Immersion of brand experience is the key in the digital age

Immersion, not social, cracks the digital code; that is the lesson brands must take away from the year gone by, writes Bharat Bambawale.
The year witnessed a manifold increase in brand activity on digital. Apart from the launch of new digital businesses, most branded digital activity was on social media. The approach among brands towards digital so far has hardly been subtle or tactful. 
Aided and abetted by social channels that are chasing revenue, brands have come across as party crashers. You know the type; gushingly shaking hands, handing out business cards, and relentlessly promoting themselves, without contributing anything meaningful to the evening.
‘Find nirvana with us,’ said a real estate firm on a Facebook page; ‘Watch our new video on YouTube,’ invited an FMCG brand. ‘You simply can’t miss my latest humdinger,’ exhorted a Bollywood star on Twitter; ‘Lose 35 kilos in six weeks,’ promised an online diet consultant’s pop-up; ‘Buy tickets (here are pictures from last year),’ Instagrammed the concert promoter.
Some of these tactics may have yielded results, encouraging marketers to believe they are on the right track. But are they? Are we truly making the most out of the opportunity that digital presents? The current state of play is symptomatic of Indian marketers’ outdated thinking. 
They continue to bring legacy, mostly advertising, models to their digital plays. Perhaps they are prey to transitive thinking: if digital is social, and social is media, then digital means media means buying interruption. For too many marketers, digital is still about brand communication.
While social media has a part to play and will always be important, digital presents a larger opportunity, allowing audiences to truly experience a brand. How many times have we heard a marketing director lament: “If only we had more time with audiences, we could really immerse them in our brand.” 
Well, digital makes deeper brand experiences possible. What it needs is a shift of mindset from brand-speak to brand-do, or more accurately brand-touch. How can Digital help create truly immersive experiences? Here’s an example.
Mumbai has two theme parks, each about an hour’s drive away. Despite one having been around for years and the other being more recent, I reckon both would love to be besieged by visitors, all year round. But does either compellingly immerse you in a high-adrenalin adventure in digital? They fall well short of the immersive digital experience required to attract discerning modern thrill-seekers. 
Surely theme park marketing must make people feel water drench them as their cart splashes into a pool; the heart-stopping moment when the roller coaster tips for its downward plunge; the brief seconds of weightlessness when the giant pendulum swings parallel to the ground. 
Digital can do all this when you stop thinking communication and start thinking experience. What’s getting in the way? Apart from a ‘communication’ mindset, here are some other barriers:
Corporate silos: In the necessary apportioning of responsibility, customer experience and brand are always put into separate buckets. The outcome is generals fiercely defending their patches, with walls between them raised so high that they are impossible to bridge. 
There’s rarely anyone at the table to rise above internecine squabbles for a holistic customer-led brand view. Who will bat for digital experience?
Narrow definitions of brand and marketing: In many industries and companies, the role of brand and marketing is brand livery and communication — largely in broadcast media, and largely for customer acquisition. This is a restrictive view that doesn’t take into account the vital importance of brand at every stage of the customer journey. 
Brand equity is being created — and lost — all the time, through everyone in the company and everything they do. Marketing is always full on, 24x7.    
The wrong folks evaluating brand activity: There are few things more valuable to a business than a terrific finance team.

There are few things more detrimental to brand decision-making than finance evaluating marketing ideas, especially if they apply only financial parameters. 
Digital brand experience might gestate at a different pace and work in hitherto unmeasured ways. Brand leaders must be given scope and opportunity to craft what is right without someone pulling the plug.
Innovation needs a different set of eyes: Innovation guru Vijay Govindrajan (VG) makes a persuasive argument to separate a company’s innovation engine from its performance engine while maintaining a healthy connection. This is true for branded digital experience as well. 
The guys who make your broadcast media calls may not be ideal to run brand digital innovation. Innovation needs ‘disciplined experiments’, as VG puts it, and that’s not what performance engine managers do as a day job.   
Getting experiences right can have a huge upside. Remember The Blair Witch Project, which redefined the experience of horror in that time-honoured movie genre back in 1999? Made for just $22,500, (with another $2 million spent on purchasing the movie at Sundance and marketing it), it grossed an amazing $248 million. 
At the core of its success is the experience it created for the fan. That’s the kind of impact our brand digital experiences should aspire for. Let’s make a start in 2017.
The author is founder Bharat Bambawale & Associates (BB&A). This is the second of a series of articles on media, brands, advertising and marketing that looks back on 2016 to look forward to 2017.

What went wrong in 2016
  • Immersive brand experiences ignored, online interruption passes as digital branding
  • Brand and customer experience teams worked independent of each other, making less than optimum use of digital
  • Narrow definitions of brand and marketing continued to proliferate, holistic customer journey management is the casualty
  • Wrong people evaluating brand activity, put branded innovation and customer relationships at risk
Next: Playing catch up with the Indian consumer

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