Brand winter & how to cope

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I started thinking about ‘brand winter’ when I read about TBWA Hong Kong and their ‘Brave Bear Pack’ offering. Campaign Asia describes as a new product focusing on growth hacking and cost efficient tools for surviving the financial winter brought on by Hong Kong’s anti-ELAB protests.

I thought financial winter was an interesting metaphor to use in Hong Kong. I get the analogue of the ‘bear market’. But the winter in Hong Kong is very dry (rather than humid), cool and exceptionally pleasant for the most part.

They probably feel that the ‘Brave Bear Pack’ opportunity has been amplified by the late 2019 novel Corona Virus outbreak.

According to TBWA the services they are bundling in this are:

  • Demand mapping – which seems to be database / CRM / social marketing data. Looking at market size and going after niches or pockets of the market not previously addressed? A B2B analogue would be ABM (account based planning)
  • Acquisition System Architecture – seems to be marketing automation based on the descriptor
  • Efficient Content Production – presumably to provide the content for the Acquisition System Architecture?
  • Affordable Big Format Film Production – crowdsourced film a la Mofilm, with what I presume is a TBWA mark-up. Again I suspect that the primary role of this is to provide content for the Acquisition System Architecture?
  • Chatbot marketing (on Facebook and WeChat respectively) which is so two years ago
  • Crisis management – TBWA seem to be white labelling Ketchum to do planning and execution- pretty standard stuff in the PR world. A quick look at LinkedIn indicates that Ketchum’s Hong Kong office has a very small, junior team to handle any crisis that might come up

I found it a depressing read. The tactics focus on the bare minimum to harvest sales from existing brand equity and and realised that we’re entering a brand winter. This is down to two factors acting as a catalyst: technology and economic decline.

What do I mean by a brand winter? It’s a time when marketers focus on performance marketing exclusively. The most obvious influence in terminology was the financial winter analogue used in media coverage. I guess it also resonated past discussions I’d had about the circular funding cycle that artificial intelligence has gone through. Decades like now of massive investment, followed by funding droughts or ‘AI winters’.

Technology factors for a brand winter

During the last couple of economic recessions, after the dot com bust and the 2008 bank crisis new performance marketing platforms have come to the fore.

The dot com bust heralded the rise of Google’s search advertising. The 2008 bank crisis saw Facebook and YouTube shake up online display advertising.

What all of them had in common is their ability to drive an action (like a sale), but weren’t so good in building distinctive memorable brands.

The second aspect, was that they could be very targeted using data. The idea is that the more targeted the message and the audience that its shown to; the more effective that it would be. Sounds like common sense doesn’t it? The actual results are counterintuitive. TakeMahabis the slipper brand that tried to build itself just on online media went into administration. Uber has tried to build a brand on price and online growth hacking still hasn’t made a profit.

But this pivot has resulted in the creative side of the advertising industry being gutted.

1707 - ad industry

This presents four problems for marketers:

  • Effective marketing campaigns have found by research to consist of roughly 70 percent brand building and 30 percent performance marketing across both B2B and B2C marketing. Brand building’s full impact can be measured over decades or longer. According to qualitative research by Kings College London on China; Swiss and Japanese watch brands were sought after by post cultural revolution consumers. Brand equity endured despite the worst excesses of Chairman Mao and his red guards.
  • Digital marketing isn’t as effective as one would believe. Digital marketing is only as good as its data and its measures have been defined largely by the media platforms themselves. TV advertising is several orders of magnitude cheaper in terms of reach. Ad fraud is rampant and major brands pushed for better standards led by P&G and Unilever.
  • The plethora of channels has meant that many brands have spread their creative like a thin smear of peanut butter across toast. Again research indicates that this approach is counter-productive. Yet brands have adopted big production capability in-house to feed social channels and online advertising formats. This work is often done at the expense of creativity and ideas
  • Over targeting is counter productive according to research done by the Ehrensberg Bass Institute and captured in Sharp’s How Brands Grow. Instead the authors recommend a ‘smart mass approach’

Marketers have given digital a greater amount of latitude than it deserves due to C-suite level concerns about digital disruption, stoked by their management consultants. When economic head-winds are met shorttermist thinking fit nicely with this performance marketing bias despite the issues outlined.

Economic factors for a brand winter

I won’t go into the background of the 2019 Hong Kong protests as that has been well-documented elsewhere. What I am interested for this post in is the economic impact.

Studio Incendo: P1088698

The 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests seemed to impact a number of sectors:

  • The FT talked about the serious downturn in life insurance policy sales. Life insurance policies are used by mainland Chinese to build up assets outside of China in dollar-denominated investments
  • Data released last year indicated that for the month of October 2019, retail sales were down 24%
  • Chow Tai Fook Jewellery Group is looking to close 15 out of 91 stores in Hong Kong
  • Swiss watch sales in Hong Kong declined 4.6%
  • The leisure sector is down on earnings and Ocean Park is in serious financial trouble
  • Occupancy levels in Mandarin Oriental hotels went from 71% to 49%

Products and services that are aimed at the mainland Chinese market have taken the brunt of the damage.

Learning from the successes of the past

I wanted to draw lessons from two events.

  • The first was the Great Depression and how it profoundly affected FMCG brand marketing
  • The second event is the 1967 Hong Kong riots

The Great Depression

The Great Depression has slipped from popular consciousness as the silent generation that lived through it have left us. The Wall Street Crash, the New Deal and the Jarrow march are far away from our collective experience.

Dorothea Lange: Toward Los Angeles, California, 1937
Dorothea Lange: Toward Los Angeles, California

You may as well be talking about the Wild West or Victorian child labourers climbing up chimneys to clean them.

In reality the Great Depression lasted from 1929 until World War 2. Global GDP dropped by 15 percent. Many countries looked to austerity policies to see themselves through. It didn’t work out that well as it depressed demand. And it was a similar case for companies, they cut back on marketing and a demand drop followed.

By comparison Procter & Gamble (P&G) took a contrarian approach. P&G had been founded almost a century earlier. It hit its stride during the late 1850s as the American civil war raged. By 1911 its Crisco vegetable based shortening was launched. P&G were quick to realise the potential of the nescient radio stations springing up in the US and around the world.

They were instrumental in coming up with a new brand marketing format of sponsored programming based around a long running drama called soap operas. Consumers may have been struggling to make ends meet; but soap operas allowed them to develop increased brand affinity.

P&G also used the Great Depression to expand internationally by buying a UK-based soap maker. Because of this contra-cycle investment and spending in brand, P&G became one of the world’s largest companies with operations pretty much everywhere apart from Cuba and North Korea.

In a mirror of this strategy, P&G are now investing in creating content for streaming television services which have emerged over the past few years, in a similar manner to the way radio grew a century earlier.

The takeaway from P&G is that contra-cyclical investing for larger brands can pay dividends as the media landscape has less competition in terms of brand building communications. Secondly, adoption of technology makes sense IF the media can aid long term brand building activities.

1967 Hong Kong riots

In 1967, Hong Kong was a British colony on the edge of China. China had just entered the cultural revolution and ideological fervour was in full swing.

Hong Kong was a hodge podge of identities, and that’s not even including ethnic minorities (Nepalis, caucasian people of different nationalities and south Asians who came across the British Empire).

  • Native Hong Kongers
  • Middle class, business owners and entertainers who fled places Shanghai towards the end of the civil war
  • Former nationalist soldiers who settled in Hong Kong (like their compatriots who ended up in Taiwan and Burma)
  • Mainland Chinese who left China during the hardships and famine due to the Great Leap Forwards. They entered the territory illegally, often swimming across the Sham Chun river or even the Hau Hoi Wan estuary.
Hong Kong - Communists and Police
Roger W: Communists and Police, Hong Kong 1967.

Hong Kong was a tinder box. Work was plentiful but life was hard for the blue collar workers who struggled to make ends meet. What happened next depends on who you believe.

Trouble was brewing, there had been unrest across a number of sectors:

  • Shipping
  • Taxi drivers
  • Textiles
  • Building materials

The previous year there had been riots protesting a rise in ticket prices on the Star Ferry.

At the time Hong Kong was a centre of plastics production, textiles and light industry. Much of the light industry started off literally as cottage industries. Plastic flowers were assembled from parts at home and workers were paid by piece work. In the 1950s, the government got rid of these low rise low quality housing. They built high-rise public housing and multi-storey public factories that rented units to light industries.

The start of the riots was down to an industrial dispute at a plastic flower manufacturer based at the San Po Kong Factory Estate in Kowloon. The factory was owned by a local industrialist called Duncan Tong (唐鼎康). Tong had a number of manufacturing businesses including the Playart die cast car brand which competed with Hot Wheels and is still popular with collectors.

On May 6, picketing workers clashed with members of the management. It got sufficiently violent that the riot police were called. When the police arrived they were pelted with cans and glass bottles by picketing workers and their peers in other neighbouring factory units. The police arrested 21 demonstrators who were represented by the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (HKFTU). The HKFTU is a Beijing-aligned group of trade unions.

Many more were injured in the violence. Local union officials went to the police stations to protest the arrests and ended up being arrested themselves.

Leftist protestors with strong sympathies towards Beijing protested in solidarity with the arrested workers the following day.

Over 100 protestors were arrested and a curfew was imposed by the authorities. This then sparked a low level insurgency. Over 1,100 bombs were planted, 51 people were killed, over 800 people were injured. Almost 5,000 people were arrested and over 1,900 of them were successfully prosecuted. It was only the intervention of the Chinese premier who finally put an end to the violence in December that year.

Business leaders like Li Ka-shing and Harilela invested in property when the 1967 riots depressed prices. They then went on to replace British taipans as the main drivers of Hong Kong commerce.

The takeaway is that chaos has consistently provided opportunities for businesses with enough capital to take advantage of them. But what’s needed more than money is the eye for opportunity.

What does the solution for a brand winter look like?

In the case of Hong Kong, if we look at FMCG brands, there has never been a better time to build a local brand. Advertising inventory in out of home spaces or on streaming media are going to be cheaper due to the lack of demand.

Both ‘yellow and blue’ orientated media offer opportunities if handled in an even handed way. Investing during the contra-cycle in brand offers businesses an opportunity to capture long term profits rather than short term sales.

More information

There didn’t seem to be anything on the TBWA Hong Kong website, but they had this post on their Facebook page.

TBWA HK offers service pack to help brands through the financial winter | Campaign Asia