It is one of the biggest challenges facing the global economy today and in the future: according to a study by global management consultancy Korn Ferry, there will be a shortage of around 85 million workers worldwide by 2030. As a result, employer branding is moving to the top of the corporate agenda. Zaid Sagha, Senior Consultant Client Growth & Innovation at Mediaplus International, has developed an employer branding campaign for an international company and shares his experiences in this interview.

Zaid, you have just developed an international employer branding strategy for a client. If I want to become an international employer brand or recruit internationally, what should I bear in mind?

A brand that wants to expand beyond its current market and recruit local talent in the target markets where it operates should start thinking about its employer brand image. The employer branding image serves as an extension of the corporate brand image. When developing an international employer branding strategy, consider cultural nuances, diversity and local market trends. Tailor your messaging to resonate in each region while maintaining a consistent global brand image. Understand the local talent landscape, recruitment practices and legal considerations. Finally, the brand should use platforms and channels that are popular and relevant in each region.

For example, what makes candidates tick in China, India or the US? What makes them different from those in Germany? Do they need to be addressed differently in terms of content?

The work culture is different in each market. For example, in terms of leadership, China has hierarchical structures, the US has egalitarian approaches, and Germany is somewhere in the middle. When it comes to decision-making, the Chinese and Indian markets are top-down, while Germany favours a consultative approach. In terms of trust in the workplace, Germany and the US prioritise task-based trust, while India and China emphasise relationship-based trust.

However, we cannot generalise from these findings. Research is needed to understand the market landscape, talent behaviour and our brand perception. Decoding the information from the research allows us to draw some insights, which may sometimes be relevant to the current market situation or just a recent snapshot. Building our communications around these insights is essential and typically what makes a great campaign.

Does job search information behaviour differ from country to country?

Yes, information behavior and job search habits can vary from country to country. Each market has popular job board platforms, taking into account language preferences. Some markets may rely more on professional networks, while others may prefer traditional job boards. Local trends dictate how we can effectively reach our target audience.

What advice would you give to a company that is considering international employer branding or international recruitment for the first time?

When approaching the task, you have to know that it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. It’s something that needs to be worked on and built over time. It’s like starting a relationship with each market differently. Being honest and trustworthy is the most important part of building the relationship. Competition is only going to get tougher in the future. It is essential to research and understand the cultural aspects of each target market, establish a robust online presence on both local and global platforms, humanise the brand by using employee testimonials and success stories, and tailor content localisation to resonate with specific audiences in each market.

In your current case, the client is specifically looking for IT/tech specialists. what are the particular challenges here?

IT is currently the most in-demand sector across all industries. Of course, with advances in technological resolution and new technologies such as AI and others, the competition is only going to get fiercer. A critical aspect of the task is to understand the reasons why talent is choosing the competition over us. Identifying the underlying factors and the truth behind their choices, coupled with understanding the differences in their preferences and the needs of potential IT talent, will enable us to formulate a strategy to successfully attract IT talent in the future.

However, whether IT-focused or engineering-focused, the key is to understand the local talent landscape, recruitment practices and the talent journey. Each journey is born out of a specific barrier, and understanding this means examining the baseline, which includes factors such as the mental and cognitive load of choosing a new employer based on company reputation, growth opportunities, recognition, challenges, cultural fit and work-life balance.

To sum up, what are the top three tips you would give to companies regarding employer branding campaigns?

I actually have four tips:

  1. Building your employer branding image is not something you build quickly and it is not something you stop doing. It is an ongoing effort that requires your attention.
  2. While recruitment is a separate activity, building your reputation as an employer is another essential aspect. This contributes to long-term brand building and streamlines the recruitment process for future endeavours.
  3. Much like the dynamics in marketing, a sales campaign is different from a brand campaign. Brand campaigns have the potential to drive long-term success and generate future demand.
  4. When building your employer branding image, approach it in the same way as your corporate brand image. Be bold. Use creative and unconventional media channels. Go beyond the traditional messaging pillars that promote career development, culture, inclusion and diversity.

In the series The inside story x 3, experts from the Plan.Net group regularly explain a current topic from the digital world from different perspectives. What does it mean for Granny, and for an agency colleague? And what does the customer – in other words, a company – get out of it?

What will we remember in a few years’ time when we look back on the internet of the late 2010s? Snapchat should be one of the first things that comes to mind. The quirky messaging app with the cute ghost, the user-friendliness of an ordinary SAP installation and the innovative augmented-reality lenses, which have convinced millions of adults that selfies with dog and cat faces are socially acceptable, even for those in their mid twenties.

However, the true legacy of Snapchat will surely be the invention of the story function. Stories, the sequences of photos and short video snippets with funny stickers, location information or drawings, have proven themselves an unparalleled online triumph. Stories are now common features on Facebook and Instagram, while Google has YouTube and now even an online search function for stories.

Granny’s holiday stories: The digital slideshow

For users, stories, on Facebook or Instagram for example, are an excellent way to share everyday experiences in a creative way with family, friends and acquaintances. Instead of the postcard and the obligatory slideshow evening afterwards, my Granny can post her images online while on holiday. Another nice feature is that stories can be deleted automatically after 24 hours, especially for snapshots that you do not want to share forever on your profile.

Creative minds have many possibilities. Through the simple combination of videos, photos, stickers, drawings and music, even technically inexperienced users can create and share appealing content in a short time.

Google’s integration of stories into search results is an exciting step. Standardising the format as a further development of the Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) project allows users to quickly and easily access news stories and visual content related to their desired search term or topic.

Stories as a media environment: Unlimited motion picture inventory

In addition to Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube, after several months of testing, Facebook is now also providing the complete story inventory as an advertising environment for moving images. Adverts appear between individual story elements or between two different stories. However, one should not be dazzled by the potentially high range; for various reasons, the advertising environment is only relatively comparable with other InStream placements such as broadcaster media libraries or the classic YouTube.


Stories have a clear mobile format, and the content is used vertically. Therefore, it does not make sense to use classic TV adverts in 16:9 format as interruptive advertising. The usage situation is also subject to mobile rules: en route during situations involving waiting, with a high distraction potential and not reliant on headphone use. Ads for the story feed should therefore be adapted to these conditions; in this case, the same rules apply as for social feeds in general. Subtitles, short (five rather than fifteen seconds) and to the point with an obvious sender, instead of lengthy told stories with suspense and a final resolution. Unfortunately, there have not been many investigations into the advertising impact of ads in stories, but the effect is likely to be comparable to ads in the Facebook News Feed.

Brand stories: The perfect field for experimentation

Stories on Instagram, Facebook and other social platforms are an excellent field of experimentation for brand communication. There are diverse creative possibilities, from adverts in story format (such as for the new BMW 8 Series) to behind-the-scenes videos from events (such as Media Markt at Gamescom), Q&A formats and polls – stories make it possible for companies to stage their brand content in the style of the respective platform and to integrate organically into the user’s content experience.

Nevertheless, it is important to consider a few basic rules. Obviously, yet still often overlooked is the fact that if the content is not relevant, users will quickly move on. A high rate of scene changes and generally short stories fit better with smartphone usage, which means it goes without saying that 16:9 TV assets should not simply be recycled in a vertical video format. If you follow these rules, stories can also achieve good results: a survey commissioned by Facebook of just under 10,000 regular users of stories on Instagram in the UK, USA, Brazil and Indonesia showed that for 39 percent of users brand/product interest was increased through exposure to brands and products in stories.

And for those who uphold the sacred CI branding guidelines, there is perhaps a reassuring message: the same research has shown that users of stories expect authentic, playful and unfiltered images. As a brand, you do not have to demonstrate the same perfectionism in your creation as in print advertisements for news magazines.

About the author: Alex Turtschan has been a passionate nerd since childhood and has been working in the Serviceplan Group for more than ten years on consumer, market and technology trends and their effects on digital marketing. Currently Director Digital Strategy at Plan.Net Media.

Anyone expanding into new markets when building up an international brand is entering a high-speed environment with rapidly changing trends and enormous consumer dynamics. Drivers of this hyper-development can be market reforms, rapidly rising wages, or the emergence of local brand champions. In such an environment, it can make sense to adopt and revitalize an existing local brand. Building your own brand from scratch requires a lot of time and money and can fail due to false assessments. In contrast, the acquisition of an existing brand may require a repositioning, but the considerable growth of the local market will be used much faster. This is described in detail in our new Springer publication “Successful brand development in the major emerging markets” (written in German) by Dr. Niklas Schaffmeister (Managing Partner Globeone) and Florian Haller (CEO Serviceplan Group).

As a rule, acquisitions and revitalization of local brands preferably take place in product categories such as food, beverages and other consumer goods, as tastes, habits and preferences can be very local and closely related to the local culture. Consumers here have long been familiar with the local brand. Marketing professionals point to three main advantages in connection with the acquisition and revitalization of local brands:

1. Established names with a high level of awareness facilitate market entry

The McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University has shown in a survey of product categories such as beer, hair care and carbonated soft drinks that a significant part of the success of multinational companies in international markets is due to the acquisition of local brands. If the existing brand is established, customers are familiar with it and the distribution channels are in place. The costly establishment of a reputation is unnecessary, or it is at least much more cost-effective with a reorientation. This increases the chances of success enormously and saves important time.

2. A loyal customer base with strong brand loyalty

Time is only one factor to consider. Brand loyalty is another. Many domestic competitors in rapidly industrializing economies are still weak in terms of growth. But they can often refer to a very loyal clientele. This is an important factor for internationally expanding companies, because a loyal local clientele provides the important brand loyalty without having to invest a lot of time and money. If consumers are on average older and more traditional, local brands can even evoke positive memories of their own youth long gone. However, they must be revitalized in the consciousness of consumers and supplemented by other aspects relating to the future.

3. A functioning distribution network minimizes resistance in local channels

One of the best-known examples in international growth markets is a large Indian beverage producer brewing a cola drink to suit the local taste. In 1977, when the Indian government asked Western companies to give up control of their Indian subsidiaries or leave, Coca-Cola withdrew from the country. Indian companies, including Thums Up, tried to conquer the national market for soft drinks. Thums Up dominated the market for 16 years and achieved 35% market share at peak times. But with the reforms from 1991, the government relaxed regulations. Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola returned to the Indian market. In 1993, Coca-Cola bought Thums Up and wanted the brand to go out of the market in order to protect its own market share. But the resistance of local traders and consumers prevented this. Following massive protests and a 30% drop in market share, production of Thums Up was resumed. Coca-Cola invested large sums in the brand and took up the earlier advertising campaign with the slogan “Taste the Thunder” again. Bollywood action hero Akshay Kuma became a brand ambassador. The actor Salman Khan, who played an air force pilot, was also engaged. Coca-Cola was thus ahead of a Pepsi advertising campaign in which “Top Gun” hero Tom Cruise appeared. Thums Up took the crown from Pepsi with a market share of 17%. And Coca-Cola was from then on able to attack its competitor in the “Cola Wars” with two different brands.

The major growth markets are more like continents than individual countries. Hundreds of languages, regional traditions, tastes and customs make them a huge conglomerate of markets. A “one size fits all” approach is doomed to fail here. However, it makes much more sense and is strategically more appropriate to concentrate on important regional areas or city clusters as a brand in order to find a starting point for the best growth opportunities. The leading cities are only one possible destination. Rapidly growing centers in the “hinterland” are another promising option within the framework of the cluster strategy. This is described in detail in our new Springer publication “Successful brand development in the major emerging markets” (written in German) by Dr. Niklas Schaffmeister (Managing Partner Globeone) and Florian Haller (CEO Serviceplan Group).

The art of expanding along city clusters begins with a thorough analysis of the differences between the individual regions. It is not difficult to identify the clusters. They may be groups of cities linked by a particular economic structure, demographic structures, comparable consumer behavior or geographical proximity. Perhaps the biggest – but by no means the only – advantage of focusing existing resources on city clusters is the ability to leverage economies of scale and existing distribution networks. If one is successful in certain clusters, one can also build up a decisive market share, which then can be used as a springboard into other regional clusters.

1. Purchasing power analysis: how to identify the epicenters

One way to identify the most promising clusters for your company is to examine the existing and expected income levels. Are there signs that consumers are starting to buy their first car? Or is an increasing demand for imported or luxury goods ahead? How many middle class households are there and what do reliable forecasts of expected income growth say? Is consumer demand increasing in product segments that affect the company? Managers from successful companies are unanimous in their opinion that precise inquiries are very important to identify the epicenters of future growth. The smaller, suburban cities in the country are expected to generate 60% of the general growth in the fashion industry in the coming years. And by the end of the decade, almost half of consumers in rural areas should belong to the middle class.

2. Understanding consumer drivers: is it all about individuality or just being a part of it?

Brand companies must understand their target markets in detail. Shopping habits and consumer motives can even differ significantly from city to city. For young people in the primary cities it’s about individuality, they don’t want to “follow the herd”, while at the level of subordinate cities it’s more about being a part of it. The fact that the urban population in emerging countries alone is growing by around 60 to 70 million people a year underlines their importance. This corresponds to 60 times the population of Cologne or eight times the population of New York.

3. Key question for the campaign: how homogeneous is the selected cluster?

Another decisive consideration is whether the selected cluster is homogeneous in terms of the defined criteria. A well-known example are the neighboring primary cities Shenzhen and Guangzhou in China. People in Guangzhou speak Cantonese. Most of them were born in and around the city and spend a lot of time at home with their families. In Shenzhen, on the other hand, the population consists of mostly migrants from other parts of the country, and Mandarin is usually spoken there. Integrating the two cities into the same cluster would require two completely different campaigns. Once you have decided on certain regional or city clusters, you have to consider how many submarkets you want to target. The more submarkets there are, the more difficult it could be to achieve the desired efficiency.

Success story: Unilever’s mosaic approach

Large and successful companies such as Hindustan Unilever (HUL) have conducted their own cluster-based campaigns. In the case of HUL, the “Winning in Many India’s” (WIMI) program was developed. In a first step, HUL, the largest company in the country, divided India into five major regions in the field of fast-moving products (FMCG). Then, on the basis of detailed consumer knowledge, another 14 geographical units were identified, which were city clusters. The company no longer regarded India as a homogenous country with few large markets, but as a country consisting of a mosaic of markets.

The dynamics in major growth markets can hardly be surpassed. Many things change at the same time. International brands and new local champions battle it out for market share. Entire development leaps in electronics, cars and Fintech turn markets upside down. Moreover, there are consumers who learn quickly, who are not really loyal and feel confident enough to try out lesser-known brands at an early stage. This makes customer loyalty a problem. Traditional brand loyalty campaigns often fail in the major emerging markets. This is also due to the fact that consumers climb up the premium ladder quickly. They are constantly raising their expectations and want to showcase their new status.

Marketing managers have to deal with extremely mobile target groups. Brand loyalty often puzzles them: What motivates customers to remain loyal to their current brand? Does the cultural background play an important role? Many questions, but only one certainty: In an environment such as the major growth markets, product and brand managers must know their customers particularly well. They need to be as close to them as possible, communicate with them through the most effective channels and give them the full range of brand experience. Dr. Niklas Schaffmeister (Managing Partner Globeone) and Florian Haller (CEO Serviceplan Group) provide some useful tips – all details can be found their new Springer publication “Successful brand development in the major emerging markets” (written in German).

1. Pole position first, then flatfoot: How VW pulled out of the loop in China

Volkswagen China is a good example of how important customer loyalty is in large growth countries and what pressure can build against a company. After entering the market in the 1980s, VW initially succeeded in capturing a share of more than 50 percent. But after the WTO accession in 2001, the market share of the Wolfsburg-based company fell below 20 percent. Nevertheless, VW managed to remain number one in China, despite the growing number of buyers who are willing to buy larger cars or experiment with other brands. Brand loyalty reaches about 80 percent in western car markets. In China it is only ten percent. In China, one third of all buyers now buy their second or third car. This makes customer loyalty a huge challenge. VW has responded by significantly expanding its model portfolio so that customers have a wider choice. In addition, a retention strategy was developed. This includes a standardized recording of the most important expectations and the drivers of loyalty. In addition, a strategy for after-sales management (CRM) was developed and consumer motives were analyzed in detail.

2. “Malina” and the card trick: Increasing loyalty through cooperation

There are numerous examples of successful customer loyalty programs in large growth countries. One of these is the “Malina” campaign in Russia for five partners, all of whom were market leaders in their respective product categories. Participants included the Rosinter restaurant chain, the telecom company Vympelcom and the BP-TNK service station chain. Together with Visa Card, they issued a credit card as part of Malina. All family members of the cardholders were able to collect points on a joint account and earn bonuses. In the first year after the start of the program, 2.1 million cards were issued. After two years, Malina was the leading loyalty program in Russia. Rosinter-Restaurants and TGI Friday’s, another partner of the initiative, experienced a double-digit percentage increase in the transaction volume of their cards.

3. Special privileges: How to satisfy the hunger for privileges

According to an EY survey, customer loyalty in India is only about half as high as in Europe and the US. So how can you keep customers who are willing to change? The COLLOQUY Cross-Cultural Loyalty Study, a global “commitment compass” that examined consumer attitudes in Australia, Canada and the US as well as in the emerging countries Brazil, China and India, provides helpful insights. The study confirms that consumers in emerging markets demand “special service” three times as often as discounts and privileges. And now comes the crucial point: almost three times as many buyers in emerging markets declare that loyalty to their preferred brands pays off. This is clear proof of the potential of customer loyalty programs. Preferential treatment and rewards are appreciated by customers all over the world. But nowhere is the desire for VIP treatment more distinct than in the large growth markets.

Most companies are convinced that their brand has fully exploited its potential. But far from it: the brand can only score maximum points in the target group if its tradition, its promise and its unique history are well known. The most general definition of a brand is: “The consumer’s idea of a product or service”. So it’s not just about knowing and recognizing, it’s above all about associative connections. Clearly, this is the big moment of storytelling.

And this often starts from scratch in young markets. After all, international brands are often completely unknown to local consumers and potential customers in the major growth markets. In 2013, 70% of Chinese car buyers were still first-time buyers. Most of them had just obtained their driving licenses. They had no product or purchasing experience. Many of them had never been in a showroom before or had dealt with the technical aspects of an engine. For Western brands, this is a challenge, but also a great opportunity. Niklas Schaffmeister (Managing Partner Globeone) and Florian Haller (CEO Serviceplan Group) therefore explain the cornerstones of an engaging storytelling. Further details on that can be found in our new Springer publication “Successful brand development in the major emerging markets” (written in German).

1. Brand knowledge: Managers like to overestimate consumers

A well thought-out strategy with determined implementation is needed. When formulating the strategy, marketing cannot simply assume that the target group being addressed already has the necessary knowledge of the brand simply because connoisseurs of the company are familiar with many details. Brand managers often overestimate what consumers already know. This often results in communication campaigns that do not go far enough. But it is imperative to explain what the brand in question stands for. If this is done in a committed, interesting and motivating way, a lot can be gained. It is important not to overload the storytelling with messages. Target groups in emerging markets are usually 10 or 20 years younger than those in developed Western markets.

2. Understandable messages: Consumers must be addressed in their language

In the new markets, the 30- to 40-year-olds belong to the richest target group, which is already accustomed to exciting and committed marketing techniques. If a bank argues with traditional terms such as “trust” or “security”, its marketing message will not automatically be well received by these “newly-rich” consumers. Many people in these middle income brackets are also consumers without good foreign language skills. Don’t use too many English and technical terms. Admittedly, design and other concrete arguments of conviction are very important for this. But they must be communicated to consumers who are generally not technical experts in their own language. They must also be made aware of why this brand in particular meets their specific needs. Making new customers familiar with the brand requires patience.

3. Tradition is the trump card: With the brand history to the price premium

Every brand strategy must have enough space to tell the history of the brand. You have to take enough time to explain why your brand is unique and how much time it took to become a leading brand. The traditional aspect and the associated foreign brand image are the only sustainable competitive advantage that cannot easily be imitated. Those who tell their own story thus have the opportunity to achieve a clear price premium for the brand, compared to local competitors. This goal can be achieved with clear language and simple explanations as well as with visual clarity and a creative implementation of the campaign. This is the only way to break the communicative flooding in megacities.

4. Educating the consumer: For each product there are instructive campaigns

Educational campaigns or brand academies are particularly suitable for informing a target group about the brand history and special unique selling points. There are many educational examples of awareness-raising campaigns. For example, the highly creative and very successful “MINI Academy for Rapid Learners”. Its success is due to the fact that it has been excellently integrated into the local cultural framework. In Europe, MINI has the image of a cheeky, flexible and individualistic small car. In 2009, the brand was still not able to develop the hoped-for potential in China so quickly. In China, the MINI was initially considered a cute little car for young women and a fun car for young people as a whole. Men and older customers were underrepresented in this group. The MINI managers wanted to make “the most exciting small car in the world” interesting for a broader group of buyers. To this end, a creative strategy was developed around the themes of “dynamic driving experience”, “cult design” and “tradition”. A MINI Academy was founded to inform Chinese consumers about the rich tradition and history of the MINI brand. The Academy was a platform that made it possible to communicate within the local cultural environment via different media channels and at the same time to establish a strong connection to the Chinese mentality.

There are many success stories proving how well storytelling can attract young target groups in growth markets. The history of the brand and its special features must be clearly highlighted. Educational campaigns with instructive and easy-to-understand content are achieving great success.

Colorful advertisements, television ads and tourism: foreign influences in the major growth markets are getting ever stronger – and they are leaving a clear mark on the perception of local consumers. In addition, the economic opening up of these markets through their WTO entry and bilateral trade agreements are flushing more and more Western brands onto local shelves. The more respected the country of origin, the greater the propensity to buy. Sometimes the foreign brand origin proves to be an important factor in the international brand development. Niklas Schaffmeister (Managing Partner Globeone) and Florian Haller (CEO Serviceplan Group) explain why this is the case and they elaborate on additional advantages of this positioning concept. Read more about this in our new Springer publication “Successful brand development in the major emerging markets” (written in German).

Since the 1970s, research has consistently shown that consumers intuitively attribute positive or negative characteristics to a company or brand when they know the country of origin. This results in a so-called image transfer: associations with the country of origin are transferred to the company or the brand. This country of origin effect contributes significantly to a kind of “subconscious brand DNA” and therefore continues to play an important role in today’s marketing.

Two facets of the country of origin: production and design

For consumers, the non-domestic origin of trademarks is usually indicated by a reference to the country of origin. Sometimes the country of origin is further differentiated into the country of manufacture and the country in which the product was developed (country of design). In principle, the country of origin is the country in which the group headquarter that markets the product or brand is located. However, the product does not necessarily have to be manufactured there.

A country of origin perceived as positive has a positive effect on brands, for example by perceiving the quality of a brand as significantly higher. Much evidence suggests that certain countries of origin increase the prestige factor of brands. The following three factors show why the country of origin plays such an important role in international brand development – especially in the major growth markets.

1. The country of origin as a distinctive feature of brands

As a rule, consumers associate specific ideas with different countries. For example, the USA is considered to be very innovative and technology-oriented. For brands, it can be much more effective to use this existing knowledge of the country of origin effect than to communicate the same qualities and characteristics individually and without reference to the country of origin – for example through expensive advertising.

2. Growing claims are tied to foreign brands

In many growth markets, foreign brands are used to demonstrate social advancement: they are more expensive, not yet very widespread and are associated with high prestige. The preference for foreign brands is usually pronounced in product categories where the country of origin is supposed to have a higher level of competence. The preference for foreign brands is increasing in step with income. Against this background, the emphasis on brand origin offers a cost-saving and effective opportunity to attribute to a foreign brand such characteristics as quality, flawless functionality and excellent design.

3. Limited availability increases demand

Many emerging markets are opening up slowly, which in turn means that foreign brands are only available to a limited extent. Brands from Western countries in particular therefore enjoy a high reputation in these growth markets due to their relative novelty and scarcity. In addition, many local products cannot yet keep up with the products developed in the West.

“Made in Germany”: Germany as a favorite

Among the countries currently benefiting most from a positive country of origin image are Germany, the USA, Japan and Switzerland, due to their tradition, excellent quality and state-of-the-art technology or engineering. “Made in Germany”, for example, has been regarded for decades as a quality feature that communicates prestige and reputation in a great measure. The advantage: the country of origin image cannot really be imitated by competitors and is therefore a sustainable differentiation factor. For global marketers, this clearly means that the better the COO image, the more clearly the origin should be communicated.

What voice internet means for the future of digital marketing

The screenless internet: A bold prediction for the future

At the end of 2016, Gartner published a bold prediction: by 2020 30% of web browsing sessions would be done without a screen. The main driver behind this push into a screenless future would be young and tech savvy target groups fully embracing digital assistants like Siri and Google assistant on mobile, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Echo.

While 30% still feels slightly optimistic mid 2018, the vision of an increasingly screenless internet becomes more and more realistic every day. The adoption rate of smart speakers 3 years after launch is outpacing the smartphone adoption rate in the United States. And what’s maybe most surprising, it isn’t only the young early adopter crowd that is behind this success story, but parents and families. Interacting with technology seamlessly and naturally through conversation is making digital services more attractive to a wider range of consumers.

The new ubiquity of voice assistants

And it isn’t only stationary smart speakers that are growing in usage and capability, every major smartphone features its own digital assistant and consumers can interact with their TVs and cars through voice as well. The major tech players are investing massively in the field and within the next few years every electronic device we put in our homes, carry with us or wear, will be voice-capable.

So, have we finally reached peak mobile and can finally walk the earth with our chins held high again, freed from the chains of our smartphone screens? Well, not so fast.
There’s one issue many digital assistants still face, and let’s be perfectly honest here: despite being labeled “smart” they are still pretty dumb.

Computer speech recognition has reached human level accuracy through advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning. But just because the machine now understands us perfectly, it isn’t necessarily capable of answering in an equally meaningful way and a lot of voice apps and services are still severely lacking. Designing better voice services and communicating with consumers is a big challenge, especially in marketing.

Peak mobile and “voice first” as the new mantra for marketing

Ever since the launch of the original iPhone in 2007 and the smartphone boom that followed, “mobile first” has been marketing’s mantra. Transforming every service and touchpoint from a desktop computer to a smaller screen and adapting to an entirely new usage situation on the go was a challenge. And even 10 years later, a lot of companies still struggle with certain aspects of the mobile revolution.

The rising popularity of video advertising on the web certainly helped ironing out many issues in terms of classic advertising. After all a pre-roll ad on a smartphone screen catches at least as much attention as it does in a browser. We figured out how to design apps, websites and shops for mobile, reduced complexity and shifted user experiences towards a new ecosystem. But this mostly worked by taking the visual assets representing our brands and services and making them smaller and touch capable.

Brand building in a post-screen digital world

With voice, this becomes a whole new struggle. We have to reinvent how brands speak to their consumers. Literally. And this time without the training wheels of established visual assets. At this year’s SXSW, Chris Ferrel of the Richards Group gave a great talk on this topic and one of his slides has been on my mind ever since: The visual web was about how your brand looks. The voice web is about how your brand looks at the world.

In recent decades, radio advertising has mostly been reduced to a push-to-store vehicle. Loud, obnoxious, and annoying the consumers just long enough, that visiting a store on their way home from work became a more attractive perspective, than listening to any more radio ads.

On the screenless internet, we could see a renaissance of the long-lost art of audio branding. A lot of podcast advertising is already moving in this direction, although there it is mostly carried by the personalities of the hosts. Turning brands into these kinds of personalities should have priority.

The challenges of voice search and voice commerce

We will also have to look at changing search patterns in voice. Text search tends to be short and precise, mostly one to three words. With voice, search queries become longer and follow a more natural speech pattern, so keyword advertising and SEO will have to adapt.

Voice enabled commerce poses a few interesting challenges as well. How do you sell a product, when your customer can’t see it? This might be less of an issue than initially imagined, though. “Alexa, order me kitchen towels” is pretty straight forward and Amazon already knows the brand I buy regularly. Utilizing existing customer data and working with the big market places will be key, at least for FMCG brands.

But how to get into the consumer’s relevant set? And what about sectors like fashion, that heavily rely on visual impressions? Tightly combining all marketing touchpoints comes into play, voice as a channel can’t be isolated from all other brand communication. Obviously, voice will not replace all other marketing channels, but it might become the first point of reference for consumers due to its ubiquity and seamless integration into their daily lives. Finding its role in the overall brand strategy will be crucial.

Navigating the twilight zone of technological evolution

What may be the biggest challenge of this brave new world of voice marketing is the fact that our connected world isn’t as connected as we would like it to be. The landscape of voice assistants is heavily fragmented and more importantly, the devices act in very isolated environments. While I can tell my digital assistant to turn on my kitchen lights or fire up my PlayStation when using compatible smart home hubs and devices, an assumedly simple task like “Siri, show me cool summer jackets from H&M on the bedroom TV” isn’t as easily accomplished.

Right now, it often is still up to the users to act as the interface between voice assistants and the other gadgets in their living spaces. The screenless internet isn’t the natural endpoint in the evolution of technology, it’s more of an unavoidable consequence of iterative steps in development. For now, we have to navigate through this weird, not fully-realized vision of a connected world and hope for technology to catch up and become truly interconnected. So, let’s find the voices of our brands until they regain the capability of also showing us their connected personality.

Authors: Florian Haller, CEO Serviceplan Group, and Niklas Schaffmeister, Managing Partner Globeone

Again and again, brand managers underestimate the simple fact that brands are first and foremost created in the minds of local consumers. The results don´t always meet the expectations of the top management at HQ. A Volkswagen may be a mid-size car in Germany, in China it is definitely a premium car for most buyers and perhaps even a luxury car in India. The development of an international positioning strategy therefore requires a thorough analysis of one’s own brand perception in the target market. This is necessary to ensure that the communication of one’s own strengths can be aligned with consumer needs. In recent years, we at Globeone and Serviceplan have advised numerous blue-chip clients and brands in international expansion projects. Based on this experience, we have identified four major stumbling blocks in brand communication that may cause an international positioning to falter. For all the details, see our new Springer publication “Successful brand development in the major emerging markets”, written in German, by Niklas Schaffmeister (Managing Partner Globeone) and Florian Haller (CEO Serviceplan Group).

1. Brand awareness: Wishful thinking should not subdue reality

It is an old truism: awareness is not everything, but without awareness almost everything is nothing. However, brand awareness cannot be achieved with the crowbar – especially not in large emerging markets, which are difficult to understand due to their enormous geographical spread and diversity. In addition, there are often horrendous costs for classic media, frequently forcing brands to switch to cheaper digital advertising channels. This, however, runs the risk of communicating below the critical perception threshold in the fight for the attention of target groups. The development of brand awareness should therefore not be based on intuitive assumptions about consumer needs, but on empirically proven facts and a well thought out communication concept.

2. Brand image: Known but without profile

If a brand enjoys excellent recognition values but is hardly bought, it usually has a veritable image problem. The brand has not been sufficiently focused on the wishes and needs of local consumers or is simply interchangeable because it is not sufficiently differentiated from competitors. In this case it is important to act quickly in order to not jeopardize the success of market entry in the long term. A clear understanding of the brand drivers – i.e. the most important decision factors for a brand – must be developed and translated into a convincing communication concept and storytelling that sufficiently differentiates from local champion brands.

3. Country-of-origin: Communicating the strengths of the country of origin correctly

Notably in the premium segment, brands can often benefit from the image of their country-of-origin. This so-called image transfer from the country-of-origin to the brand (e.g. “Made in Germany”) is an important competitive advantage that is difficult to imitate. Nevertheless, brands frequently fail to properly bring this advantage of a strong and positive country-of-origin image to bear in their communication concepts. Often there is simply no strategic storytelling that systematically establishes the connection between the brand tradition and the history of the country-of-origin. But strong brands live from exciting stories about their origins.

4. Purchase activation and loyalty: If the customer still does not show up

Even with high popularity and image values, sales figures may fall short of industry standards. Usually two things lead to this problem: either a narrow focus on an undersized target group, or an incomprehensive local sales and logistics structure. Brands must regularly ask themselves whether they are attractively priced for a sufficiently large target group and whether they are actually available everywhere. Digital sales channels may help, if a brand can’t build enough local branches.

A comprehensive brand monitor in the corresponding target country will help to identify and avoid these stumbling blocks. However, the conceptual effort should not be underestimated: careful preparation is essential in order to understand the local perception and performance of your own brand correctly.