Getting Comfortable with Uncomfortable Channels Is the Path to New Growth

Headshot of Michelle Whelan, CEO, VMLY&R COMMERCE UK

Ask yourself an honest question – just how comfortable are you operating in new and emerging channels?

Most organisations have tried and tested methods for advertising their brands across traditional media channels. We call these the comfortable channels, where there is organisational experience, proven roadmaps, and familiar ways of working.

But increasingly, brands need to step outside their comfort zones and embrace new channels in new ways to reach new audiences and drive new growth.

The reason is simple. Covid was the catalyst that changed behaviour and raised the bar on consumer expectations. Meanwhile, emerging from the pandemic and compounded by rising inflation, budgets are switching out of traditional brand investment into performance marketing; the rise of ‘retail media’ platforms is reshaping the media landscape, and, with the impending death of the cookie, we see growing lack of confidence in traditional advertising and media measurement.

As a result, there is a rise in FMCG, automotive, healthcare and technology companies increasing spend across digital channels to tap into new growth opportunities - creating a spike in media costs predicted to last this year and beyond.

If channels such as social selling, immersive experience, retail media cause a sharp intake of breath, here are a few thoughts on how to navigate these waters…

The uncomfortable channel movement

“Uncomfortable” channels are Commerce channels - they tend to be where conversion happens. They deliver an experience, engage audiences enabling people to purchase with one click - in short, connecting media spend to actual purchase.

Uncomfortable channels are winning global recognition. This year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity – championing brands pioneering “new” forms of creativity - unveiled Creative Commerce Lions. The category recognises the disruptive power of commerce channels; as well as enabling shopping, selling, transacting, and buying.

Cannes saw creativity linked to transaction, deepening brand experience and driving conversion.

There were sustainable commerce solutions encouraging people to act on purpose.  For instance, from India [hands up - it’s one from our stable] work which might revolutionize the re-use of packaging worldwide. With eighty-five percent of plastics landing up in landfill, determined to take responsibility for its environmental impact, Unilever introduced “Smart Fill” stations in-store. Shoppers are invited to fill any empty container (competitors’ products too) as packaging for Unilever branded detergents. It’s working: 150 litres are Smart Filled every hour, with a 57.2kg plastic reduction per day.

We also saw entertainment commerce connected to cultural moments embedded in people’s lives. Especially relevant to Gen Z; the “future shoppers”. IKEA “Tapped in the 90’s” is a great exampleTo celebrate its 25th anniversary in Spain, IKEA produced its own reality show “Trapped in the 90’s”, featuring six people (all born after 1996) having to cope in a home designed pre-IKEA existence. Through eight episodes, contestants are surprised and delighted with IKEA products helping them “survive”. Their reactions were priceless, and shopper response amazing.

These channels are becoming a wide-open canvas for brand building, consumer engagement and talent showcasing.

Five reasons to tap uncomfortable channels to drive growth

  1. Brands can be where their audiences are. Via digital, social and retail channels, we can now get closer to our consumers and integrate into their lives and interests as opposed to interrupting them.
  2. We have greater access to the new audiences of tomorrow. Gen-zers are embracing uncomfortable channels faster than brands. The digitally native lifestyle of the Gen Z audience has given it a step up when it comes to using technologies, pivoting quickly as new circumstances arise.
  3. There are new ways to grab attention and drive engagement. Trailblazing brands like Nike found innovative approaches to give sneakerheads access to products during lockdown. People simply had to access, point their phones to the sky and find virtual cloud versions of Air Max 90 and 2090. Digital folders allowed people to buy the drops first-hand and watch product demos in the form of new music videos from Brazilian rap icon Dgonga, and funk superstars McSoffia and NGKS.
  4. New dimensions and breadth are added to flex the brand vernacular. A wonderful example from 2021 is M&S St. Valentine’s Day - turning its ionic “This isn’t just…” tagline into a series of entertaining short videos with TikTok. Not a channel we would generally see M&S show up in. M&S Marketing Director and Director of Hospitality, Sharry Cramond, commented to Marketing Week that the platform was “going off like a rocket,” driving sales via a new, younger audience with over 18.5 million impressions and a clickthrough rate above 15%. All within five days.
  5. Brand and performance combine. The channels enable brands to build both brand equity and drive conversion. They offer full-funnel potential.

Here are four immediate actions any brand can take to be comfortable….

The first: drastically improve share of search and shopability

As digital and social channel penetration continue to grow, it’s critical to improve search effectiveness. Search research (conducted via our proprietary tool CatScan) shows Search today being as powerful as store signage or even store fronts. A new opportunity.

When we search for a category or product, we don’t always use ‘brand key words’ in our description. We tend to search according to a specific need such as ‘creams for dry skin,’ or ingredient terms such as ‘creams with aloe vera.’ We also search at category level, for instance, ‘best anti-ageing cream for women over 50’.

The truth is, understanding trends by category is crucial to grasp how people are searching to unlock opportunities. A well-known skin care brand recently discovered searches around ingredients, skin type and formats were dominant.

Its searches were directed mostly to content rather than retailer sites. By broadening keyword penetration to contain ingredient, format, and skin type key words (through PDP enhancement and page tagging) the brand captured new audiences, directed traffic to retail sites, raised product visibility and increased sales with a leading retailer customer.

Understanding the power of Search as a frontline tool to capture new audiences is an immediate and inexpensive way to find new growth in non-traditional channels.

The second action: leverage channels that deliver greater ‘share of experience’ rather than ‘share of voice’

In an era where people want to ‘touch’ a brand, how often do we consider channels that deliver the trinity of visibility, experience, and purchase?

Tesla is a brilliant example. The fastest growing brand of 2021, with a 184% increase in brand value [Interbrand's 2021 Best Global Brands], the brand spends zero on advertising yet has high ‘share of experience’. Discarding traditional dealerships for Tesla stores in high footfall areas like shopping centres, cars are ordered online whilst stores focus on delivering high-touch experiences. Shoppers love being able to get a close-up look at the cars without the high pressure associated with traditional dealerships.

Tesla plans to expand its physical presence further. However, instead of expensive spaces within shopping centres, the automaker is looking to rent space in car parks, warehouses, and other locations to manage test drive fleets and delivery centres. Tesla employees working remotely will guide buyers to test drive using vehicles from those locations, unlocking cars remotely.

The third action:  use Influencer Commerce as a new route to market

Influencer Commerce is here to stay. An alliance of peer-to-peer selling and paid media capabilities, it legitimises influencers’ role in performance marketing by allowing them to sell brand partner products to their communities and beyond. By leveraging the influencers’ authenticity, the trust of their communities and the effectiveness of paid media, influencers can be linked directly to conversion.

The Chinese success story of Alibaba Influencer Commerce has inspired western counterparts, especially giant Amazon. Amazon Live presents live streaming sessions with influencers who introduce, test and review products in front of an audience in real-time.

And opportunity is huge. China’s new influencer economy is estimated to reach US $1trillion by 2025. Here in the UK, TikTok creators like Matthew & Ryan [@matthewandryanuk] have a fan base of 5.9 million – often clocking up over one million likes per post - and brands are partnering up.

It's our experience that successful influencer commerce comes via three main pillars: 

First, know your platform. Some platforms are more suited to conversion, such as Instagram’s shoppable content. And make sure the platform style, content and culture are strategically on cue for your audience.

Second, build trusted relationships. Be prepared to drop your guard, be more human and give your creators creative freedom. Tap into what the creator enjoys – their enjoyment will shine through for the brand. Be open with your commercial goals.

Third, create a partnership of mutual benefit that both brand and influencer will be eager to buy into.

The beauty brand Dior offers creators opportunity to be part of its Dior Insider Private loyalty programme. This allows creators to share content about Dior products and earn commission on sales they generate thanks to a personal affiliate link shared on their social accounts.

As another incentive, Dior shares its favourite content on the @diorbeautylovers Instagram account followed by more than 600,000 people.

The fourth action: leverage TikTok to access its creator economy  

Many companies are exploring TikTok – not only to drive awareness but increasingly to shorten the path to purchase. As the platform continues to evolve, videos created by TikTok ‘creators’ are turned into in-feed ads featuring a ‘Shop Now’ call to action.

TikTok has driven sales at the world’s most iconic companies. For instance, when The Gap was struggling to gain relevance amongst younger shoppers, it saw some products unexpectedly take off on TikTok. The brand’s "high-rise cheeky straight" and "sky-high straight" jeans saw sales surge last year as TikTok helped spur a frenzy for loose-fit “mum” jeans. Gap saw a 200 percent increase in the number of straight jeans sold online within just a day, according to Mary Alderete, Global Head of Gap Marketing.

So, in summary

Driving new growth with new audiences is a challenge for all of us as we go into the second half of 2022 and into 2023. Reaching new audiences requires us to be in those uncomfortable channels where we traditionally have not invested, believing them to be brand-eroding rather than brand-building.

Uncomfortable channels, even though still relatively ‘untested’ by many companies, are the places where new world brands are capturing audiences and growing quickly. That’s because they understand how to build equity, engage consumers, stimulate advocacy, and convert sales.

Tamara Rogers, CMO of the newly formed Haleon organisation (formerly part of GSK), sums this all up superbly: we have to step out of our comfort zone to embrace new growth and deliver the best communications and category experiences.

- Michelle Whelan is CEO at VMLY&R Commerce UK

Originally published in Catalyst