Time to Get Back to Basics: the New Basics

The dot-coms are dead men walking. Everybody knows: Bob Lessin, CEO of Wit Capital, announced: “The Internet will be owned by physical companies.” The Dow and the Nasdaq are imitating roller coasters, and heads are shaking in the Alleys, Valleys, and on The Street.

But can anyone really claim to be surprised?

We’ve all seen the hundreds of companies with business plans and no attainable profit projections; the marketing plans that assumed brand loyalty could be built in a quarter; and the ad agencies, media properties, and marketing consultants who all nodded and took the money.

So no one can really be surprised. And no one should blame the Internet, lack of consumer interest, or even the government. The fact is that everyone just walked away from the basics.

Marketing: the New Basics

In 1999, advertising agencies rushed to disavow years of consumer research. They systematically forgot almost everything they ever knew about consumer buying behavior. The fourth quarter of 1999 witnessed the symbolic burning of countless media-buying bibles. The differences between brand awareness and brand preference were washed away in the screamingly similar, all-so-hip ads for that now single family “Dot-Com.”

There were reasons to question the old rules: the Internet, new business models, and even new media options. But the basics of marketing – the suddenly old ways – are grounded in an understanding of consumer (read: human) buying behavior. So unless we are selling to a new species, this discipline retains much of its value, even if how and where we apply it has radically changed. The learning of fourth quarter 1999 is clear. Now more than ever, we need to bring the old knowledge into this new environment and, in doing so, create a new marketing discipline: the New Basics.

Here are two that must top the list.

  1. Know Your Customers
    More important, know what they think about your product and how they talk about it both rationally and intuitively. Recent evidence suggests understanding your product’s consumer is more valid and more difficult today than it was before the birth of the first dot-com.

    In the Old World governed by the Old Basics we might have talked to customers once a year or only when testing a new campaign. Now the speed of technological change and the resulting evolution of customer behavior requires that we increase the frequency of that dialogue. It must also extend beyond watching site logs and reading customer-complaint emails and into regularly scheduled, in-depth usability labs, focus groups, and quantitative studies.

    In the New Basics, that often translates into what are the benefits of a web site. It must, however, extend across all points of consumer contact, quickly integrating into a clear action plan.

    In this New World, we have the capacity to act on that knowledge faster, more effectively, and with greater impact. That’s New World Client Service. Not just in online media, but in traditional media as digital video changes the dynamics of TV production and even print, where shorter processes make changing ineffective creative a much less time- and cost-intensive process.

  2. Brands Are the Same but Different
    The Old Basics taught us that brands were worth any amount of trouble to create and sustain. During the fourth quarter of 1999, however, it seemed that everything ever learned about creating brands was reduced to one marketing tactic: Spend money. What the money was spent on wasn’t questioned. The results of that effort have been duly noted.

    In the Old World, it was understood that building a brand took more than money. “Real” brand development requires money, analysis, planning, execution, and, most important, time. A lot of time. All the failures of the fourth quarter suggest there may still be some value in that old learning.

    Yet something very important has changed. While there are only two or three “Internet brands” that can stand up in brand-loyalty testing against ancient regime brands like Budweiser or Tide, they attained the status of being household names in less than a tenth of the time it took their offline predecessors.

    Time is not the issue. Focus, discipline, good marketing, great customer service, and, finally, money are. You can’t build a brand in a quarter, but it no longer takes years. And the impact of a customer’s online experience cannot be underestimated.

Note: New Basic Rule
The consumer online experience is more “important” for an established brand than it is for a new player. Every brand needs to see its customers interact with its site. Our research indicates that consumer expectations for established brands online are much higher than for any new dot-com.

Consumers believe the established, familiar brands “have the money” and know how to sell products. Consumers are much less forgiving of an established brand’s foibles online and feel established brands “should know what to do.” More telling, most consumers make no distinction between the brand online and in the real world. They don’t understand why it should be any harder to buy a box of Tide online than picking it up off a shelf. It’s the same brand, isn’t it?

Harder, Faster, Smarter

The New Basics are grounded in a deepening understanding of marketing and its now increasingly rapid evolution online, offline, and across appliances. (Does anyone hear “WHASSUP” on a PalmPilot?) They also require a new commitment not only to understanding the consumer, but to turning that understanding into effective marketing strategies and executions, and into continual evaluation and change.

There are no other alternatives once it’s clear that consumers’ connections to brands are constantly evolving, always with the potential for negative results. The online world is only one of these fields of play. But with its intimate, consumer-controlled experience, it’s hard to doubt the impact of the online experience on consumer-brand relationships or to ignore the sudden increase in the speed at which a brand can be born and at which it can die. Unless, of course, we missed the lessons of fourth quarter 1999.

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