By Todd Kirby
"The medium is the message" is a phrase coined by the Canadian communication thinker Marshall McLuhan and introduced in his Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published in 1964. McLuhan proposes that a communication medium itself, not the messages it carries, should be of primary focus.
The pendulum has officially swung. The marketing research business, pre-COVID-19, has been digitally transformed. This, to many Canadian brands, has meant a shift to prioritizing short-term analytics over long-term brand growth. The age of COVID should spark a reconsideration of these priorities. Four points signal this change:
1. The ‘Big Data’ Analytic Fascination
According to ESOMAR, the Canadian market research industry has consistently been flat to declining (-2.2%), valued at US$344 Million in 2019. And this was pre-COVID. According to their latest report, over 40% of surveyed research companies in Canada expect a “BIG negative disruption” to their revenues due to COVID-19. This supports the expected “relegation of consumer insights to a secondary place in the business cycle”.
In truth, this relegation has already been under way. Secondary Analyses, and not Quant or Qual research, account for 19% of Canada’s research spending. As a proportion of that country’s research market, that’s #2 globally - trailing only New Zealand (23%).
Source: ESOMAR Global Market Research, 2019 (Table 9.4.1)
Big Data Analytics is great for short-term tactical validation of ad dollars. It can - and should - inform real-time adjustments to campaign media weight, creative rotation, and spend allocations. Media Weight refers to the media ad industry standard estimating how much exposure is attributed to each medium/property, typically expressed as Rating Points or Impressions. Creative Rotation refers to the amount of media exposure estimated to each advertisement or unit.
However, for long-term tracking of business outcomes, it is critical to incorporate the impact of brands - media entertainment brands, and marketer brands - into study. Without this piece, marketers risk missing the long tail of business success that evolves from brand legacy, partnership, and cohesion. For example, "according to a Kantar/BrandZ analysis following the 2008 financial crisis, strong brands recovered NINE TIMES faster than the market standard” (see chart below).
Source: Kantar/BrandZ Analysis
2. Brand Meaning in the age of COVID
In a 2020 survey from Edelman, 68% of Canadians say “being able to trust a brand today is more important than in the past.” This involves an expectation of action, but also perception. It’s important to note that brand legacy + brand action is what matters. We’ve seen, for example, that reporting from Pre-COVID on unsanitary working conditions can inform Post-COVID perceptions, despite that company’s best efforts.
We all know that actions speak louder than words, but those words are important when put in the context of brand legacy. Generally speaking, brands that have significant Brand Trust/Credibility are given a “halo” credit for their Post-COVID responses. As researchers, we must take effort to contextualize data in this way.
3. Measuring Media as Brands
Are media entities considered brands? Wholeheartedly, yes. If it is true that brands are but a “collection of perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, and feelings in the mind of the consumer”(Internal ad agency training document), then media content, properties, events, etc. are indeed brands. We started demonstrating this decades ago, and the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan made this a centerpiece of his work. So, then, why is the ‘media brand’ piece still lacking from our marketing research studies? We study CLIENT and ADVERTISER brand tracking, brand lift, brand ROI, brand attributes, brand awareness, and brand consideration - but these are independent of any impact from media/entertainment/content/tech.
As the streaming wars dictate our landscape, new brands, new patterns, new personalities, and new equities will be formed. Already, we’re seeing some parsing, for example, that Disney+ is not just catering to kids, but sci fi (Star Wars), fantasy (MCU), and Broadway (Hamilton) fans. New data needs to collect, analyze, and integrate new consumer assumptions and attachments, seek to quantify relevance and engagements. This data will bring new, contextualized-for-COVID paths to grow client revenues.
4. Evolved KPIs: “I don't get up caught in the win-loss record because it's kind of fluky.” — Cy Young Award Winner, Max Scherzer
COVID-19 resurfaces the need for insight. Before we jump to a ‘New Normal’ that already seems preconfigured, we need to reset and align with the greater populace. Let’s slow our roll a bit. There is mass confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety. Foundations are being challenged. There’s lots to be figured out first. And that is our fertile mining ground for insight. The graphic below illustrates this well:
But how? The time is now for the marketing research industry to use its digital agility for creative solutions. We should not be constrained by the past. We have flexibility in mixed method research. Nowadays, social communities can be measured with quantitative breadth, and qualitative depth. In the same study. And reasonably priced.
We can use AI to help predict the impact of media brands on wins and losses. And we can use behaviuoral techniques to see what’s not readily seen through a single-sided piece of glass.
Not unlike how we think about standard brands, quantifying relevance and engagement with media brands (in concert with our brand work) will surface more truthful insight.
A Final Plea
It’s time to move our industry forward. The COVID-19 world is here. It’s a rare chance to reset. To gain a new benchmark and to mark that as the ‘New Normal’. What matters most for clients is the ability to make better decisions. If we implore a return to strategic insight, we must commit to its success. That means finding and coaching experts in the space, hiring multilateral researchers who are comfortable with hybrid methods. Who are comfortable working with diverse perspectives in finding a story within the data, and then articulating that story in a compelling way for clients.
Todd Kirby is a senior Research & Insight VP from the digital startup, media agency and publisher worlds based in New Jersey, USA. He is seeking a lead Insight Strategist/Practitioner role to drive growth. His forte is in understanding how media, advertising, and technology resonate with clients, brands, and audiences across all industries.
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