Combining Technology and Creativity for Standout Customer Engagement with Mariam Asmar, Braze


The following was transcribed from a recent interview on The Agile Brand with Greg Kihlström podcast. 

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Today we’re going to talk about how creativity and technology drive standout customer engagement.

Recently WARC and Braze released a report entitled: The invisible enabler: Unlocking the Creative Potential of Technology. We’re going to talk about a few of the ideas in that white paper that covers why brands should audit their available tech and data, how they should prioritize creative investment in key areas of the omnichannel journey, and why it is advisable to put in place a first-party data strategy. 

To help me discuss this topic, I’d like to welcome Mariam Asmar, VP Strategic Consulting at Braze.

[Greg Kihlström] The report covers five themes, and we’re going to talk about three of those today. So let’s start with the first, this idea that data inspires the creative. So instead of constraining creativity, how can data be used to actually generate more creative ideas and, just as importantly, more effective ideas?

I would say, back in my advertising days, data was really just an input to the creative brief, and then the message kind of delivered back was one for the masses. But I think today people and customers have really kind of rejected that one-size-fits-all message, right? People want to be treated like individuals and not like the masses. And so that’s kind of challenging marketers to do a little bit more with the data that they are collecting. And one of the things I always talk about is that, to me, when I talk about data and kind of really hitting the mark right, we always talk about Spotify, because in many ways I think they created this category through the end-of-year Wrapped campaign, right, which was the first time that a brand really used individual insights to entertain mass audiences, and then provided this really personalized individual experience via its tech. 

And I think the success of that campaign, alongside the rising investment that you’ve seen in martech from a lot of marketers. is really pushing them to spread their wings and fly a little bit higher than just using data to say, like, “Here’s the next thing you should buy or the next offer that you should have.” And so I think organizations, they’re starting to get savvier with the data that they’re capturing it, and they’re using it in a way that’s enhancing the experience, an overarching brand experience, and making a more valuable connection to its audience. And so I think a lot, along all these advancements, it really does enable advertisers not to just replace existing capabilities and do a little bit better, as I said, with what the table stakes is, but really to unlock new ones with more creative applications than ever before, where brands can use their own or volunteer data combined with the perfect context to create some very human interaction with its customers.

There may be some creatives in the audience today listening to this that, you know, maybe they’re skeptics of can data really achieve better ideas, better results, things like that.  Can you share an example of how this has been done effectively?

Data can always be used to make customers’ lives better, right? So it’s not even sometimes as much about the creative as it is about really doing things that connect with people. And that’s what brands are always trying to do, at the end of the day, is ultimately connect with its customers. And then we talked a little bit about it, but I think the Spotify Wrapped campaign was obviously one of the first times that we really saw data used in that way. And they’ve done a lot of iterations and versions of it since, which I think have proven to be incredibly creatively effective. But the campaign that I really thought was interesting recently was one done by Pernod Ricard, and it was called “The Time That We Have Left.” And it was about, I think it was an algorithm where you could kind of go in and you put your age; there was a series of data inputs, and what it gave you out was a number of the time that you actually had left before one of the two of you was going to pass. 

It was using something as really functional as data, right, to really strike a strong emotional chord with so many people, that’s like, kind of, thinking a little bit about your mortality. And I think that also, as a campaign, was incredibly effective, but also that was an example of you’re using, again, something so functional as data to, you know, bring people to tears in these ads and in these exchanges with each other. So I think that’s where you really see people, and brands, really thinking bigger than I’ve ever seen brands thinking before.

The second theme from the report that I wanted to talk about today is referred to as “the memorable middle,” and it discusses some of the importance of getting the online-offline or omni-channel experience right. So first question here, you know, how should brands be thinking about mixing the physical and the digital and the purchase journey? And how do things like first-party data, omni-channel personalization, as well as others, play a role?

Yeah, I think it’s Google that has what’s called the Hankins Hexagon, and it coined this term around the messy middle and that there are, kind of, six stages, and every industry and every vertical kind of has its own dominant path. But, really, it’s the customer that chooses how they make their way in between touch points, often like, “I’m going to change my mind. I’m going to do something else. I’m going to go deeper somewhere.” And so I think what’s interesting, in that model, both in-person and digital experiences are really having to work together to not hone but sort of forge that path to purchase for the customer. And so a customer buying a car online might search online, right, and then go in store and then test drive it in store, but then go back and buy it online, right? And so just being able to accommodate those changes in behavior and harnessing first-party data along the way is what is going to allow you to make sure that you’re not creating any friction or any reason for the customer to drop off when they pick up their journey at maybe a different point, for example.

And one point on this, because it’s funny, right, when we wrote this report, it was really, like, online/offline and omni-channel, and then recently, in some of the meetings and things that I have, it’s beyond omni-channel, right? It’s omni-verse now. It’s not just the physical world and online but you’ve got the metaverse and you’ve got AR, you’ve got Web 3, right, and brands are thinking even broader, right? Those are new touchpoints in the journey, as everyone starts getting into commerce in those worlds, too. So I think it’s going to get even more complex, and therefore more important for you to have tech that is not just fluid but, to your point, allowing you to capture inputs and things along the way that ultimately go back to, sort of, one singular customer view.

The channel switching just keeps getting more and more complex here. What do you recommend as far as what should brands avoid when thinking about mixing this omni-channel. Maybe we just call it “omni” from now on, because, you know, I like your comment about channels and verses and all that kind of stuff, but what’s something that brands should avoid doing here?

You know, I think the worst thing that brands do, and I think it’s human-inflicted in many ways, like how do you as an organization kind of get out of your own way? And what I see is a lot of different orgs sometimes don’t bring all the right people together because sometimes it’s just simply organizational, like “We don’t have the right teams and the right people; that’s not how it works; and we don’t do it that way,” and so that’s one of the things that I think brands really need to do is, yeah, kind of eliminate their rigid thinking around structures and teams and swim lanes. And I think it’s really about, right now, trying to bring different teams together. I think great innovation and creativity is often at the intersection of disciplines, right? And so how do you bring your digital team with your retail team, with your online team, with your social media team, and your innovation team? And how do you start bringing some of those best minds to really think through and strategize, you know, how do you include all the right touchpoints; what are the things not to include? So just having a coherent strategy that all teams work towards, it sounds so basic, but it’s actually one of the major things that I think trips brands up at times.

Similar to the last point, can you share an example here of how this has been done effectively, this omni-channel experience?

Yeah, I think the example that we talked about and worked that I thought was just so different and interesting was Nike, and in China, it was around the release of its fastest running shoe called, I think it was, the NEXT%, and what they did is they turned the speed into currency and gave only the fastest runners in China exclusive access to this shoe. So I think they partnered with the top four apps, found out who the fastest runners were from the top four apps, gave them access to this shoe, and said “You’re you’re going to basically wear this shoe for the next two to three weeks, and those of you who run the fastest can buy the shoe, and thoughts of you that don’t can’t.” And so this is not a journey that would work for everyone. So I thought, number one, it was just really smart by understanding what exactly the journey for this particularly niche super-runner, super-athlete audience was, and then how do you kind of tap into that to create FOMO and sort of exclusivity, with the result ultimately being that they could buy the shoe, I just kind of thought was funny in a way that I couldn’t believe it. You know, people were running and, I mean, of course it was more about fitness; it was endurance; it was about winning, at the end of the day, right? Nike, wasn’t that the goddess of winning? So it lines up really nicely, kind of, in the brand. But then, as a result, in seeing all these runners who have it, it creates a ton of buzz, and then everyone wants it. And so, just in having that really unique model at the start and the launch of that campaign just unlocks so much kind of virality and buzz later on, and that drove it to be ultimately very effective.

That’s a great example there. So the last of the themes in the report I wanted to discuss today is what’s referred to as “collapsing the funnel,” in the report, where brands are bringing together brand and performance to build stronger direct-to-consumer relationships. Can you talk, a little bit, about what exactly is meant by this term “collapsing the funnel?”

Yeah, it’s a great question. I love this topic, particularly. And what I see, and this is something that I’ve even witnessed from the advertising days, right? Brand teams are under a lot more pressure to prove the effectiveness of creativity and brand marketing, sort of more of that warm and fuzzy. And then you’ve got this side of CRM marketers who are facing increased competition for more competitors, sometimes not always a product that is so unique within the category, and they’re finding it super-hard to retain people and retain audiences. And so I feel right now like the two sides kind of need each other and need to come together because they both need wins. And, yes, you need your customer engagement and this “always on” strategy, but I think gone are the days where you see the CRM team on one side and the brand team on the other, right? People more are trying to say, “How do we kind of eliminate, to the point we just talked about, the journeys and the way it works?” Like, any – any piece of comms can spark purchase now, right, and lead to purchase, maybe is shoppable itself as a piece of content. And so I kind of think that, again, people are having to get savvier about how do you use the power of the brand in a way that helps drive the bottom line in CRM day-to-day? And then from the brand side, it’s how do you bring all this data and technology that the CRM teams are leveraging so that you can add some effectiveness and first-party data onto the journey of your big idea, right, and really trying to bring and merge those two together.

And so that was a trend I saw when I was in the advertising days. What was cool about the work report is that, in its survey of about 1,500 marketers worldwide, more than 60 percent of them said their team was being restructured in a way to build a closer relationship between brand marketing and CRM. And I think it was like, you know, some brands were creating new teams that brought e-com and brand together. Some were adding brands to the e-com teams. Some were adding e-com members to the brand teams. Some were merging the teams. And so it’s kind of really interesting to see the different ways that organizations are executing this. And I think we’re at the beginning of it, and I’m very curious to see how that continues to evolve and some of the great creative work that might come out of it as a result.

I do think it’s probably going to be very different depending on the organizations. That goes back to my experience in even my marketing agency I owned a while ago, we built a lot of enterprise websites and things like that. And I always said, you know, a customer shouldn’t have to understand the org chart in order to navigate a website, similar to a customer shouldn’t have to understand what the martech infrastructure is of a brand in order to engage and buy and move through the funnel or so on and so forth. So I think it’s interesting that there is this convergence, and I think it’s certainly a long time coming. Are there brands or industries that you think are leading the way here, and if so, can you share an example of  maybe how they’re doing this?

Yeah, and just quickly, I completely agree with your point. Customers shouldn’t have to understand. I mean, let’s be even blunt, right? They don’t care, right? They don’t care what your org structure is. They’ve got better things to do. And just the attention economy, or whatever you’re saying, everyone’s got the goldfish thing. You’ve just got to capture them, get them and convert them over the line, right? And so, really, that’s all you, on that inside, and the more that you can eliminate friction for the customer, the better off you’re all going to be, right, because that’s what’s going to ultimately drive the value.

And to this point, who I think has embraced this concept very, very well are quick service restaurants, right, QSR brands. And I think they, because during the pandemic, you really had to go direct, it really forced them to start to think about how all their marketing efforts start to almost coalesce towards one end goal. And so, you know, you see brands like McDonald’s, KFC, and Burger King, go in D2C and investing in those lower-funnel experiences, and I think that the younger audiences, right, who also are more active on mobile and social, has also forced them to think about, kind of, all these themes start to blend, like building the seamless omni-channel experience, across all of it, right, to ultimately drive towards somebody calling a delivery person to bring something over to them, or vice versa, right, them going out and actually picking something up. 

If I can, I’d love to share a couple examples where I think this has been done really well. The Burger King example was called “Delay Your Way,” and this I thought was a great one where it was only if you were at an airport, right? It’s the worst to travel during those times; you get delays. For anyone that was traveling during the holidays, maybe here in the U.S., that was definitely something that was top of mind. And so what it was doing was, if your delay was 25 minutes, you got a 25 percent discount at Burger King, right? And so they were using your individual flight info and delay info to ultimately spit out a deal that was tailored for you, based off your flight delay. And so I thought that was a great one.

There’s another one that I like that was called “Shift+K+F+C” that was done in Saudi Arabia. There’s a couple here that I think are good, and it’s everyone trying to tap into those gaming audiences, right, speaking of another ‘verse that we need to go into and. And I think the insight is gamers, you’re so actively gaming, right; you can’t use your arms or your hands or anything; people don’t even eat. And so the “Shift+K+F+C” was around a cheat code where you could actually put that into your controller and it would auto-order KFC for you. So that’s brilliant, right? You’re like, is that a brand idea? Is that a CRM idea, like I don’t really know, right? It’s really straddling of both, which I think is cool. The U.S. had a similar one here. It was called “Hidden Spots,” from Heinz, and I think it was done with, like, “Call of Duty,” again, one of the bigger gamers. And it found places that you, while playing a game, could go hide so that you could actually pick up food and eat and not get killed in the game. And so you see those are, like, these fun sort of things, where you’re using some really good insight to bring an elevated experience, an experience of value, for a customer. 

I think you said it, it’s bringing actual value. Instead of just trying to hawk fast food to somebody while they’re in the middle of something else, it’s actually providing value because you’re enabling them to keep up with what they’re doing while offering them something that they want or need, so, yeah, that’s really great.

Yeah, and here’s what’s really nice, driving talkability about the brand. Everyone’s like, “Oh, my God, this brand is great.” It goes viral; it’s on Twitter; it’s on the air, like what a win for a marketing team. 

About the Guest

Mariam Asmar is VP of Strategic Consulting at Braze. She was formerly Planning Partner, Digital and Innovation Lead at McCann in addition to several roles around the world at McCann. Her work has included clients such as Coca-Cola, Adidas, eBay, Nestle, Microsoft and more.

About the Host, Greg Kihlström

Greg Kihlstrom is a best selling author, speaker, and entrepreneur and host of The Agile Brand podcast. He has worked with some of the world’s leading organizations on customer experience, employee experience, and digital transformation initiatives, both before and after selling his award-winning digital experience agency, Carousel30, in 2017.  Currently, he is Principal and Chief Strategist at GK5A. He has worked with some of the world’s top brands, including AOL, Choice Hotels, Coca-Cola, Dell, FedEx, GEICO, Marriott, MTV, Starbucks, Toyota and VMware. He currently serves on the University of Richmond’s Customer Experience Advisory Board, was the founding Chair of the American Advertising Federation’s National Innovation Committee, and served on the Virginia Tech Pamplin College of Business Marketing Mentorship Advisory Board.  Greg is Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certified, and holds a certification in Business Agility from ICP-BAF. 


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