How not to be a copycat marketer
Brands must experiment, take risks and make room for adaptive marketing, instead of replicating each other’s strategies.
You could argue that the digital marketing industry has been created by wave after wave of new ideas, methodologies and media experiences.
The willingness among brands to embrace the new, coupled with the migration of audience attention towards tech and digital media, has created a snowball effect, bringing more and more investment to the digital space.
But you could also argue that the stellar growth of digital media has been as much about fear of missing out and investment conservatism, fuelled by digital marketing’s great strength: quantified performance.
In some ways, the evolution of marketing has been a balance between innovation and sticking with the tried and tested.
In 2024 — a year that will likely be marked by one of the most important changes in digital marketing for a decade, as third-party cookies are removed from Google Chrome — has the marketing space tilted too far towards conservatism?
Counter-intuitive as it may seem, the psychology of competition between marketers is creating a tendency for brands to replicate each other’s strategies and, at the same time, marketers’ dread of failure means they are less willing to experiment.
This combination is distorting brands’ investment strategies and could hold back digital media and the technology space as a whole. From a brand point of view, importantly, it is stymieing performance.
How have we come to a point where conservatism seems to be winning over innovation and copycat marketing is so prevalent, just when brands need to experiment most?
The desire for “competitor insights” is high on the agenda for many advertisers. This is understandable. Brands inevitably want their agencies to supply as much intel as possible about competitor share of voice, social presence, overall spend patterns, dynamic creative, TV strategy etc.
Benchmarking and tracking what’s happening is vital, but rather than using information as a reference point, more often than not competitor insights are used to make quick, reactive decisions.
We see advertisers react to spikes in competitor traffic or impression share, altering bids and diverting attention to counter the trends that have been reported. This impulsiveness inevitably detracts from the long-term strategy. It can mean brands become hooked on short-term tactics played on repeat, while vision and strategy come second.
For example, if brands weigh investment too heavily towards competitor targeting — bidding on competitor keywords, creating audiences from competitor sites, aligning with rivals’ TV presence — you end up in a spiral of declining audience intelligence, inflated costs and limited creativity.
Another scenario happens when a tech giant like Meta launches a technical product or creative solution. The case for experimental investment is compelling. But, all too often, brands are reluctant to try something new unless there is a proven case study from a braver marketer who has gone first. Historical performance typically trumps future-facing risk.
To rebalance brand strategy towards innovation, marketers and their C-suite colleagues, especially finance directors, must build risk into marketing and recognise the benefits of doing so.
These don’t necessarily need to be monumental risks. Working towards the unknown can be challenging, but with informed decision-making and the right support, it can be key to competitive advantage.
Persuading finance directors that a percentage of media investment should be allocated to experimentation is an important battle that marketers should fight.
We see advertisers that have embedded “test and learn” tactics into their culture often thrive across all areas of the business. The gains go way beyond return on advertising spend. The fluidity of the decision-making, the learnings gained, robust measurement frameworks and optimised business process all add to the overall health and capability of brand marketing.
Test failures are as important as successes and transparency is vital for progress.
Emergent vs deliberate strategy
Another critical step is to reframe media investment between deliberate and emergent strategy.
“Deliberate strategy” — careful planning to achieve objectives based on meticulous market research, delivered with control and structure — should be matched by “emergent strategy”, which is more adaptive and responsive marketing that provides the agility to embrace an ever-evolving landscape.
An advertiser that uses a deliberate strategy for core marketing initiatives and long-term goals, but also allows room for an emergent strategy to deal with unforeseen changes in the competitive landscape, will have the flexibility to achieve success in spite of uncertainty.
Risk is inherent in all areas of business and advertising in particular has always been a bit of a gamble. Some of the greatest creative campaigns of the past were, at the end of the day, a throw of the dice. But no brand ever succeeded simply by copying their rivals.
Keeping this yin and yang of marketing in balance is critical — not just to deliver long-term success, but also to navigate the ceaseless change in the industry.
Aliya Rafiq Vaz is a senior consultant, EMEA, at Kepler
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