Unilever, P&G, other companies prepare plan to use digital space

The marketing heads of two of the world's largest consumer goods companies Unilever and Procter & Gamble (P&G) had interesting comments to make recently about digital and its impact on brand marketing, giving an insight into how these firms intend to navigate this cluttered and competitive space in the future.

Marc Pritchard, P&G's chief brand officer, was candid in his assessment of digital, saying it needed “to grow up” if it had to effectively deal with the issue of ad blocking and a spurt in technology that allowed consumers to skip or avoid ads and branded content. For an advertiser considered to be at the cutting edge of creative and digital technology, Pritchard's remarks were telling indeed of how digital needed to rethink and evolve in the near future.

Pritchard's counterpart Keith Weed, Unilever's chief marketing officer, was no less sharp in his critique of digital, saying brand fragmentation across media, including digital was a “massive risk”. “Brand integration keeps me awake all night,” Weed said, pointing to the need for a cohesive message across media channels.

The points raised by Pritchard and Weed have compelled companies, who keenly track the two global majors, among the world's largest advertisers, to take a long hard look at their brand communication, especially in the light of the growing influence of digital media on consumers. 

Not lost in transmission

With the rising scope, influence and charm of digital media, companies must look at how best to engage with customers, without losing core messages or values that define the brand.

According to the FICCI-KPMG Report 2017, the burgeoning mobile internet and smartphone penetration in India has given rise to an alternate screen to television as a source of information and entertainment, pushing up the scope of digital advertising in the process. Estimates by the country's leading media agencies including Madison and GroupM peg India's digital advertising pie in the region of Rs 9,100 to Rs 9,400 crore this year, a growth of 25-30 per cent over the previous year. This rate of growth is expected to continue over the next three to four years, with digital advertising estimated to touch roughly Rs 20,000 to Rs 21,000 crore by 2020. 

As the medium becomes larger, the challenge say experts, is to engage consumers meaningfully, who are more often than not strapped for time and want instant gratification from their alternate screens. Gonzalo Fuentes, global chief executive officer, media & digital practice, Kantar Insights, says, “Digital as an investment is not small anymore and we need to start thinking more seriously about how it can help drive brand strategy.” For marketers, explains Fuentes, this could mean a number of things. The key, however, is that digital by itself cannot create magic. “Digital works well in synergy with print and TV,” he says.

Statistics bear this out. According to a study by Kantar Millward Brown, digital provides nine per cent extra reach to television if the two are combined. “In other words, digital helps TV to be efficient,” Ashish Karnad, executive vice-president, media & digital, Kantar Millward Brown, says. For a light TV viewer, reach provided by digital if combined with TV is even greater, says Fuentes. It stands at 13 per cent, he says, which speaks of how meaningful communication can take place between brands and consumers when the two are used together.

Reach, cost and impact

Combining digital with other media also helps advertisers optimise spends in a multi-media world say experts. This is true especially in India where TV and print still represent two of the largest advertising categories, none can be ignored especially for those that are not digital-only brands. Even digital brands have had to use television to further their cause; online furniture companies, mobile payment systems and others have used TV commercials to get their word across.

The Kantar Millward Brown study says that TV is still the strongest medium to build reach and salience across generations. But while a comprehensive media plan is effective in a market like India where print and television provide bigger platforms than digital, it is also important for companies to have ads targeted at the right audience. 

The popular perception is that digital is the best medium for targeted advertising. But in India, since the medium is still evolving, the statement is coloured in many shades of grey. According to Kantar Millward Brown, social media drives better reach and brand impact among Gen Z consumers, who are people between 16 and 19 years of age. Online videos, on the other hand, work as well as TV among Gen Z and Gen Y consumers. Gen Y, for the record, are those between 20 and 34 years of age. Online videos though have lower brand impact on Gen X, those in the age-group of 35 to 45 years. 

Clearly, the younger the target audience, the greater are the chances of success on the digital medium. But the rider here is that Gen Z, the biggest consumer of digital content also has the highest ad-avoidance, says Karnad. According to industry estimates, 30 per cent of India’s internet user base has ad blockers, ahead of China’s 28 per cent, Europe’s 15 per cent and US’s 10 per cent. How then must brands devise a digital strategy that does not just reach, but is also viewed, by its target audience. Now that is a puzzle all digital media strategists would love to crack.

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