Helping brands navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of digital and social media

This podcast first appeared on the Small Data Forum.

In the latest in the occasional series of Small Data Forum podcast interviews with industry mavens and thought leaders, SDF co-host Sam Knowles caught up with Christian Polman, UK MD of brand communications and publishing house Looping Group. To this content and creative-driven role, Christian brings a consultant’s mindset (with years at Bain and an MBA) as well as digital marketing smarts (from Digitas and Google) and marketing analytics expertise (his role before Looping was with Ebiquity).

Christian Polman, UK MD of Looping Group, chats with Insight Agents’ Founder & MD, Sam Knowles

Sam starts by asking Christian where the smart money is going in digital marketing. Christian’s view is that digital marketing must rest on the twin levers of marketing optimisation and effectiveness, and that on this foundation brands need to build holistic customer experience. We are going through a period of renaissance, currently, for both research AND creativity and content.

That’s a lot for brand marketers to bear in mind, so Sam attempts to tip the scales by straying into the metaverse, wondering whether that features in current briefs and brand planning. Friend of the show Ian Whittaker – himself a guest on the podcast in 2021 – has recently reported a spike in Apple’s share price in response to speculation that the firm is primed to produce metaverse-friendly hardware and services. Christian surprises Sam by revealing he is currently working on a brief that features a metaverse component. He is also impressed by how both art and fashion are making early inroads into the metaverse, including Nike and its creation of Nikeland in Roblox. Perhaps – muses Sam – the metaverse isn’t just the cheap conjuror’s trick it appeared to be at first, second, and 34th glance when Zuckerberg unveiled Meta last October. Perhaps it is – as Christian maintains – unleashing a new wave of creativity.

Our humble podcast is concerned with the uses and ab-uses of data big and small in politics, business, and public life. We therefore turn to the issue of brand safety. Christian believes that Web 3.0 offers us – brands, commerce, the world – the opportunity to make up for some of the mistakes of web 2.0, particularly the over-concentration of power into just a few hands – WARC, for instance, suggests that in the very near future Meta, Alphabet, and Amazon will have their grubby bug mitts on 50% of all advertising spend. Web 3.0, Christian suggests, has the opportunity to dissipate power beyond the FANNG five, making the internet both more inclusive and more equitable.

For Christian, there are two important considerations brands need to weigh up in terms of brand safety. The first in about creativity and content and developing appropriate messaging. Ovo Energy’s recent own goal – suggesting consumers put on another jumper or cuddle their dog to save money on heating bills … at a time when energy bills in the U.K., for instance, are expected to rocket by 50% just this year – is done deaf, brand unsafe behaviour.

The second domain is media – ensuring that the right content appears in the right environments. Content that appears in premium media inventory – and not in the dodgy, dark underbelly of the long tail – is much more likely to be secure and do no harm to brands.

We consider the motivations and impact of brands coming off social and digital to punish platform holders by withholding their spend, from Stop Funding Hate to the 2021 Facebook boycotts. We focus on the example of Lush, whose marketing lead said as they paused investment online: “As a brand dedicated to helping people relax, social media platforms have become the antithesis of this aim, with algorithms designed to keep people scrolling and stop them from switching off.”

This is fine – and admirable, indeed – for Lush, avers Polman, as they’ve determined the medium is dissonant with its message – its values and purpose. But it would be ostrich-like for all brands to follow suit. In the modern, digital media ecosystem, brands need to engage and entertain, surprise and delight their customers online … or face extinction. Indeed, despite Lush’s public denigration of social media, it’s managed to keep its TikTok presence not only alive but also super-active during its self-imposed period of purdah.

We close out by considering how brands can best navigate the upsides and the downsides of social and digital media, the Scylla and Charybdis of modern marketing. Christian believes that all brands need to ask themselves some hard questions about their values and purpose. This is more critical than ever when they’re asking consumers to share time and attention with them in digital environments; in what he and his colleagues at Looping call “the editorial society”, one where many more voices matter.

Clearly establishing and articulating values and purpose dictates what conversations brands can engage with. This matters as consumer demographics – from younger consumers to high-net-worth individuals – are getting harder and harder to reach as they continue to abandon old-skool, mainstream media like TV. It will indeed, Christian believes, be more important yet under web 3.0 and as we morph in to the metaverse.

Sam decides to continue with rewatching Charlie Booker’s brilliantly dystopian Black Mirrorwhich he feels may well be a prescient playbook for how not to make the digital future.

Many thanks from all the Small Data Forum to Christian for his time, energy, and informed opinions.