Opinion

Only the brave: how brands can succeed in eCommerce

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Brave brands

We speak with experts across the business, as well as our clients and partners, to see how brands must respond to meet the challenges that eCommerce presents.

If we know anything about post-pandemic life, it is that aspects of consumer behaviour have fundamentally and irreversibly changed. With ten years of eCommerce progress made in just ten months, brands must accept it is part of their new normal.

All brands were grappling with the challenge of what eCommerce meant for their businesses before COVID-19. It was a long-term issue on everyone’s agenda. The acceleration of online retail during the pandemic made it a more immediate challenge.

Rankin Carroll, Global Vice-President of Brands, Content and Media at Mars, says the pandemic gave its brands a healthy push.

He adds: “We were already exploring new ways of connecting with consumers through eCommerce and digital, but this accelerated during the early days of the pandemic. So we had to quickly find partners that were willing to move at that pace we needed.”

The closure of non-essential retail for large parts of the year shone a spotlight firmly on the scale of the challenge some brands face when it comes to engaging and connecting with their consumers in the digital space.

Nick Palmer, Global Head of Product at MediaCom Creative Systems, says there are fewer opportunities for brands to obtain mass-reach as consumers curate their own bubbles of media consumption.

“Brands need to work out how to build value and consistency in an ad-served world. The best way is to look for elements of past behaviour that are important and find ways of changing that for the future.

Bolder and braver

Agility and reacting with speed are key for brands to meet evolving consumer trends and expectations, but achieving them will mean brands must be bolder and braver. Not just in the type of work created, but how it is created.

Marketing teams must be willing to implement real transformation, in thinking but also in the structure of their teams. The early days of the pandemic showed that brands can act and pivot at speed when forced to, this flexibility must become the norm.

For Mars, this was a rapid conversion of all of its US social assets into shoppable formats within weeks. Carroll says the business shifted rapidly from ‘test and learn’ to ‘launch and learn’.

More than a year later, however, the sustained impact at Mars is the incorporation of digital throughout the marketing funnel, with more investment further down the funnel.

This investment has led to an expansion of its work in search and a better understanding that customers are willing to receive relevant nudges and reminders along their purchase journey.

Mark Taylor, MediaCom’s Global Business Director, who works with Duracell, says marketers at the battery brand are both excited by what the future holds but keen to ensure they’re prepared for it,

“Few marketing teams understand exactly what has to transform yet. These changes, such as re-structuring whole teams, can come at high risk but we, as agencies, can support by helping marketers better understand that risk,” he adds.

Josh Gallagher, MediaCom’s Global Head of eCommerce, says brands need to encourage collaboration between internal teams. He explains: “How clients are structured needs to change to encourage the total change in business mindset that brands need to succeed in eCommerce.”

Speaking at MediaCom’s Bigger Picture Live eCommerce event earlier this month, Victoria Noelle, Global eCommerce Director at pharmaceuticals giant Bayer, said breaking down silos is essential to build on the digital progress made in the past year.

“Everyone in the organisation needs to be doing it and it requires a focus-shift,” she added. “There needs to be a hybrid function, a collaboration across media, data and marketing. It needs the whole organisation to win.”

According to Carroll, traditional marketing, digital marketing, data and agency partners were “crashed together” as a short-term measure during COVID-19. A year on, it is allowing Mars to look to create a leaner and better connected marketing ecosystem.

“These teams had to learn how to break through silos, communicate more effectively and work in unison,” he adds. “As things have settled down, we can see where we have duplication in skills, resources and partnerships. That is the work we are doing now.”

People are the north star

Transformation in the structure of marketing teams must be coupled with transformation in thinking, says Gallagher. “A new model for brand building is needed that starts with the consumer.”

That model is about being precise with the key data metrics and properly marrying that with marketing, adds Mars’s Carroll. “It is easy to get caught up in the data, but we still need to build brands through story-telling, meaning and purpose.”

For Stef Calcraft, Mediacom’s Global CEO of Creative Transformation, relevance is paramount, but he believes marketers often overcomplicate the process.

“People are still people,” he explains. “They have dreams and desires and want to be happy. If you make people your north star and ask the right questions, you get a wealth of data that will create new opportunities and actionable insights,” he adds.

Calcraft highlights two P&G virtual events as being developed out of this kind of thinking. The world’s first virtual Bat Mitzvah, a rite of passage in Judaism for girls turning 12, which Always hosted on Facebook Live when lockdown cancelled all physical events. P&G also supported a Can’t Cancel Pride fundraising event for LGBTQ+ groups.

“The event came out of understanding what people care about. Lockdown was isolating people and stopping the organisations that support LGBTQ+ people to fundraise. We used a combination of tech, media and creativity to connect them.”

Understanding how to deliver that relevance through addressable media will also become increasingly important,says Palmer. “It is no longer about reaching all potential buyers with just one message,” he adds. “you can still reach all potential buyers – if that’s the media strategy a brand is following – but acknowledging that a homogenous message might not be the most relevant.”

“I think we’re going to see a much more modular creative future – where we’re looking at specific high value audiences and high value moments much earlier in the creative process”

Experimenting will be a key part of that process, adds Palmer. “We’re in the very nascent stages of a fully addressable world. It is okay to get things wrong on the back of a good hypothesis. It is about having a well thought through creative learning agenda.”

Becoming invisible

It is not a short-term fix, however, and investing in creative work over the long-term must underpin that experimentation. This is particularly true for brands selling via third-party site marketplaces, says Gallagher.

“Many online market places and retailers look very similar, and it can be hard for brands to stand out if they don’t create some kind of experience,” he says. “In the past, brands could stand out on the physical shelf just by dominating the space and that would be their first point of contact with customers.”

“While digital marketplaces make it easy for brands by handling the sales side for them, I think they are giving up their equity as that experience is becoming the first point of contact with customers. Brands risk becoming invisible.”

Gallagher believes this is where alternative shoppable formats and tools such as live commerce, already hugely successful in China, could come into play for brands. Similarly, influencers could be used strategically to help brands speak to specific communities.

He adds: “Brands need to think differently about point-of-purchase in marketplaces and ask themselves how consumers shop them on these sites. Marketplaces are destinations in their own right, using live commerce or influencers within that is an opportunity to have a branded conversation.”

The latter is a strategy that has been successfully deployed by meat alternative brand, Impossible Foods, which is only now investing in its first brand campaign ten years after launch. The brand supplies its signature Impossible Burger to many high-profile restaurants, including Burger King, and is stocked by several retail chains.

According to Seow Leng Porter, Managing Partner at MediaCom US, its success lies in its tight focus on competing with the beef industry and its purpose-driven marketing. The latter takes a two-pronged approach of being a meat alternative for meat-lovers and the environmental benefits of not eating meat.

She adds: “It is organised and focused on that as a purpose. That naturally creates content and naturally creates a reason for Impossible to speak to consumers in different ways.”

More brands could tap into this kind of content if they focused less on product performance and more on the emotional benefit of a product, says Taylor.

“Tech brands such as Facebook and Google continue to succeed because they tell stories about the benefit of the tech, not about the tech itself. We need to appeal to the emotional side more often. It is how we work as humans.”

Going direct

The alternative to selling via marketplaces and retailers is going direct to consumers (DTC). It is a trend that gained significant momentum during the pandemic, with DTC online sales growing by 24.3% in the US alone, according to IMRG, the UK’s online retail association.

The benefits for brands are clear. DTC allows the brand to own the customer journey and offer excellent, personalised customer service. It is also an opportunity to experiment with new buying models, such as subscriptions, to drive repeat purchases.

Crucially, with the cookie-less future fast approaching, it helps brands to collect valuable first-party data, which brands are going to need to start collecting very soon, according to Gallagher. He adds: “Not all brands realise or understand that yet, it has been too easy to date.”

For packaged goods brands that consumers are more used to buying on impulse, gathering first-party data and obtaining opt-in is tricky, says Andy Walsh, Chief Strategy Officer GroupMW and Global CPG practice at MediaCom.

He adds that brands have three real routes forward – find and harness more first-party data, use some new form of consolidated ID, a reinvention of the cookie, or focus on using more anonymised cohorts and contexts, such as Google’s Federated Learning of Cohorts.

He predicts brands will grow using a mix of first party data and being more data-drive with what they have access to, most likely to be cohorts and contexts. He adds: “Brands will need to return to the fundamentals of coming up with great ideas that appeal to lots of people.

Branded future

Brands still matter to consumers in the eCommerce world, says Gallagher. “Research shows that people who have a strong brand preference tend to shop online more, but they come online with a brand in mind more so than in a physical store. It makes the requirement to have a strong brand even more important.”

Understanding how to create meaningful and creative brand experiences will be crucial, as well as how to tailor those experiences for different platforms. Carroll adds: “Content is becoming disposable, and that means more content will be required.”

He points to TikTok, a key platform for many brands during the pandemic, where content has a shelf life of three days. “That requires a whole different way of building content and stories, and that is just one channel.”

“We need new ways of thinking and new ways of planning because more content will be needed. We need smarter, more tech-driven ways to create more content if we are going to make the budget work.”

Brands must experiment with new tools and platforms, invest in creativity and become agile and responsive to meet the challenges that eCommerce presents. Those that fail to act risk slipping into obscurity amid a world of bland digital space and retail experiences.

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