How insights and emotional storytelling grow global brands

September 29, 2021 | By: Brendan Flaherty, Writer, Brand Content

This is ‘My best advice,’ a series that asks advertising experts to share key learnings from their career journeys, the best advice they’ve ever received, and insights to help grow brands and businesses.

In 2012, the CEO of IPG’s Reprise Digital, Dimitri Maex, went on an international tour for his book, Sexy Little Numbers: How to Grow Your Business Using the Data You Already Have. The book was born from a blog he started, after heeding the advice of a former boss who told him: always make time for your passion projects.

Over the years, that advice has led Dimitri into a number of varied fields—music production, fashion, online retail, dirt biking, community bookkeeping—and with good reason. “Passion projects enrich your life and open your eyes to new experiences,” Dimitri says. “They take you out of your comfort zone, and keep you learning, which keeps you on your toes. They force you to manage your time better, and they usually help you in your job in some unexpected way.”

Born in Antwerp, Belgium, he attended the University of Antwerp, where he studied econometrics, and later earned his MBA from the Xavier Institute of Management in India. His background in data and analytics has served him in leadership positions at creative agencies and media companies, in Antwerp, London, San Francisco, and New York, including 18 years at OgilvyOne, the former direct marketing arm of Ogilvy, where he was president.

Always a proponent of data and creative working in concert, he believes that advertising can touch something fundamental in humanity, anywhere in the world.

How can brands today scale their advertising globally?

It’s a delicate balance. Brands need to be aware of—and able to act upon—local differences, while also being able to focus on the commonalities between different cultures in different regions. Great brands do both really well.

The first part of that is about understanding culture. Just from a personal perspective, when I lived in India that was obviously very different than where I grew up. But even when I moved from the UK to the US, which at the surface may seem like very similar cultures—they're really very different. I remember how my first meeting in the US felt so disorganized to me. Everybody was talking, everyone was vocal, and it was a lot less structured than I was used to in the UK, which is a bit more hierarchical, where people have an agenda, and you can only speak if you're at a certain level. So that was something to get used to. And I think that applies to brands, as well—the importance of recognizing and being attuned to cultural differences.

At the same time, you want to find commonality between different cultures, and in the end, people are people. We have very similar emotions, ideals, and aspirations in life. And it's appealing to those commonalities that allows brands to really scale globally. The great brands have been able to do that through emotion.

That's where emotional storytelling is really powerful, and often, the power of emotion is what’s undervalued in marketing. There's been quite a lot of research that has been done around that. The most famous example was from the Institute of Practitioners of Advertising (IPA), a very prestigious organization in the UK. They conducted surveys that showed that emotional campaigns are almost twice as effective as campaigns that are purely rational or combined emotion-rational. That is why emotional advertising is so important, especially if you want to connect with global audiences at scale.

What do you say to data-driven brands that view emotion as fluffy?

There’s a false choice today between data and creativity. The two work together. And there's a number of aspects to that. For one, obviously, data can lead to insights that can spark a creative idea.

Years ago, I worked on a data-driven campaign for a UK-based airline. It started with insights into an audience—a pure analysis of where demand actually was, and where the biggest untapped demand was.

Through an analysis of flight data, we found out that the Indian expat community in the UK flew a lot to India. But our airline client was not getting its fair share of those customers, who preferred Indian airlines because they felt they understood their culture better. This led us to develop an emotional campaign where the hero piece was a five-minute video. We used food and moms to really celebrate Indian culture, and then invited expats to hop a flight and go visit their moms, because everyone should visit their mom more, right? We put the video on YouTube and it went viral, because it struck an emotional chord and tapped into something universal. So, that's an example of how an insight can lead to a very creative and effective campaign.

In addition, there's a huge role for data in driving creative experimentation. If you're clear about what the KPIs are, and if you're rigorous about measurement, you can actually buy creative freedom. I think that's a very exciting space. If you fail, that's okay, as long as you fail fast. With rigorous insights and measurement, you can actually try a lot of different things very quickly.

Given my background, I’m a big proponent of the data evolution, but one downside of it is that marketers often confuse accountability with effectiveness. It's not because you can measure something that it actually works better. The focus on short-term measurement, especially in the performance space, has sometimes led to bad choices, where longer-term strategies are not pursued because you can't measure them as easily. That's a problem that marketing has in general.

In marketing, we operate on the demand side of an organization. On the supply side, you can put money in equipment, and you know what you're going to get back in terms of yields. Marketing doesn't work that way, right? It goes through human decision-making, which makes things fuzzy. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't work.

How should advertisers balance brand and performance?

What’s happened over the last couple of years is that, if you look at brand versus performance, and if you look at the marketing funnel, the middle is hollowed out. It's like companies are actually making a choice between brand and performance dollars, and they've lost track of the connectivity between the top of the funnel and the bottom of the funnel—or the beginning of the journey and the end of the journey. That's a problem, because if brand and performance are disconnected, you're losing customers along the way.

quoteUpIf brand and performance are disconnected, you're losing customers along the way.quoteDown
– Dimitri Maex, CEO, IPG’s Reprise Digital

So, I think the middle of the funnel is actually really interesting. It's the messy middle where you gain understanding of what takes people from just being aware of a brand to what makes them actually engage with the brand. How do you pull them further and further in through data and creativity, and how does that ultimately lead to a purchase? In digital, that has become such a rich area, and a lot of CMOs are starting to become aware of the issue now and that false choice between brand and performance, when the two need to be connected.

You hear a lot today about how the funnel is dead, but the funnel was never meant to be a sequential journey. Consumers haven't changed that much over time. People were acting very non-linear 100 years ago. Today, we just have more visibility into the different points of the funnel, which makes us all realize that it's not a linear process, but rather a series of mind states consumers go through from first encounter to purchase. And you need to adapt your marketing strategy to different marketing tasks for each stage, and that hasn't changed.

How can brands connect awareness to purchase in the customer journey?

In terms of creating that idea of—what we call at Reprise Digital—customer flow for a brand or for our clients, there are really three elements that we focus on: experience, media, and content.

The first of those pillars—experience—is all about removing any friction in the customer experience. So, that is about optimizing owned assets often. Whether that is owned web properties, SEO, or UX—making sure that the customer experience from initial impression to purchase is as frictionless as possible. As a brand, that's probably the first area you should address.

The second pillar we focus on is media. That's where you can really help higher volumes of customers move throughout that experience. That's obviously about deploying your media dollars across all the digital channels in a way that is orchestrated by the journey, as well. It's not just about understanding the journey. It's also about deploying your media dollars differently across channels, and within channels, for each stage of the journey. That is a major area of opportunity for many companies today.

And then the third pillar is content. Whereas media pushes out messaging to consumers, content is what can pull them in by being relevant. To me, those three pillars are key to driving customer flow.

How should content support the customer journey?

Content should be fluid, and—three is the magic number—there are three properties to that, as well, in my opinion. The first one is that it moves, and it moves along the journey with the customer. Obviously, content plays a different role at each stage in the journey for a brand. In the beginning, it may be more informational and aspirational, but it needs to change as it moves along with the customer journey. That means that you need to have content that covers the entire journey, and content on a vast range of dimensions—from informational, to entertainment, to utility.

The second characteristic of fluid content is that it has to adapt to the format it resides in. But media fragmentation makes this really challenging, because there are so many formats, and so much innovation with media and content formats. So, it's about making sure that you understand those media formats really well, and that you know what the best practices are within these formats, so you can adapt your content accordingly. That's where media agencies are really interesting today, because they traditionally haven't been in the content creation space. But now clients are demanding us to be in that space more, because media agencies know the media properties really well. And they have the data to prove what works and what doesn't work on different properties.

The final thing content needs to do is be immersive. It needs to immerse consumers, emotionally. And that's where creativity comes into play. And creativity isn't just for big brand-building. It can live at each stage of the journey. And if you challenge your creative teams accordingly, then creativity can really live everywhere.

If you can just be where your audiences are, and anticipate the next step, maybe sometimes nudging or guiding, I think that's really what generating that flow is all about. When I’m assessing a creative idea, I always ask, “All right, so what’s the consumer going to do next?” And the best brands know it’s all about keeping the customer as your compass.