This post is part of the HBR Insight Center Marketing That Works.
A powerful confluence of challenging economic conditions and emerging digital platforms is driving a substantial shift in the marketing world. While the economic environment is forcing marketing decision makers to focus more on ROI, digital platforms from social media to mobile are enabling more personalized and trackable marketing communications.
To adapt to the changing landscape, what’s needed is a shift from building brands to “activating” them — from simply projecting what a brand is to optimizing what a brand does in order to move people closer to transaction. This is the Activation Imperative.
Much of traditional marketing has concentrated on the positioning of a brand relative to its competitors — identifying space the brand “owns” in the marketplace that is clearly differentiated from competitive brands. The emphasis here is on identifying what the brand is and stands for, and what the marketer ultimately wants it to mean to the consumer.
Developing this type of branding is absolutely critical, but it is not enough. To drive a trial of a new product, increase visits at a retail store, build greater loyalty to a brand, increase trade-up to higher-end products, or increase frequency of purchase, marketers need to activate specific behaviors by their consumers.
The process of activation begins by developing insights into consumers’ new, multiple, and increasingly non-linear paths to purchase. eCommerce, social media, and mobile technologies have enabled a greater variety of routes by which consumers can move toward transactions and the key to activating them is identifying the behavioral “inflection points” along the way — the points in time where progress tends to stall or accelerate. Using quantitative and qualitative research, as well as database modeling, marketers can identify critical obstacles or under-leveraged triggers that impact key audiences’ movement toward purchase.
Once these key behavioral points are identified, marketers can then deepen their understanding of the interests and motivations of the shopper in order to create the value that will engage them and inspire behavior change. Depending on the insights gleaned, the range of what shoppers value can extend beyond the merely monetary to include opportunities for self-expression, personalization, experiences, entertainment, access, and social good.
With retailers, for instance, a typical key behavioral opportunity is to increase consumers’ time spent in one of their retail environments — be it bricks-and-mortar, online, or printed catalogue — as greater time generally results in greater purchase volume.
Ikea’s program offering consumers the chance to be photographed in a perfect replica of the living room on their catalogue’s cover and receive a custom-printed catalogue featuring that image is a great example of an activation program that takes advantage of self-expression, personalization, and unique experiences, for example. The program keeps visitors in proximity of their store longer (to have their photo taken) and drives an additional visit (to pick up the custom catalogue). The program also inevitably encouraged consumers to keep the catalogue in their homes longer than usual to show others, thereby creating incremental views and incremental purchases — plus, additional word of mouth with family and friends.
One of the most effective ways to create future activation is to deliver a uniquely positive consumer experience that memorably conveys a strong sense of the brand and the role it can play in the consumer’s life. In fact, activation is particularly powerful in this dual role, because it typically drives people to literally experience a brand’s product or service, rather than merely defining it.
Nike+ launched as a promotional tie-in between Nike and Apple to enhance consumers’ running experience by synchronizing music and tracking data during their runs. For five years, it has built business by adding value to the purchase of both companies’ products, driving consumers of one to purchase the other and increasing loyalty via furthering integration into consumers’ daily lives. Simultaneously, it enhanced Nike’s brand as the cutting-edge choice for serious runners and Apple’s as the leading lifestyle technology brand.
Marketers who focus their power on key behavioral inflection points and utilize them to motivate action by consumers can see a measurable return. To get started, try this four-step process to inspire actions that move your shoppers toward transaction:
- Utilize new and existing data to identify key points along your target’s paths to purchase that represent the greatest opportunity to build business.
- Deepen your insight into your shopper’s motivations at those points to identify opportunities to create value.
- Deploy the appropriate activation tools to deliver value in a way uniquely associated with your brand.
- Embed opportunities to measure the results.
Done right, the increased return should outweigh your investment, and perhaps may even begin to inspire a change in your marketing behavior to better navigate marketing’s changing world.
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