Creative marketing for tech effective, but carries risks

Successful, out-of-the-box marketing tactics can boost brand awareness and customer mindshare, but experts advise firms to also consider potential risks if such campaigns go overboard.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

Creative, out-of-the-box marketing gimmicks for technology products and services can prove effective, but are also risky if campaigns are not executed properly and lead to more controversy than creativity, say industry insiders.

Because customers and their opinions are what drive corporate branding today, nontraditional marketing strategies are sometimes required to boost client awareness and loyalty in a crowded, competitive market space.

According to Adeline Ho, lecturer at Singapore Polytechnic (SP) Business School, creative marketing tactics work because they attract customers' attention, especially if the company is hoping to raise brand awareness of its business or product.

The campaign will be even more effective if it there is involvement or engagement with the customers themselves, Ho told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview.

She noted that it necessary for tech companies to come up with creative marketing tactics because the tech industry is very competitive. Market players have to find new ways to capture the attention of their customers, and engage them with the right personalization in order to improve brand awareness, retain customer loyalty and attract new customers, she explained.

Ho pointed to Yahoo's Purple People Greeter as an example of a creative guerrilla marketing campaign that worked because it not only contained an element of fun, but also personalization. The initiative was first launched in New York in June this year, and is set to roll out to other U.S. cities including Austin and San Francisco.

The campaign featured a giant-sized talking purple mailbox voiced by American comedian, Ryan McDonough, who would hide out in a van parked nearby--equipped with a video camera--and chat with passersby on the street. The "mailbox" would then prompt a staffer inside the box to hand out gifts, in Yahoo's trademark purple and white envelopes, which matched the person's interests including Apple iPads, Yankee tickets and Starbucks giftcards.

The video scored 15,000 hits within the first weekend it was uploaded, and Yahoo Mail's Facebook page since gathered 640,000 Likes.

Allan Tan, managing director of business-to-business marketing and PR (public relations) agency Ying Communications, said one benefit of creative, wacky marketing strategies is the ability to generate viral buzz and word-of-mouth, which is a "great multiplier for limited marketing budgets".

In addition, when harnessed well and successful, creative campaigns can generate a positive impact on the brand and become a "powerful way of setting your brand apart from others in the minds of customers", Tan said in an e-mail.

Potential risks, backlash
However, experts cautioned companies to thread mindfully when using unorthodox marketing tactics.

One of the pitfalls is that the advertising may become too controversial, Ho noted.

Groupon's "Save The Money" Super Bowl ads in February, for instance, showed a celebrity talking about "serious issues" regarding rainforests, whales and Tibet, but later advertised how Groupon's deals could help save money. It generated significant criticism on social media sites, she said.

Tan added that viral infections were difficult to control and a campaign could end up reaching irrelevant or hostile audiences.

Companies need to bear in mind the unplanned costs as a result of possible fire-fighting and PR control, he pointed out. He also noted that whether nontraditional marketing campaigns were successful really depended on what the company defined as success.

"If the guiding principle is 'any press is good press', then getting a guy in a bear suit to rummage through garbage in the middle of the night in Singapore neighborhoods would be considered successful," he said.

In October last year, a "bear" spotted by citizens turned out to be part of a guerilla marketing campaign to promote Philips Electronics Singapore's newest shaver. The initiative did not generate much positive feedback.

Tan explained that any company needs to be prepared to deal with all consequences post-campaign, for instance, enraged or frightened citizens and hastily-issued apologies--all of which cost money and drive down brand equity.

The key with any great marketing campaign is a willingness to take calculated risks, he pointed out. "[It is] a way to achieve a good balance between creativity, relevance and impact. Otherwise, being creative for the sake of generating shock value is too much of an unbounded risk," he said.

Some of Tan's "personal favorites" include Symantec's Complexity Master, that had actors portraying IT staff in a dysfunctional "Dilbert-like" company which he described as "hilarious yet strangely relevant", and Intel's Museum of Me where one's life on Facebook is displayed as a continuous series of museum exhibits and the result is "visually stunning".

"I admire Intel's ability to come up with [this], mainly because it stays true to their branding DNA--that is to reach consumers despite being several steps removed from the final product that we actually use," he said. Tan's company was not involved in either campaign.

Today's marketing driven by users
"There is a time and place for everything, and wacky marketing campaigns certainly serve a purpose in some situations and are a good way to grab consumer attention," said Frederique Covington, central marketing operations lead at Microsoft Asia-Pacific.

The Asia-Pacific team was behind a number of the software giant's advertising strategies in the region, including one that pushed for the end of version 6 of Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser. Initiatives featured included an IE6 Countdown Web site, dedicated to shrinking IE6 use to less than 1 percent worldwide, and an Australian campaign in May 2010 that likened IE6 to expired milk. Globally, other campaigns included Gmail man, VMLimited and Bing and Twitter renewing their real-time search deal "vows" via tweets.

Covington told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail that Microsoft uses creative marketing campaigns because the way audiences today want to be spoken to and engaged are changing.

She noted that there is greater desire from all users to be given a chance to comment, contribute and provide feedback on a company. "Long gone are the days of 'positioning-based' branding. Today, we're in the era of 'opinion-based' branding where brands are owned and defined by the users," she said.

At the same time, the consumerization of IT has also led to the consumerization of marketing where consumers use multiple consumer devices, such as smartphones and tablets as well as third-party applications such as social networking sites.

That underscored the need for creative marketing campaigns to help push enterprise technology, she stressed.

Covington said: "We can no longer treat enterprise marketing as the laggard of marketing. It needs to rise to the same standards as any great marketing campaign, which needs to engage, entertain and [encourage] participation and desire for people to be advocates to their own networks."

Asked if Microsoft had plans to increasing its use of creative marketing tactics over traditional types of advertising strategies, the executive said: "Best-in-class marketers now allocate 10 percent of their marketing spend to innovations in order to try new things and learn. From that perspective, you could call it 'wacky' marketing.

"Some initiatives will work, some won't. But it's important to have the courage to trial in order to break new ground," she said.

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