Brands seek digital insights

16 January 2012

NEW YORK: General Electric, Unilever and Wal-Mart are among the brand owners trying to enhance their understanding of digital technology and behaviours, reflecting the opportunities and challenges these trends present.

Speaking to Advertising Age, Beth Comstock, CMO of General Electric, the conglomerate, posed a variety of questions which brands must answer if they are to progress in the digital age.

"How is tech changing the behaviour? Who owns the data and what's the value of the data? Who is going to make sense of this if not us?" she asked. "I'm a marketer and that makes me a behaviouralist."

In responding to the forces reshaping the market, GE has created "digital challenge teams", launched open innovation programmes and partnered with a wide range of entrepreneurs.

"Our traditional teams are too slow. We're not innovating fast enough. We need to systematise change," said Comstock. "In a big company, you never feel you're fast enough."

Unilever, the FMCG group, recently met with representatives from Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft to help find new ways of leveraging the same major technological developments.

"We simply need to know how consumers engage with media and engage with brands," said Keith Weed, Unilever's chief marketing and communication officer.

Elsewhere, Wal-Mart, the retailer, has invested in everything from social commerce company Kosmix to data analytics software capable of automatically shipping products in the event of natural disasters.

The rise in popularity of smartphones has also attracted its attention, having solidified many trends already at work in the market, as the digital and physical worlds become increasingly integrated.

"Everyone is getting smarter; customers won't tolerate a store that isn't moving as fast as they are," said Stephen Quinn, Wal-Mart's CMO. "A lot of the behaviours around this have existed forever. When the cellphones appeared a couple years ago we'd see guys in the store saying, 'Do you mean the red one or the blue one?'"

The applications of new media extend beyond the retail category, with automakers providing features such as voice recognition tools, geo-location software and internet connections.

"It's a delicate balance; it has to be two hands on the wheel, eyes on the road," said Steve Shannon, VP, marketing at Hyundai America. "A radio ad salesman in Detroit told me 20 years ago a car is just a radio on wheels. Now it's a search engine on wheels."

Data sourced from AdAge/Fast Company; additional content by Warc staff