Why brands must head true north: Lessons in understanding behaviour change from Radio 1 and The Economist

Jez Nelson

I’m part of a generation of brand loyalists. I know what I like and I love what I know. Music, football, news, shopping. All have their trusted sources. Except lately I’m feeling a little bit frisky and even, let’s be honest, promiscuous.

This is because I’m confused. I can’t always keep up with what my brands offer – it’s like they’re changing and either they’re outgrowing me or I’m tired of them. I’m not sure I love them anymore, or maybe they don’t love me?

It seems I’m not alone. Should 92 per cent of brands disappear tomorrow, the majority of people in Europe wouldn’t care, according to the recent Havas Meaningful Brands research.

That’s a damning state of affairs that indicates brands aren’t coping with their largest challenge: the pace of change. Change in how they reach us, what they tell us, what we want to hear and how we want to hear it.

Superficial explosive contact is still possible through the firepower of excessive budgets, but how should brands strive towards playing a meaningful role in the lives of their customers when their world is moving faster than the marketing industry?

In a desperate attempt to keep up, communications plans are constantly turbo-charged with innovation. Dazzle the audience with the new and perhaps they’ll be impressed and stay true.

Of course, innovation is good and change essential. We don’t want to get too cozy. But in a dizzying world of uncertainty it’s about choosing the right change at the right time. So as well as looking selectively to the east and the west, we should remember that audiences, customers, are the true north.

Rather than changing at the edges the bold move is the one that seeks out bigger behavioural change. Looking beyond modifications to product or communications plans, surpassing the cult of the new to offer genuine value. Be guided by purpose not change.

Understanding your audience is vital to this goal. With this in mind, three guests will join me on stage at Cannes Lions: Ben Cooper, controller of BBC Radio 1, Tom Standage, digital editor of The Economist, and the broadcaster and journalist Lauren Laverne – who has recently launched digital editorial venture, The Pool. Each of them grasps the challenge of brand loyalty in their own way, and has something to say to the marketing industry on how to retain, and grow, a brand’s following in a fragmented landscape.

Radio 1’s Cooper is confronted with the stark reality of a change in audience behaviour while justifying its public service role amid sniper fire from politicians, rival broadcasters and the press. Then there’s the small matter of Spotify and Apple.

Cooper and his team have recently done something that was perhaps unthinkable not that long ago. They’ve realised that radio is only part of the solution for keeping a radio station relevant. Because they know that serving their audience is more important than serving their medium, they are diverting funds in to mobile and video.

Speaking at the recent Worldwide Radio Summit, Cooper began with the words “Radio is dead”. And, of course, the traditional radio model is. Anyone with a teenager will tell you where that audience has gone – to YouTube. Which is why Radio 1 has followed them there – becoming the first radio station in the world to reach 1 million subscribers. It now tops over 2 million YouTube subscribers and more than 1 billion views.

Ironically in light of Radio 1’s move, part of The Economist’s success in audience terms has come with a move in to audio. The publisher of one of the world’s most distinct print brands has turned to audio content to keep its customers loyal.

Realising that the likes of Angela Merkel and Barack Obama are occasionally too busy to actually read their magazine, The Economist now provides every single word of its weekly offer not just in print but also as downloadable audio files delivered through an app. Alongside this comes the aptly named Espresso, a daily news-short consumed through e-mail or app. So while The Economist’s paid circulation fell for the first time ever in 2014, the combined print and digital reach is 1.5 million, some 64 per cent up on the last decade.

Lauren Laverne is a renaissance woman who has proved herself equally adept in the worlds of broadcast and print media. She’s taken inspiration from both for her new venture – an online platform called The Pool, which mimics radio in its personal one-to-one feel whilst delivering bite-size content bundles that even pre-warn you how long they will take to consume.

The Economist was in danger of losing readers because they felt guilty they couldn’t finish the magazine, and so it provided readers with an easy-listen audio option. In a similar vein, The Pool recognises up-front that time is short and sets about enriching you in chunks you can handle.

Radio 1, The Economist and The Pool have all looked beyond the ways their audiences relate to products and examined the more fundamental business of how their lives have changed. They have recognised that whilst the technologies and ideas of the east and west are tools to be employed, it is the true north of their customers’ changing lives that they must follow.

Jez Nelson is the CEO of Somethin' Else. He is hostinga panel at Cannes Lions today (Monday 22) at 4.30pm in Audi A on creating content for today's platform surfers with Ben Cooper, Tom Standage and Lauren Laverne.

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