How to construct winning activations in a Covid-constrained economy

By Business Alchemist – Andreas Smit.

Last year saw a focus on digital and television advertising with an understandably cautious approach to below the line marketing. Due to social distancing, sanitising, and the barrier of mask-wearing, in-store promotions and activations suffered. Yet there were brands who took up the challenge to innovate by using physically distanced flash mobs and hyper-sanitised in-store sampling – which goes to prove how creative the industry can get when the tried-and-tested solutions are no longer available! This is the opinion of Business Alchemist, Andreas Smit.

“These innovative brands drove the COVID sanitisation and physical distancing message more noticeably than those using the typical channels. Engaging with the brand was conceivably like a reward for complying with the safety regulations. Perhaps more brands should do this to create better habit loops and memory structures. A brand activation should make being safe a pleasurable and rewarding experience rather than a forced one,” says Smit.

He goes on to add that for activations to be a success, brands must appoint a strategic partner to conceptualise a cohesive brand story that resonates with their audience.

“After 13 odd years in the industry, I have compiled a solid checklist that sparks the right conversations when it comes to selecting a partner agency. The building blocks of any great activation or promotional strategy includes the right channel, mechanic, resources, activation equipment and consumer incentive, and finally the right client service and operations team.”

These are Smit’s non-negotiables every brand manager must check before committing to an agency:

  1. Strategic approach

“All too often, agencies try to solve a brand’s problem with their preferred solution. Digital agencies punt an online solution; OOH agencies will push billboards and building wraps.”

Smit recommends that an assessment should be done to confirm if the agency has taken a true, unbiased view of the pain points in question and recommended an approach that’s most suited to solving specific brand challenges. He says: “Strategy before tactics; start with the why before the how.

  1. Cost Obsession

“Is your activation agency cost-obsessed? Their focus should not only be on investment strategies that generate the best returns, but on ways to maximise your budget – no matter how big or small.”

Smit says that an agency must do everything in its power to make sure the budget works hard and the bulk of it is spent on activities that directly influence the consumer [rather than agency time], all the while making sure the deliverables are tangible and useful. He adds, “If your agency is white labeling services – are the suppliers offering competitive costings that are in step with their results?”

  1. Quality

“It’s one thing to be cost-obsessed but quite another to know when an obsession with quality is what will make all the difference. Activations agencies may at times be guilty of incidental wastage, but clients are often guilty of doing things on the cheap. A company’s swag speaks volumes about its culture and selecting the cheapest promotional item, venue, or incentive to save a buck, ultimately damages the brand,” says Smit.

He believes a good agency is able to discern what elements require big investment versus those that are nice to have – or even gimmicky.

“Agree on items that are considered kites and those that are considered Boeings. Don’t be stingy on collateral that lifts and drives brand equity, after all, a branded Boeing is like painting your brand’s name across the sky!”

  1. Creativity, distribution and connection

Smit says, “If your activations are not creating deep emotional connections with consumers, you’re wasting your time. It’s key that your engagement creates or strengthens a positive neural connection in the mind of your audience, otherwise you’ll be lost in an already overcrowded market.”

Adding to this he says that this doesn’t mean the client brief always has to start with “create a disruptive and innovative campaign”. It needs to start with “drive results – by creating an emotional reaction within the hearts and minds of the target audience – by using basic drivers and good old-fashioned thinking outside the box”.

Smit believes a well-trained, well placed promoter, who has passion for the brand and a conviction for the product, will win over a consumer far more readily than the latest greatest technology can. “This ultimately is how you win on the ground, one consumer at a time. Don’t get fancy with bells and whistles if you’re not getting this right. This may require a review (and overhaul) of your agency’s recruitment, training and brand ambassador process.”

  1. Test. Learn. Prove. Report the results – be analytical

“Modern agencies are a unique blend of science and creative talent and when your brand is ready to push boundaries – demand innovation and disruptive ideas backed by strategic thinking. Take on ideas never rolled out before and back the ideas and bring the vision to life. Use a little budget, trial the idea and measure the impact based on pre-determined KPI’s that will matter to the C-Suite – and impact the bottom line,” says Smit. “Every campaign that a brand gives an agency should be run from an outcomes-based agreement with actual data to prove results. So evaluate reporting software and how data is used to improve future campaigns; actionable insights should always be fed into the next brand plan.”

Experience over Product

Commenting on the country’s monetary crisis Smit says, “Regardless of our circumstances, and the deepening economic crisis, the power of activations will be more important than ever once the economy full opens up again. Quite simply because it’s human nature to crave interaction and experience and South Africa remains a nation that craves connection and appreciates physical rewards. This bodes well for the promotional and activation space,” says Smit.

There’s no getting away from the fact that consumers admit paying as much attention to how brands treat them as on the product they sell. To that point – according to an article in Forbes Magazine this figure is as high as 83%. “If that’s to be believed, companies should be reviewing every touchpoint a consumer has with their brand and delivering an experienced-based emotional connection. Actively building purpose-led brands matters now more than ever.  Experience over product!”

In closing, Smit says, “In exchange for their loyalty, consumers expect to be delighted and their attention needs to be earned. Your agency must humanise your brand and create a complete brand experience that helps form deeper connections – using and integrating multiple channels. The experience must add value to the consumer’s life in a way that’s naturally meaningful and personal and to do so they need to tick all these boxes.”

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