Alan VanderMolen is a public relations leader and accomplished executive. He serves as President, International and WE+, for global communications agency, WE Communications. In his current role he is responsible for the intellectual capital (Brands in Motion), global expansion and fortifying WE’s partner network. In under a year Alan has secured speaking slots at Cannes Lions Young Marketers, Global Summit in Miami, Indie Summit in London and Praxis in India. We talked with him about the future of marketing and what companies have to do to deal with upcoming challenges.
Marketing development lasts years, sometimes decades. How big is the share of marketing in product innovation?
First of all, historically marketing has been considered something you do to someone or at someone. And today, marketing – effective marketing – in my view, is a conversation and it’s a series of conversations. It’s a relationship and a series of relationships. It’s a dialogue and it’s a dialogue between a customer and a brand or a business. So product development and product innovation should be a primary function of marketing. And it should feed into research and development, because the people with the closest relationships to the customers better be the marketers in today’s day and age – given the mobile web, the cloud and artificial intelligence. So all that can feed into a real-time development of new products, product upgrades, and tweaks to brands and brand propositions.
It’s about understanding the value you are expected to give to your customers.
How do you define the essence of a brand?
Look, that is a business school question. I think that it’s a little bit less about defining the essence of the brand and a little bit more about creating and managing a relationship and a relationship promise about what that brand is going to deliver that meets consumer’s needs as they change rapidly in today’s environment. So I guess if you ask me what is the essence of the brand? It’s understanding the value that you are expected to give to your customers and making sure you deliver that on an ongoing basis.
Due to the exponential increase of data available, is marketing getting easier or even more complex?
Data has the great ability to confuse the living daylights out of people – or it has the great ability to simplify things. The question for me is how we embed people who understand data, whether they’re analysts or in an agency context or planners, or whether that’s hiring people with data skills that are coming out of universities. How do we ensure that we’re focused on the right kinds of data so we can close out the noise and focus on the things that really impact the relationship between brand and consumer? My view is: More data is more. You need people who are really smart and quick to help you distill the data points that are going to be most significant and most impactful on the brand’s relationship with its customers.
Marketing and communications is real-time – it is a real-time dialogue.
It seems like communication and marketing have to act faster and faster ever since new channels of communication pop up every day. How does this affect strategy and strategic planning – especially in the long run?
That’s a complex question. If we start with the premise that marketing and communications has to react quickly, that’s the wrong premise. The premise should be: marketing and communications is real-time and it’s a real-time dialogue, and it’s based on a real-time relationships and a real-time value proposition. So we’re not talking about planning or what the media strategy going look like over twelve months. We should be saying: What’s our relationship plan, and what’s our relationship strategy and how do we make sure that we’re living up to that on a way that delivers value to customers and consumers on a daily basis and in real-time. Everything we do around that should add value to that relationship. I think we fundamentally have to rethink the purpose of marketing and the purpose of communications against relationship needs and relationship wants.
Is acting fast even possible in big companies with a steep hierarchy?
If it’s not it’s going out of business.
How can marketing align the brands’ motion with the stakeholders’ motion if they differ?
They are going be different from time to time because I actually think that consumers’ and customers’ needs tend to change more quickly than the ability of entrenched brands to deliver upon them. So, the heart of change and of the journey, is communication and relationship, and making sure that all those things are moving in a way that provides value to all the stakeholders that are critical to the success of the brand and of the consumer.
It’s about long-term understanding the promise of the brand.
What do you think is more effective in marketing, long-term stories or short-term actions? And why?
I think both. Instead of long-term stories, it’s about long-term understanding the promise of the brand and what the brand is supposed to deliver in its relationship with consumers. And making sure that in real-time, not short-term, that the brand is living up to that on a daily basis. From hitting customer expectations from price value to making sure the products meet the needs and expectations of consumers, to making sure that the brand’s behavior is not just looking after the functional benefit of the brand, but also look after the expectations the consumers have for brands – to be activist on issues that are most important to them.
From a marketing point of view, what is the real value of branded content?
The value branded content should be to enhance the relationship between the brand and the brand’s customers and consumers. And any content that doesn’t add value, whether that’s through a product or brand education, whether that’s through entertainment or through societal value, has a problem.
Nowadays a large part of content is consumed on mobile devices. What were the biggest adaptions marketing departments had to make to keep up?
The first one is just really a thought process, and the thought process is realizing that consumers of news and information tend to consume that news and information in their own time and on whatever device makes the most sense for them. We’ve been talking for years that it’s a multi-screen world and as modern day marketers, who are managing relationships with consumers through stories in motion, need to understand how they’re going to deliver content that is relatable and that customers and consumers can interact with across multiple platforms. I think understanding specifically when we drop content into a conversation and through what platform is really what we need to be programming on a daily basis.
We have to make sure that we keep up with the rapidly changing demands of customers and consumers.
How would you say the impact of marketing and communication has changed in the last two decades?
How about how has it changed in the last two minutes? Because if we’re looking at over two decades, we’re asking the wrong question. So why don’t we say: How is that changing on a day-to-day basis and what can we do to make sure that we keep up with the rapidly changing demands of customers and consumers and do it a way that is true to what our brand stands for and what consumers expect our brand to stand for.