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Q&A: Christian Ward on how marketing is becoming ‘invisible’

Christian Ward, Stylus’ head of Media & Marketing, spoke to us about ‘invisible’ marketing – a phenomenon that looks set to revolutionise brands’ approach to advertising.

Nascent artificial intelligence (AI), virtual voice assistants and context-aware tech will give rise to an “explosion” of innovation in the marketing sector over the next 12 months. This is the prediction made in Invisible Marketing, the latest report authored by Stylus’ head of Media & Marketing, Christian Ward. He told us more about a phenomenon that’s set to change the world of marketing and advertising forever.

So Christian, what exactly is “invisible” marketing?

“Well, it’s something that’s come as a response to ad-blocking software; brands realise that consumers no longer want to see ads. So now we’re seeing advertising that takes advantage of messaging, artificial intelligence and contextual data. ‘Invisible’ marketing essentially involves consumers being engaged in a way that’s so entertaining, natural and seamless that it doesn’t feel like marketing.”

Is it something that brands should be actively embracing?

“I really don’t see an alternative, particularly as digital display advertising is having such a tough time. Brands have already responded – take programmatic advertising, where you search for something on Amazon and it follows you around online for the rest of the day. This is quite efficient, but it’s not very effective.

“We’ve seen further progress with native advertising and sponsored content – look at BuzzFeed, which turns advertising into content that looks like other BuzzFeed articles. This has been effective in that it’s more entertaining than a display ad, but some people have found it slightly inauthentic.

“I think the only real alternative is for brands to become more useful to consumers. They should strive to become a utility in the same way that Google Maps is.”

Brands becoming more useful – does this go hand-in-hand with the stat (from Havas Media) that almost three quarters of consumers want brands to improve their quality of life?

“I think so. It’s quite a difficult stat to unpick because if you’re asked the question ‘Would you like brands to improve the quality of your life?’ you’re going to say ‘Yes’.

“But since the financial crash consumers have lost faith in traditional authority figures. Brands, which are increasingly being seen as instructive and educational, have filled the gap. This is especially the case in beauty and fashion, but I think this is going to happen cross-industry, from FMCG to luxury.”

What would you say to brands that are scared of AI – specifically, its potential to replace human employees?

“There are two ways of looking at it. One is that yes, this technology could become so advanced that some people won’t be needed anymore. But the other is that humans will always be needed, and particularly in marketing and advertising. Technology can only go so far.

“I don’t think there’ll ever be a point in creative advertising where a computer can come up with a concept better than a human can. It might be able to put together the creative, but it couldn’t come up with the idea.”

Voice assistants. Is their rise the most obvious example of invisible marketing’s potential in terms of predicting users’ needs?

“This is really interesting because no one has figured out what the brand landscape will look like, or the potential for where voice assistants can go. Say someone says ‘Alexa, can you book me a taxi?’ Who owns the word ‘taxi’? Does the request go to Uber or Addison Lee? While this eco system hasn’t been figured out, it’s interesting that consumers will stop being brand centric and start being activity or service centric.

“This is the next battle for invisible marketing – being there at the point of intent. At this moment a brand should be able to appear on your phone and say ‘You need a cab right now, why don’t you choose us?’ And then you say to Alexa, ‘OK, book me an Uber.’

“Brands have to start thinking about how they drop into these moments, and how they can be front of mind without being a traditional advertiser and sending annoying messages every five seconds.”

One of the three Invisible Marketing reports explores “third spaces” – can you tell us more about what these are?

“This is something that we haven’t really talked about before, which is why it’s possibly the most interesting report. The idea, which has been facilitated by technology, is that you have these new moments that brands can market in.

“They can be physical – like emerging from a Tube station and getting data about pollution, which enables you to trust a particular skincare brand – or emotional. A good example is when one brand approached people, using a certain app, who were stuck in traffic. Its message basically said ‘We know you’re annoyed, here’s a 20% discount.’

“You wouldn’t normally market to this sort of transient moment – why would you target an angry consumer? – but this is precisely when you should. Why? Because brands know exactly what the context is for their message. As a result, they can personalise it and become more engaging.”

Is there a stand-out example of a brand that’s achieved results through invisible marketing?

“In December 2016 Spotify analysed listening data. It then put up personalised billboards in certain regions that basically said: ‘If you’re the person who listens to this kind of music on this day, then thanks for your support’.

“Obviously this isn’t invisible in the sense that there’s a big billboard sitting in the middle of the city, but it’s interesting seeing how Spotify’s messaging was personalised and relevant.

“Then there’s The Weather Company, which partnered with contextual data pioneers IBM Watson to personalise advertising when there was a high pollen count, and when it was a time of year when people got ill.

“IBM Watson also trialled something interesting at Wimbledon last year. It attracted new tennis fans who weren’t watching a particular match – specifically by automating social media outreach to target people who were watching sports that were somehow related.

“If there was a German tennis player on court, for example, IBM Watson looked for people tweeting about the German football team and sent a message that effectively said: ‘Hey, you’re a fan of the German football team, your fellow countryman is now on Centre Court beating so-and-so 3-2.’ And so they started acquiring sports fans who weren’t watching tennis.

“Again, it’s not traditional marketing; it’s an algorithm figuring out how to ease in to an online conversation seamlessly. This is the kind of thing I find really interesting, and I think it’s totally the way to go.”

If you’re a Stylus member, you can read Invisible Marketing now. If you’re not, and you’d like to find out more about the benefits of membership, get in touch