The New Year is upon us, and the blogosphere is awash with posts along the lines of 'Predictions for 2014' and 'What will be big in the next twelve months'. The irony is that we live in an increasingly unpredictable, turbulent world, in which accurate forecasting is an increasingly hard act to master.
Who could have predicted, for example, that in 2013 a major sporting controversy would be revealed during a television interview? Or that the mayor of Toronto would admit to smoking crack? In the business world, who could have predicted the $23 billion acquisition of Heinz by Warren Buffet or Facebook's stock recovery?
So, how can marketing teams respond to the unpredictability of the world we live in? My advice is to fight fire with fire by making 'unpredictability' the cornerstone of your work over the forthcoming year. This approach requires a detailed understanding of what being unpredictable means in a marketing context, and how marketers can be unpredictable, as well as how consumers may respond to 'unpredictable' marketing.
What does it mean to be unpredictable in marketing?
Whether or not decisions made by marketers are deemed effective and successful often depends on the response of consumers. Consumers decide if a product appeals to them or not, and whether to purchase it. An element of unpredictability is crucial in this context, because consumers don't necessarily want what they have seen numerous times before or can obtain from a brand's competitors. Consumers have high hopes and expectations about what brands can deliver to them in order to enhance their lives in unexpected, new ways. Therefore, it is unpredictability that counts. In order to be unpredictable, marketers need to meet or exceed consumer expectations and enhance consumers' lives in ways that could not be easily anticipated by consumers or competing brands.
How can marketers be unpredictable?
I believe that there are three key ways in which marketers can embrace unpredictability in their work.
1. Steve Jobs famously believed that consumers do not know what they want. Therefore, marketers are responsible for delivering it to them before they know they need it. In order to get to this point, marketers need to be discrete about how they identify consumer needs. Using discrete methods of research and developing the 'bigger picture' context aid this hugely, but at the core of this principle is a calculated risk: you need to tell consumers that they need your product before they know it.
2. In a digital world filled with social media and other platforms for communication, marketers need to be increasingly innovative with their messaging strategies. It is getting harder to surprise consumers, and so considerable time and effort needs to be spent on deciding what to say and how to say it. Well-established messages such as 'high quality' and 'reliability' are now likely to get lost in the ether, and so marketers need to come out and surprise consumers instead. For example, in 2013 Coca-Cola spread the message to share a Coke with friends; this was a highly differentiated message within the soft drinks sector, and one that was not expected by or already familiar to consumers. The drinks were accompanied by personalised labels - another unpredictable move in the sector. This strategy saw excellent results for the brand, including 3.5% growth in their Facebook community and 29,000 Twitter mentions.
3. Nothing causes more excitement for consumers than collaboration between brands. In the consumer psyche, this is seen as an opportunity to get the best of two (or more) worlds. This excitement can be heightened when brand partnerships are formed with either (a) unexpected brand combinations or (b) highly innovative outcomes. Already in 2014, the collaboration between digital style leader Google and electronics brand Motorola has created excitement in the media.
How might consumers respond to unpredictable marketing?
Surprising consumers with unpredictable marketing is undoubtedly a risk. On the one hand, unpredictable strategies such as the digitalisation of Nike via Fuel Band and Xbox Kinect can be incredibly well received. On the other, the somewhat surprise move by Apple to delve into the mapping and locations space was not initially greeted with great enthusiasm.
Therefore, unpredictable marketing approaches can be a risky business. Yes, we are still operating in an era of curbed budgets and high expectations, but we are also marketing in an increasingly crowded marketplace - 'stand out' is becoming ever harder to achieve, and so bold approaches are required to help brands attract consumers' attention.