Luca Vergano, a judge of the WARC Awards for Media – Effective Use of Tech category, explains how companies might benefit from reframing a marketing idea as the exploration for larger transformation.

A song by hip hop artist Michael Franti states that “every million miles you have to take a first step”. But when that first step is the start of the dreaded “digital transformation”, it’s a tricky one. Too often, companies find themselves facing overwhelming questions of scale, feasibility, viability, and as a result, they fail. A 2020 BCG report shows how only 30% of businesses succeed in this complex and necessary evolution.

When WARC kindly asked me to be on the panel for the Media Awards – Effective Use of Tech, I looked forward to it: it’s always interesting to see what companies identify as effective, especially when it comes to creative activations that tend to be one-off experiences with limited shelf-life. The submissions that got everyone aligned were from three different actors: French non-profit association L’Enfant Bleu, Cadbury chocolate and Finish dishwasher detergent.

While a more innovative digital approach in the non-profit sector is needed – and Web 3.0 will unleash that massive wave of change – the FMCG category is particularly interesting, given how it has been struggling for a long time with increasingly dangerous commoditisation.

In a 2015 article on WARC, the typical interaction with FMCG brands was calculated “at about 15 minutes every few weeks. And in-store, many consumers view them as commodities with purchase decisions made in a few seconds influenced by whatever is on deal”.

This lack of relevant connection between brand and buyer shows up even more dramatically in a 2019 McKinsey analysis, where 80% of CEOs of consumer good companies declared they believe their business models are at risk, and 94% of them are dissatisfied with their companies’ innovation performance.

One key aspect of digital transformation every white paper is aligned on is the importance of data. In my experience data are hard to obtain: legacy companies tend to have – at best – legacy data. And legacy data potentially makes for legacy solutions. Not very transformative.

New data requires prototyping, but a real prototyping approach often faces the constraints of budget. Companies who struggle with digital transformation are often cautious about how much investment they focus on innovation: 79% of CEOs prefer to focus on the bottom line.

So here’s a different way to look at this barrier: what if marketing activations were the first step of the digital transformation? Digital marketing experiences could be service design prototypes, and provide those needed new learnings (not to mention amplifying the contribution of the marketing dollars).

Digital marketing experiences as service design prototypes

The timelines between marketing and service design are vastly different. A creative partner might have a three-month period to create a marketing activation, and nine to twelve months for a service design assignment. Nine months could mean three marketing activations: three iterations with potential first-party data to learn from. First-party data based on a new paradigm, not on a legacy assumption.

From this perspective, L’Enfant Bleu’s ‘Undercover Avatar’ could have tested interactions in the Metaverse; Finish’s ‘Fountains’ could have been the prototype of some in-store physical-to-digital interaction; and Cadbury’s 5 Star the seed of a wide-ranging health and wellness platform. The brief for their next marketing activation? Iterate on the learnings with a new idea. And so on and so forth, until a full-fledged service offering is one click away.

We should not lose focus on something fundamental, in the digital economy: brands that create an ecosystem for their customers increase retention and grow the business. Nike reported that 26% of the $11bn revenues in its most recent quarter came from digital channels.

The chance is there for every brand and business: McKinsey projections show how “the integrated network economy could represent a global revenue pool of $60tn in 2025 with a potential increase in total economy share from about 1% to 2% today to approximately 30% by 2025”. A sizable opportunity.

Ambitious brands move into new worlds. A big part of that move is a meaningful and feasible first step. Reframing a marketing idea as the exploration for larger transformation is an approach that has shown results time and again, with clients like Benjamin Moore, Comcast, and Apple.

The jury agreed that L’Enfant Bleu, Cadbury, and Finish were all worthy of awards. Of course, in our industry there will be a debate on whether their use of tech was really effective from a marketing perspective. So let me pepper in a bit of provocation: to me they are effective regardless of measurement. This is because they have the power to be something more: the first step towards a stronger connection with the audience.