary, we have built a journey, where consumers have no voice. The journey helps companies more than people. Moreover, human learning is an unfinished business and human love is exchanged more than earned. Technology and social media force us to make our supply chain and our dialogue with people personal, fast and flexible. The best strategy for the future is to revise our supply chain and offer ever changing Brand propositions, where consumers participate into a relentless transformation bottom up. Marketing professionals can still steer Brands, but only if they entertain ‘one on one’ dialogues with the true Brand managers, their fans.

It is sad to say, after twenty years of Marketing: people never walked down the journey the way I shaped it in my times as a Brand Manager. Life is not like that. Do you want to see if your Brand is fit for Millennials and Gen Z? Give it to them, in bits and pieces. The future is bold, but only if it is micro.

By Frank Pagano

About the author

Frank PaganoFrank Pagano is an experienced Marketing & Business Leader, now working in the Fashion industry. He is based in Switzerland. Global profile, passionate about innovation, brand management, brand communication and international business, Frank is always up for irresistible product concepts, ultimate communication integrated campaigns & great Italian food and wine..

  • Mark Lewis

    Frank, this is an interesting thesis not least because it signs up to the reality that we are living in a complex system characterized by non-linearity. iI definitely agree with your idea of taking many small bets. However, I would be interested to know how you think large companies would operationalize this? To be truly micro means creating thousands of messages or paths and constantly evolving them.

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