Borhan El Kilany, Senior Executive Vice President Marketing and Business Development at Americana Group, discusses the manifold changes that occurred in the food marketing business and how the new media landscape forced the company to adapt in order to engage with the new breed of consumers.
Things have certainly changed in the food marketing business during the last 30 years. When I started my career in the early 1980s, hardly anyone in the Middle East had even heard of a burger, let alone eaten one. Back then, the novelty of a new product in the market and human curiosity to try new culinary experiences drove sales, with marketing campaigns via traditional TV or press channels triggering further interest in the product range.
Today, however, the market has fragmented to an absurd degree. Now, any entrepreneur with a million dollars can get a brand and a partner from the US and Europe and try their luck. Brand clutter is a fact of life across the region.
While fragmentation remains a challenge, social media has been the game-changer. The media space is alive with clamouring voices. Not from brands, but the millions of previously passive customers. Five years ago, the industry experienced a rude awakening at the irate fingers of customers, all happily posting their litanies of complaints on various social media platforms. The surprise at that time was if a customer had a bad experience at our restaurant somewhere, in just a few days there were hundreds of thousands talking about it. The most frustrating aspect was we wanted to actually talk to the consumer that was talking about us, but they were just talking to each other, regardless.
The realisation slowly dawned that everyone these days is walking the streets, shopping or eating with a virtual microphone in their hands. And they’re not afraid to use it to highlight any perceived lack of service or quality that you are providing.
It’s human nature to share, to talk, to discuss, or to comment. As a company, we had to adopt this shareable experience into our DNA to properly address the problem without upsetting that core essence that made us what we are. We started to work on communicating with bloggers and other influencers in major markets. Influencers in social media are growing in importance. The source and scope of the message revealed is no longer under our control. Communities and blogs in which companies have no input are influencing the decision-making of consumers. So, welcome to the new world of uncertainty where a social comment can have commercial repercussions.
Saying that, relations between corporations and the public have improved and the pace of this new partnership will only quicken. In the near future, bloggers, influencers and other centres of dialogue will become part of the payroll, part of the corporate structure. These new ‘employees’ will be trained to deliver the brand message and to fight social media firestorms in real time, acting as positive counterweights to negative sentiments. As communication between the two disparate groups intensifies, such alliances will be the industry norm, rather than the exception.
The advantage of all this social web activity is intelligence. If our customers are talking, we are certainly listening in a bid to understand what people really think and need from us. We can now peek into customers’ conversations, thoughts and feelings expressed in blogs, wikis, tweets, virtual environments and other new arenas. In the new social world, analysing the content of social conversation and tone has become a function of not only market research, but of the online dialogue too. The more you know about your customers and act relevantly the more you succeed.
We have to invest in the future and take risks now and stop falling in love with what we do best today. That is why Americana Group is doubling its digital budget in the next two to three years, and we’re already spending effectively online. Content produced for mass market platforms being tweaked for online platforms is already happening and we need to invest more in content that was created especially for social platforms.
Technology is clearly the driving force behind all possibilities and will affect all aspects of FMCG operations. The rise of mobile will not stop. Hand-held technology will drive global traceable sourcing of raw materials, faster management and marketing through mobile devices. There will be a re-imagining of styles in services, menu offerings, pricing and growing of online meal delivery.
Like in any business, change is the only certainty. It is becoming more difficult and the pace of change is quickening. Many companies will struggle to keep up, and only the faster innovators will prevail. You can bet your bottom (marketing) dollar that social will be the driving force in the industry 10 years from now.
So, I guess that means we will share our future with the customers of tomorrow. Their aspirations will physically influence the structure and the design of tomorrow’s restaurants, to meet the customer’s experience, expectations and future desires. Social media has made our jobs as marketers much more difficult. We are working in ‘double time’, creating the future while delivering today.