Updated on 23/02/2023
The contribution of unconventional marketing to the evolution of the brand-customer relationship
One of the most fundamental aspects of the customer journey is where consumers exercise their freedom of choice. How is this changing and how does unconventional marketing contribute to the brand-customer relationship, especially in the research and evaluation phases? In thinking about the important changes that have affected the consideration stage in the customer journey in recent years, it may be useful to choose to look closely at two of the main lines of customer-company communication: the media that conveys advertising messages and the path to purchase.
The relationship between unconventional marketing (often associated with digital marketing) and traditional marketing is often treated in terms of opposition where disruptive technology ends up replacing the second, which is destined to be abandoned because it is unable to fully understand the change.
In fact, for years the issue has been addressed by proposing a synthesis in the form of converged media: at one end, paid media, suitable for traditional advertising, on which the company buys ad space, at the other, earned media, animated by consumers. Between these two poles is owned media, the communication channels owned by the company: the website, the corporate blog, and the brand page on social networks.
The information that leads and prospects need to advance in the purchasing process (or to suspend it or to decide to stop it) can come from traditional media, social media, advertising or – increasingly – from hybrid forms: this is converging media.
In 2010, to be able to conceptually frame the transformation, McKinsey invited us to adopt a new vocabulary, an essential step towards a new mindset, new behaviors, new strategies.
Paid media, earned media, and owned media: toward an increasingly personalized combination
Earned media and owned media quickly become an integral part of the most effective marketing strategies and merge with paid media to create multimedia hybrids. In these constantly and never definitively defined mixes, earned media emerges. Rather than setting campaigns exclusively on the budgets to be allocated to paid media, marketing experts prefer to develop owned and earned media, which allow, based on increasingly extensive and vertical data archives, to assess the needs of customers, promote original ideas, invest in the formation of influencers, expand and calibrate the range of action, privilege authenticity, and reduce the elements of distraction in creative chaos.
While the tactical functionalities of different media are becoming increasingly confused every day, consumers are making fewer conscious distinctions between channels. Their priority remains achieving specific goals, and the way in which they pursue them provides personalized combinations of channels, media, and formats. The daily challenge for brands is then to find shortcuts in a crowded and disordered media maze to try to intercept these elusive customers, to be able to be heard, to retain them with content that is truly significant.
The polarization of advertising based on the phases of awareness and purchase
Once the target of a brand’s communication has passed the awareness phase, i.e. it has become aware of a need and of the possible solutions proposed by a specific brand, the consideration phase in the customer journey begins. Consumers venture into research that does not proceed in a linear and progressive sense but happens across a cycle of discoveries, comparisons, considerations, and changes of direction, which leads them to inform themselves about competitors, on multiple channels. This stage can be prolonged if the answers sought are not convincing.
Today, the marketing funnel, which has gone unchanged for 90 years, has become incredibly complicated with the advent of the digital age and the explosion of touchpoints, assuming the fluid and circular structure of the consumer decision journey. (See our post on the phases of the customer journey here).
In a recent article, The Forgotten Stage Of The Marketing Funnel: How To Drive Consideration In The Digital Age, Forbes points out that in today’s digital world, “ads have become polarized — concentrated either around awareness and brand building or conversion.”
The convergence and hybridization of the media is taking place in parallel with the move away from physical text documents, informational content such as product sheets controlled by brands and employed at the top and bottom touchpoints of the funnel. The advertising spot, the post in an online magazine, the Facebook post, or blog post, (whether paid or owned media) all tend to present themselves with content that is engaging, inspirational, seductive, or motivational. These also serve to communicate company values and provide the calls-to-action useful in the conversion or sale. In other words, they focus on the phases of awareness and purchase, leaving the consideration phase unprotected in the customer journey.
How unconventional methodologies can revitalize the most neglected stage of the consumer journey
As the Forbes article illustrates, for consumers navigating the digital sea, having complete product descriptions is still essential to be able to make the best purchasing decision. However, those who develop and distribute advertisements (brands, agencies, marketers) cannot transmit all of the necessary information in the increasingly elusive moment before the fateful click.
So, to whom do consumers turn in this crucial stage of their journey? Where do they go to listen to suggestions and collect reviews?
Asking advice on what to buy is nothing new. This kind of knowledge sharing is both old and new: it’s word of mouth. But as advertising has retreated to the ends of the funnel, this “person-to-person” confirmation mechanism has never been as important to the buying process as it is now. And if word of mouth has long been seen as an offline phenomenon, today it has instead moved online and the “magic formula” for its activation continues to be at the center of the most engaging and innovative strategies, such as those implemented by the best guerrilla marketing.
Guerrilla marketing: media, vocabulary, and conversations
More than 25 years after the publication of the namesake book by Jay Conrad Levinson, (for a brief recap see our post), guerrilla marketing resists the passage of time and the constant pressure to become “commonplace.” “Guerrilla marketing” is based on the use of elements of conventional advertising communication in synergy with non-traditional methodologies, developing more conversational tactics, that have a direct influence on the decisions of consumers. Here are some.
- Experiential marketing: involves an immersive experience of interaction with the product.
- Tissue-pack marketing: an example of hand-to-hand marketing. Born in Japan in the 1960s, companies placed advertising messages on packs of tissues and distributed them to the public. By extension, it refers to forms of advertising that involve a one-to-one physical interaction.
- Viral marketing (especially through social networks) and Buzz marketing (thanks to online and offline word of mouth, the message also reaches the traditional media).
- Grassroots marketing: targets niche groups of people who are fans of your product to spread the word via personal blogs or reviews.
The expansion of the range of possible alternative media is now an opportunity to encourage prospects or leads (be they readers, viewers, listeners, users) to share brand content or to create their own content. These new expressive resources are exploited by “guerrilla” methodologies, which can be successfully implemented in the middle stage of the funnel to support the consumer in his choices. Among these unconventional methodologies, an undisputed leading role is played by those that manage to trigger and enhance a virtuous circle of feedback, comments, and especially reviews, a cornerstone and goal of any guerrilla marketing strategy.
We live in a ROBO (Research Online, Buy Offline) economy: online research has become the norm and people spend hours researching products and services online before they actually make a purchase.
The majority of consumers choose to rely on a review system to compare with other brands and collect opinions and suggestions from those who have already experienced that particular product or service: online reviews are actively consulted by 95% of shoppers before making a purchase, and these can increase the conversion by as much as 270%. The site “Podium” goes so far as to say that the online reviews are the new guerrilla marketing, drawing some interesting parallels.
1) Online reviews give voice to customers. One of the main strengths of guerrilla marketing is the elimination of the intermediary; online reviews work in a similar way.
2) Online reviews are a form of the “word on the street.” Another popular tactic in guerrilla marketing campaigns is the use of a street team committed to directly engaging the target audience to distribute information about a product or event.
Online reviews also help reach an equally demographically accurate target, especially if customers are asked while the experience is recent or even ongoing.
3) Online reviews become viral. A necessary step for a campaign to claim a guerrilla “license” is the one that propagates the circles of virality from word of mouth to “news”. Even online reviews enhance word of mouth, first activated around individual episodes. Thanks to the positive impact on local search positioning, reviews do not only affect immediate purchasing decisions, they also have an impact on the more general level of SEO.
Trends for the consideration phase in the customer journey
In a context in rapid and incessant transformation, even consumer behavior is undergoing rapid change – an indifference to the distinctions between media, the centrality of their research, into an increasingly urgent cycle: information, entertainment, shopping.
Finding the right media whether paid, owned or earned, and using them in effective and innovative ways is key to what is happening at the middle of the funnel. And, unconventional marketing initiatives are an essential part of the important consideration process in the customer journey.
We could perhaps conclude that the general trends highlighted in this article are evident in the “most neglected stage of the journey,” a sort of laboratory in which to observe closely what will happen (is already happening) at a systemic level in the brand-customer relationship:
– hybrid forms of content distribution (converged media)
– invitations to participate (engagement, through direct or indirect call-to-action, online or offline)
– humanization of corporate communication processes (brands become cultural figures)
– the primacy of the review as a privileged way of acquiring information before purchasing decisions (word-of-mouth)
– focusing on the real needs of the consumer (personalization)