Black Swans of Marketing: new touch-points to engage with consumers

I was sitting on a Southwest Airlines flight to San Francisco, about 15 years ago. As we approached San Francisco airport, the usual announcement mentioned that the in-flight entertainment was going to be suspended and that all electronic devices had to be switched off. For many people, this is a pretty boring phase of a flight. But then something unexpected happened: the pilot opened the microphone and started singing. I thought it was unusual, and maybe a bit wacky, but it did keep me entertained for a few minutes, and it made memorable an experience which would have otherwise been at best uneventful. 

Fast-forward to November 2013. “Unusual” and “wacky” were also the first words that came to mind to the passengers watching the new in-flight safety announcement on a Virgin America flight. However, some other 10 million people watched the same video on YouTube (number of lifetime user-initiated views at November 2014), and they were not even preparing for take-off; most of them were watching an in-flight safety video while sitting comfortably in their homes, or watching the video on their smartphones. Unexpected? Not really. In fact, Virgin America had launched the same video on YouTube about a month earlier, before taking it to the skies nationwide in US in November 2013. And while it took 100 years from the very first commercial flight to the very first entertaining in-flight safety video, it only took 4 months before another airlines (Air New Zealand) followed suit with this video, which has gathered nearly 7 million views on YouTube at the moment of writing, and worked so well that Air New Zealand decided to produce a second one, which this time gathered over 12 million views in only 2 weeks, also thanks to the appeal of The Hobbit theme. We might not have to wait too long until another airline decides to move in the same direction.

The Black Swan theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to as a metaphor to describe “an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight” (source: Wikipedia). Financial bubbles are examples of Black Swans: the Great Financial Crisis came as a surprise to many (except the few who saw it as inevitable and were placing big bets on it to happen, eventually making it a self-fulfilling prophecy). Similarly, I’m calling a Black Swan of marketing a great marketing idea which catches most people by surprise, and yet marketers look at it in hindsight and think “of course! Why didn’t I have that idea??”. Outside of the airlines space, a recent example of Black Swan of marketing is the ALS’ Ice Bucket Challenge, equally unexpected and yet quite simple and obviously effective in hindsight.

So let’s look at the anatomy of a Black Swan of marketing:

  • Catches most people by surprise, and is normally rationalized after the fact
  • Leverages a novel way to engage with an audience, e.g. an untapped touch-point with consumers
  • Triggers great social amplification
  • Generally stems from an insight, rooted in deep knowledge of the target consumer and his end-to-end experience

…And that’s is the most important point. One of my favorite quotes is: “Insight without creativity is boring, but creativity without insight is worthless” (Marc Pritchard, P&G Global Brand Building officer). Creativity finds most fertile ground on great insights, and that’s good news for marketers, because it’s possible build a repeatable process to gain great insights about consumers and their end-to-end experience.

And this is where I start borrowing frameworks from my colleagues at Google… Books could be written about how to get consumer insights, but I’ll leave you with 2 frameworks to start your insight journey.

1st framework: SEE-THINK-DO-CARE (by Avinash Kaushik, you can read his blog here).

First, you need to map the entire consumer journey truly end-to-end, or you might miss those untapped touch-points which lead to great ideas. 

Here is the framework (note: this is not very dissimilar from the traditional marketing funnels or P&G’s moments of truth, but I find it more intuitive):

  1. SEE: people become aware of your brand, product, or service. This might happen at any moment of the consumer’s daily life
  2. THINK: people start considering your product or brand. This phase could last just a few seconds (e.g. the time it takes to decide which bottle of mineral water to pick on from a shelf) to months or even years (e.g. for some durable goods)
  3. DO: people buy your product
  4. CARE: people use and experience your product

At each of these four stages, here are some questions you should ask yourself to find clues:

1. SEE

  • What does a day in a life of your target consumer look like?
  • What are your customers’s values and passions?

2. THINK

  • What are you customer’s belief about your product?
  • How is the purchased decision made? E.g. who are the key influencers? What are their motivations?

3. DO

  • How is the purchase made (step by step)? How could it be made simpler?
  • In what circumstances is the product purchased? What happens before and after for the consumer?

4. CARE

  • Where is the product used/experienced? In what circumstances? (where, with whom, etc)
  • What are the most exciting or unexciting moments while a customers uses your product?

This is all quite vague, so let’s take a few examples. Virgin America is simple: they understood that a flight is by and large a boring experience, especially take-off and landing, when all food and entertainment are off, and you just have to sit down and wait. And, oh! there’s a safety video playing before their eyes! Why not making THAT more entertaining with a music-safety video!? There you go, an untapped touch-point during the CARE stage. Oh and by the way, I heard that some frequent flyers can’t take the music-safety video anymore… Well, then, Virgin America is now inviting them aboard the not so entertaining BLAH airlines to enjoy a 5hr 46min flight from Newark to San Francisco.

Let’s take another example from Ikea. Lots of things can go wrong when buying furniture: the table you have chosen is too big for your living room, the color doesn’t go well with the carpet, or your mother in law doesn’t like it just because she didn’t choose it. All stuff in the THINK stage: lots of considerations points, several influencers, each one with different motivations. So what if we (Ikea) could put a table in your living room before you buy it? There you go, the Ikea virtual catalog, and a novel way to leverage consideration touch-points with all the influencers in the purchase decision.

A final example, widely misunderstood in my experience: Volvo Trucks’ recent marketing efforts, epitomized by the famous Van Damme’s epic split. You might believe that getting a celebrity in your ad guarantees success. You would be wrong (in fact, in can also be a powerful shortcut to wasting a lot of money). Certainly it can contribute to it, but Volvo’s strategy has been rooted in deep consumer insights. For example: driving a truck for several hours is not fun (CARE). A trucker’s family is normally involved in the purchase of the truck, and safety is their first concern (THINK). And by the way, truckers have a lot of downtime, and believe it or not they watch a lot of YouTube while they are idle (SEE). So there you go: engage with a series of exciting stunts to showcase the innovative safety features of the latest trucks. I’m over-simplifying the whole process of course, but that’s the gist.

2nd framework: ASK THEM, ASK ABOUT THEM, BE THEM

This is one of the frameworks we use a Google during our ideation workshops. How do you get intimate knowledge of your target consumer?

  1. ASK THEM. You meet them directly and interview them. And you don’t want to just talk to the mainstream consumers, you need to pick a range as wide as possible, from the mainstream consumers to the ones who experience your products a lot or in different ways (e.g. for Virgin America these could be the flight assistants)
  2. ABOUT THEM. Take the entire network around your consumers and interview a wide sample of them, from the passive observers to the key influencers. They will often give you a different view of the consumer journey
  3. BE THEM. There’s no better way to understand the consumer journey than being on that same journey. A common mistake in consumer research is to approach it as an office-based activity. You will certainly need desktop research and interviews and you’ll probably still spend the majority of time on those activities, but you should also invest some time to get out of the office and jump on the consumer journey yourself

In summary: there’s no secret recipe for the next Black Swan of Marketing (otherwise they wouldn’t be Black Swans), but you can at least increase the odds of hitting one by deepening the insights into your end-to-end consumer journey. Adopt a repeatable process and an expansive approach in your consumer research, and look for untapped touch-points to engage in new ways.

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