The secret to driving marketing innovation and avoiding marketing fails

by Peter Harris, EVP & Managing Director, Vision Critical Asia Pacific

What happens when you mess with a beloved brand? As Arnott’s recently discovered, the answer is: a very strong backlash.

Earlier this year, the iconic Australian company tweaked the flavouring for its classic Shapes biscuits, modifying consumer favourites like pizza and barbeque. Packaging was also changed to emphasize that the flavours were “new and improved.”

The biscuits were first introduced in the 1950s and have seen few changes since, so why did Arnott’s tweak with its formula? The company said the move was motivated by the changing Aussie palate and diet. “Before launching the new range, we tested the old flavours versus the new, tweaked flavours with Shapes consumers and the majority told us they liked the new ones,” the company wrote on its website.

Longtime Arnott’s consumers were quick to share their hatred of the new flavours on social media. “I tried the ‘new and improved’ Arnott’s bbq Shapes, and they tasted like ants,” says one tweet. Another angry consumer promises to “never eat them again.”

A change.org petition to bring back the old shapes has garnered almost 25,000 signatures as of this writing. With its new flavours and packaging, Arnott’s was trying to push the envelope and innovate on its own products, but judging from the strong social media backlash, it seems to have failed.

The Australian marketing landscape is littered with stories like Arnott’s—tales of unfortunate marketing failures. KFC Australia’s provocative social media campaign backfired earlier this year when many consumers found it too suggestive. Delivery service company Deliveroo received a similar backlash when it ran ads featuring young women that many described as “creepy” and labelled as “soft porn.”

Even well-meaning campaigns can fail epically. In 2015, supermarket giant Woolworths was forced to pull an Anzac Day marketing campaign because many people didn’t find it in good taste.

More than ever, companies want to stand out and push the boundaries of their marketing campaigns. That means coming up with better products, creating more attractive packaging and launching more compelling promotions and advertising. But, as the examples above demonstrate, changing your marketing mix could quickly turn fresh ideas into costly missteps.

To make sure that their marketing investments drive ROI, companies need to turn to the very same people they want to attract: their customers. Here are three ways customer intelligence can help companies enhance their approach to marketing.

1.Harness the insight of angry customers.

An old adage in the business world remains true today: word of mouth is the best type of marketing. The opposite is true as well: negative word of mouth is the worst kind of marketing.

Indeed, by telling others about their negative experience, angry customers are costing companies trillions of dollars per year. But instead of treating customer complaints as a hassle, companies need to take these grievances seriously and use them for customer insight.

For companies like Arnott’s and KFC Australia, the most obvious first step when dealing with a backlash is to listen. But true customer engagement shouldn’t end there. Instead, companies need to take this opportunity to engage customers in a two-way conversation. Honest and ongoing communication with passionate customers serves as a catalyst for positive change and helps uncover pain points.

In the long term, engaging regularly with angry customers unlocks the key to innovative marketing thinking.

2.Get a more holistic picture of your customers.

Social media listening is a good first step in understanding your customers, but relying on it alone could lead you to the wrong conclusions. That’s because the loudest voices on social media may not, in fact, represent the opinion of your customer base.

A 2015 study shows that 85 percent of what companies hear on social media come from just 29 percent of their audience. Most customers are “lurkers” on social media, so their insight is not captured in your analytics software.

The challenge for companies facing enormous social media backlash is to separate the signal from the noise. In Arnott’s case, while the overwhelming consensus on social media is the new flavours are undesirable, the company needs to dig deeper to make sure it is hearing from a representative sample of its customers. As one writer from Finder.com.au, a website dedicated to finances, points out, more than two-thirds of Australians currently don’t care much for savoury biscuits—the category that Arnott’s Shapes belongs to. If Arnott’s wants to expand its market share, it needs to engage with with the right people, not just the loudest ones.

To be fair, Arnott’s did engage with consumers before launching its new flavours. “We spoke to over 11,000 Aussies” the company revealed on its website. “We did extensive qualitative and quantitative research, including sensory testing and alienation testing with frequent Shapes consumers.” The swift and overwhelming feedback the company received, however, suggests that the company had a few blind spots in its research.

The lesson from Arnott’s: customer engagement shouldn’t stop after launching a campaign in the market. Even after launch, companies will need to continue the conversation with their customers to determine the correct course of action. More importantly, companies need to make sure that they’re tapping the right sources of customer intelligence to get a complete picture of their customer.

3.Keep up with the evolving attitudes and behaviours of your customers.

Many marketing fails are a direct result of a lack of understanding of customers. KFC Australia failed to exhibit that it gets the humour of its target audience. Woolworths didn’t succeed in understanding consumer sentiment about a historic holiday. Arnott’s missed how much passion current customers had for its products.

Marketing innovation requires risks, but companies can’t afford to be provocative without truly understanding their customers. Making sound and calculated risks requires deep customer intelligence first.

Final thought

There’s a silver lining for Arnott’s marketing fail. The intense feedback it’s receiving from the public is an opportunity to engage now with consumers, including those that don’t currently buy Shapes products. Even beloved legacy brands can make mistakes, but by engaging with customers regularly, companies have the chance to turn marketing fails into marketing wins.

 

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