The Ehrenberg Bass Institute stresses the need for the mental and physical availability of brands, but the coming age of marketing to machines will require mental and physical disruption, according to Phil Sutcliffe of Kantar TNS.

Few people have an Amazon Dash button in their homes, the first iteration of automated purchasing, but the technology behind it has been built into devices such as printers to permit the automatic reordering of ink cartridges and is likely to end up in a new generation of smart refrigerators. People will welcome the convenience of letting the device reorder everyday items they’re running low on, Sutcliffe told the Market Research Summit in London (May 2018). “It might not just be fridges, you might have sensors in the cupboard that do the same job.”

Kantar TNS’s own research in this area found limited initial interest in this area, with just 15% of a survey (21% of 25-34 year-olds) welcoming the time-saving enabled by sensors capable of reordering products and 13% (24% of 25-34 year-olds) seeing the stress-relieving potential of not having to shop. Respondents worried about issues such as price and which brands would be ordered on their behalf.

“The real game-changer is going to be voice,” he said. “Alexa, buy me some more coffee.” That’s easy for the consumer. “But what does it mean for marketing if you’re not Nescafé or Kenco or programmed into the consideration set of my device?” Sutcliffe wondered. “What do you do if you’re another brand? Who are you marketing to - the person or the machine?”

And that future is imminent. Sales of smart speakers spiked around Christmas; already 20% of the UK population owns a smart speaker, rising to 34% among 25-34 year-olds, he reported; another 24% expect to own one within the next two years (33% of 24-34 year olds). And almost three quarters (72%) of those who own or expect to own such a device, anticipate using it to reorder items or add them to their shopping list. “This is going to become very common behaviour just because of the convenience it gives to people.”

And the convenience factor extends beyond FMCG, Sutcliffe noted. A voice assistant could become a financial advisor, reminding people when their car insurance is due for renewal, for example, and recommending an alternative cheaper deal.

“Marketing will become in part about marketing to machines,” he said. “It will be about developing algorithms that will talk to the bots in the connected device that will offer personalised choices.”

So if a consumer programs a device to buy Nescafé but to choose Kenco instead if it’s 10% cheaper, then the latter’s algorithm has to be able to determine that and supply a suitable offer so Kenco is chosen instead. “It’s about putting my brand at the top of the choice criteria.” 

But there will still be a role for brand building, Sutcliffe reassured, although “it won’t necessarily be brand building as we currently know it.” This revolves around mental and physical availability in the arguments championed by the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute; future brand-building will be about “supercharging” those factors.

So for mental availability, read mental disruption. “Marketing has to make people care enough, or sit up and take enough notice so that they can be bothered” to either go to the choice of criteria in the machine and add in a new brand to their repertoire, or specify a particular brand when ordering a product.

Brand purpose will be one key way of ensuring mental disruption, but Sutcliffe expects to see this develop into brand activism: brands will need to move beyond simply declaring support for a cause to getting involved and actually doing things - “and doing things in a way that convinces people that you’re driving meaningful change”.

A classic example, he suggested, is Persil/Omo’s Dirt Is Good campaign, which has spawned a National Day of Play in Australia, a National Outdoor Classroom Day in the UK and support for The Wild Network, a charity that aims to get children outside doing adventurous things. “What’s clever is it gets parents involved and it’s locally based - people can see tangible differences.”

And for physical availability, read physical disruption. The age of machine marketing will involve a return to a traditional technique as sampling will become more important. “Machines can buy stuff, they don’t use it. Brands will need to make efforts to get products into people’s hands, into people’s homes.” And in the digital world, sampling can be more targeted, he pointed out.

There will also be more direct-to-consumer sales models. Unilever’s $1bn acquisition of Dollar Shave Club wasn’t just about challenging P&G’s Gillette, Sutcliffe suggested: “I suspect it was just as much, if not more so, about buying into the DTC model. It’s a channel through which they can get other brands in their portfolio into people’s homes: buy a razor, try Dove for Men as well.”

Sutcliffe also sees a greater focus on the brand experience - “a pivot from thinking of the brand as a product with a collection of things around it to thinking of the brand as all of those things”. So the use of things like events, VR, festivals will all be ways in which brands will seek to achieve both mental and physical disruption, “making a shock to the system that’s more powerful than traditional advertising.

“It’s about making the brand more powerful, connecting to people in a deeper way so they want to say ‘Alexa, buy me some Nescafé’ and not ‘Alexa, buy me some coffee’.”