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It's all about the experience!

Why communications agencies need to know their end user and go beyond simple messages - by Jonathan Briggs.

As a globally connected, multi-cultural and cosmopolitan city, Singapore is clearly well positioned for companies that wish to understand, and meet the unique and growing needs of the Asian consumer.

A further advantage is that many of the global creative agencies based here have integrated capabilities such as digital marketing, data management and analytics services, brand consultancy and strategic planning. This allows them to provide sophisticated marketing and communications support to global brands as they design, and develop new concepts and ideas primed for Asia.

These new sorts of capabilities are vital because the relationships between multi-national companies and their customers are changing rapidly, and digital is a huge part of that change.

Today's consumers see past simple messages about whether a product is "cheaper" or "better" than others in the market. Instead, they are looking for a very different kind of relationship with the brands they buy.

What today's end-users want are deeper experiences for fulfilment, both online and offline. The role of a business now is to orchestrate such experiences for its customers, in such a way that the memory itself becomes part of the product - the "experience".

We're entering the age of the "experience economy", where marketing and communication agencies need to equip themselves with the relevant tools - including data management and social media for marketing - to create and choreograph memorable experiences that the brands they work with can sell.

Nike provides a good example. The sportswear giant recently moved into fitness electronics with the Nike+ FuelBand, a digital wristband that tracks users' activity through a sport-tested accelerometer. Backed up by a mobile phone app and computer software, the product also functions as a very astute marketing tool.

"We've traditionally provided you with great sports clothing and shoes," Nike seems to be saying. "But what we're now doing is offering to support you as you become fitter and reach for greater fitness experiences, and we're doing that through digital channels."

In other words, Nike is taking the consumer on a journey and in so doing, it is managing to own a bigger part of the relationship with the consumer than ever before.

Multi-national companies based in Singapore and the global communications agencies that support them are already starting to develop the partnerships that can provide customers with such experiences.

Hyper Island is an experimental university college that was set up in a disused prison in Karlskrona, Sweden, in 1996. The Hyper Island methodology revolves around learning by doing, industry collaboration, creativity and real-word problem solving. Hyper Island opened its Singapore campus this month and will offer programmes from digital art direction to e-commerce to data strategy in March next year.

Hyper Island's role is to accelerate those changes and, although we've only been in Singapore a short while, we've already seen from the client side, the agency side and the entrepreneurial side that companies are really enthusiastic for dialogue that can help put these new kinds of partnerships together.

Of course, interesting work is already being produced. Take the "I Quit" anti-smoking campaign produced by Ogilvy & Mather and the Health Promotion Board last year. Smoking was on the rise in Singapore with tough measures such as fear campaigns, taxation and legislation proving ineffective and resulting in smokers feeling marginalised and smoking more, not less. Instead of an anti-smoking campaign that would marginalise them further, a pro-quitting campaign was created to help contemplators quit.

The focus here was firmly on ordinary Singaporeans from the heartlands, who were filmed taking a pledge to stay smoke-free. They became an inspiration and encouragement for other smokers, watching the campaign on television, to follow their example.

Significantly, the campaign managed to turn "I Quit" into a kind of movement - that is, a provider of memorable experiences - with a Facebook page and quit clubs set up online and in actual communities.

Meanwhile, in the digital space, a mobile phone app offered more tips and advice on quitting. One reason the campaign worked well was because of its sophisticated understanding of, and focus on, the end-user. If the next competitive battleground of business lies in brands actively engaging consumers in a deeper relationship through remarkable experiences, identifying with the end-user is a prerequisite for success, as opposed to simply focusing on a product's technical attributes.

So what else can Singapore do to continue to grow its vibrant ecosystem of marketing and communications services, and, in the process, develop and attract more of the experienced talent (such as strategic planners and digital experts) that currently powers it?

One suggestion would be to cultivate an innovative mindset in the workforce by accelerating the introduction of design-thinking programmes and modules (from pre-tertiary to postgraduate level) at local educational institutions.

It's really about changing the culture, to an extent, and setting the aspirations of young people to want to be creative as early as possible. That's not going against rigour in good-quality education but rather to suggest that one way of measuring good quality education in the future is by how entrepreneurial young, talented creative people are when they come out of school.

I think that, in the next three to five years, agencies will become more entrepreneurial. Brand owners will also be more open to risk taking and experimentation as more innovative ideas come out of Singapore and Asia.

We'll see the emergence of different models of remuneration based on shared success, rather than fee. In the long run, this goes beyond marketing - it's really about business transformation.

To accomplish this, we need to create catalysts that allow talented people to move around a little more. We want to encourage talent from different disciplines, such as finance, science, or health, into the creative industries so they can be part of this process of creating rich, customer-centric experiences that reflect a more demanding, "smarter" consumer.

I believe that Singapore is at an inflexion point. Clearly, it offers companies the opportunity to tap into a real pool of creative expertise that can then be made available to the rest of Asia, and indeed the world.

It also offers companies the chance to take part in a cross-pollination of creativity across the region, which makes it such an ideal hub and an exciting place to work. Singapore's marketing and communications industry is on the right trajectory and I am really looking forward to working with companies and individuals here to move their ideas forward.

  • Jonathan Briggs

(This story first appeared in Singapore Business News. The writer is Professor of eBusiness at Kingston University and Chairman of Other Media Ltd, an 18-year-old digital agency based in London that specialises in web design and online marketing.)