Every few years we marketers think we have digital figured out. First it was websites, then it was about eBusiness strategy, then came social, and more recently, we're all about mobile. These are all good things, to be sure, but conquering any one of these – or all of them together – still misses the larger point: Digital disruption is bigger than any of them on their own, and it is nowhere near finished turning the marketing and advertising world upside down.
Consider the Super Bowl. Every year the big game captures more eyeballs and, along with them, more ad dollars. Some point to continued TV spend as evidence that people are in denial about the role of digital, as Adobe did with its clever spoof on Super Bowl ads this year. But note that some of the most prominent ads in Super Bowl 2013 encouraged an expressly digital component – from Budweiser's name-the-pony campaign to Oreo's crowd-pleasing Cream or Cookie campaign, tagged with "Choose your side on Instagram @OREO." The most elaborate of these was the Coke Chase, a Twitter-based real-time voting campaign that earned @cocacola nearly a thousand more Twitter followers on game day, according to Twittercounter.com.
These are worthy – and relatively cheap – forays into making TV ads more, rather than less, relevant in a digitally disruptive era. But these all miss the broader point about the power of digital. Digital won't just disrupt the way brands communicate with consumers, it will afford those brands the chance to build a direct digital relationship with those consumers. If they don't blow it, standing idle while someone else grabs that relationship first.
Take Coca-Cola. Could the company use the Super Bowl to build a super relationship with consumers? Rather than a thousand more followers, could the company tap into thousands more consumers it can know by name, learn from, communicate with, and – gasp – sell product to?
Coca-Cola is sitting on an answer, even if the company doesn't realize it. Smart people inside of the storied brand launched the Coca-Cola Freestyle vending machine back in 2009. When I visit Five Guys Burgers and Fries more often than I should, the Freestyle machine lets me dispense a soft drink with one of a hundred flavor combinations, arrived at through a few quick choices. The machine became more than an efficient dispenser in 2011 when mobile agency T3 built a mobile gaming app for Coca-Cola called Freestyle PUSH! + Play. While today the app helps you find a Freestyle machine near you, when Coke figures out what it's sitting on, it will expand the app to let you pre-mix your soda on your phone, save your drink mix preferences, and share them with friends. Ultimately the app will invite you to queue up your drink using your phone while you wait in line to order a burger with extra pickles.
Why would you do that? Because Coke will pay you in My Coke Rewards for using the app, building a digital relationship with you at the point of sale. For the first time in history, the company will learn what you drink, where you eat, how much and how often you consume. All of this teaches the company far more about you than a points-redemption promotion ever will and also permits it to dynamically target you with mobile messages you are more likely to appreciate.
Now connect the final dots – imagine if you could earn My Coke Rewards for watching the game with your app running. The app would use the microphone to verify that you saw the ads, during which it would trigger invitations to interact with the ad storyline, in this case, prompting a vote for the CokeCowboys or CokeShowgirls. Not only would this be the most engaging TV ad experience yet attempted, it would tie the ad experience to the viewer's historical and future Freestyle purchases. That's an unprecedented digital customer relationship with a beverage company and one that Coke should aim for at the next Super Bowl.
If you're following the logic, you see immediately that this is going to get complicated. For example, who inside of Coke owns that customer relationship? Is it the distribution arm of the company, the mobile team, or the ad team? And who will pay to create and maintain that relationship? CMOs, prepare yourselves; your beautiful TV ads are about to become newly relevant in an era of digital customer relationships. If properly used, they can become a source of vital customer data, binding your customer to you in a way that was previously impossible, but only if you push your company to disrupt itself before someone else does.