Digital Marketing Strives for Analog Goals

J. Walker Smith
Key Takeaways

​What? As digital technologies continue to advance, everything analog is making a comeback.

So what? With the advent of voice search, brands will once again need people to remember them by name straightaway.

Now what? Top-of-mind awareness returns as the primary objective as well as the critical metric of success. What was central to the analog era of marketing is no less central to the next era of digital marketing.

The bleeding edge of digital tech provides marketers many new opportunities, but an old objective remains the same: brand name awareness​

The future of digital technologies is not digital—at least not simply digital. The analog edge isn’t going away just because digital technologies are taking over. As digital technologies continue to advance, everything analog is making a comeback. In particular, digital technologies themselves will look and feel analog.

For decades, as digital technologies have been in ascendance, consumers have had to master a digital interface, and indeed multiple, often inharmonious digital interfaces. With only a few notable exceptions, digital technologies have been designed with the underlying presumption that people could and would make any necessary accommodations to adopt them. It has been taken for granted that humans would become more digital rather than digital technologies becoming more human.

This is changing with smart speakers, which are a turning point in the trajectory of digital technologies. Voice technologies don’t require people to learn or do anything digital. Talking is all it takes. People tap into the digital power of smart speakers by having a conversation, which is the very thing that many experts argue sets humans apart on the tree of life.

Admittedly, conversing with an Amazon Echo, Google Home or Apple HomePod is not the same as conversing with another person. The vocabulary is different. The grammar is constrained. The range of topics is limited. The repartee is preprogrammed. Nevertheless, it is a conversation. It is an interaction in human, not digital, terms. It is composed in human, not digital, syntax. It proceeds at the speed of chitchat, not the speed of light.

While smart speakers instantaneously harness the power of massive digital databases, they do so at the direction of humans using real-time natural language. In short, smart speakers are digital technologies that look and feel analog.

This renascence of analog features is bringing marketing around full-circle. When consumers use smart speakers to order or ask about products, they can do so either by brand name or by product type. Marketers prefer the former because if consumers don’t ask for a product by name, then the underlying algorithm informing a smart speaker will dictate which brand is presented to consumers. Marketers want more influence in the consumer decision journey than being at the mercy of an algorithm, so the imperative is to get consumers to ask for a brand by name. This is one of the critical priorities facing marketers in the transition to voice technologies, yet it is nothing new. In fact, it is an old analog issue dressed up in digital garb.

Early in my career, I oversaw marketing research for a glass-cleaner brand. At that time, the brand was stuck in second position with a market share about half that of the leader. In some qualitative work we fielded, we heard a woman describe how she shopped the category. She said when she sees blue bottles out of the corner of her eye as she is pushing her cart down the aisle, she reaches out and grabs one as she walks by. For those of us behind the mirror of that focus group room, a collective lightbulb went off.

We realized in a flash that the typical shopper wasn’t shopping by brand name. She was shopping by product type. When the blue liquid in the clear plastic bottles popped into her peripheral vision, she grabbed something on the way by. Since the leading brand had more than twice as many shelf facings as our brand, it was much more likely to get chosen if a shopper was just snagging the first bottle within reach. What we had to do was get shoppers to stop at the shelf and look for our brand by name. Otherwise, more often than not, the rule of thumb, or mental algorithm, shoppers used to choose would work against our brand. In the shopping environment of that period, we had to increase spending on TV and step up activity at the point of sale to get shoppers to stop specifically for our brand, rather than just scan sideways for the category.

In that analog era we were trying to boost top-of-mind name recognition. We couldn’t stay in constant contact with consumers, so we needed to create an enduring awareness that would carry over without reminders. By contrast, nowadays, digital channels offer the ability to reach consumers at every moment in the decision journey, so reminders can do the job that awareness-building used to do. Digital has meant less need for consumers to spontaneously recall a brand name because marketers can reach people with pertinent reminders at the critical moment of truth.

With voice technologies, though, top-of-mind name recognition assumes central importance again. When consumers buy something via a smart speaker, there are no ready prompts to serve as reminders. It’s a conversation, so consumers must mention the brand themselves. If not, the smart speaker defaults to an algorithm, which is akin to the woman in our glass-cleaner focus group who said she just reaches out and grabs the nearest blue bottle.

We have a tendency to overcomplicate digital technology. We imagine it requires radical ways of thinking and unheard-of ways of managing. In fact, many of the challenges are the same as always, particularly in the coming era of smart speakers. These technologies are new, but the requirements for success will be the same as ever.

Not all brand-name recognition is created equal. Traditional tracking studies begin by asking respondents to name whatever brands they can think of in a category. The interviewer then probes for more until respondents can’t think of any other brands. After that the interviewer reads a randomized list of unmentioned brands to see if respondents can also recognize any of those.

This sequence of questioning is known as unaided and aided brand awareness. Unaided brand awareness is the most valuable and often the only awareness managers care about. It is certainly all we cared about with our glass-cleaner brand. One sort of unaided awareness is most valuable: first mention or top-of-mind, which is to say the brand that respondents mention first when asked on an unaided basis. This is the brand that people think of before any other when they think about a category. With voice technology, top-of-mind brand awareness has taken on renewed importance.

When people converse with a smart speaker, they ask for the first thing that comes to mind. They will rarely, if ever, go back and make corrections. Just as in every conversation, there will be few reminders. So brands will once again need people to remember them by name straightaway, and thus top-of-mind awareness returns as the primary objective as well as the critical metric of success. What was central to the analog era of marketing is no less central to the next era of digital marketing.

Voice technologies are taking off, driven by the twin demands of convenience and public safety (specifically, driving). As a result, the future of digital will feel more analog to people, and the challenges facing marketers will reprise analog issues. The fundamentals for connecting with consumers are circling back to the priorities of the analog era.

J. Walker Smith
J. Walker Smith is chief knowledge officer for brand and marketing at Kantar Consulting and co-author of four books, including Rocking the Ages. Follow him on Twitter at @jwalkersmith.