The new Digital Divide

After participating in a Digital Brand Think Tank in Munich a couple of weeks ago (a lively discussion with 20 marketing executives from Audi, BMW, Google, Continental, and other top-tier brands), I must admit that I'm a bit tired of having to evangelize

Tim Leberecht
Tim Leberecht is Frog Design's chief marketing officer. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET.
Tim Leberecht
4 min read

After participating in a Digital Brand Think Tank in Munich a couple of weeks ago (a lively discussion with 20 marketing executives from Audi, BMW, Google, Continental, and other top-tier brands), I must admit that I’m a bit tired of having to evangelize (or even justify) the value of brands using social media. It is astonishing to me that companies still ask for evidence when the tweet is on the wall. The event showed that there is a new Digital Divide that cuts straight through the ranks of the marketing industry--some executives get the Social Web, some don’t. No one has figured it out yet. Most would admit that they need to catch up and keep learning.

Marc Mielau, head of digital media at the BMW Group, certainly belongs to the former cohort, and at the event in Munich he shared some interesting insights into his company’s much acclaimed online strategy. BMW has long been on the leading edge of marketing innovation and has embraced social media formats early on (remember the hugely successful branded entertainment “The Hire” film series, featuring renowned directors like Wong-Kar Wai?). To me, more than the actual programs, the most remarkable thing about BMW is how the company has managed to establish a culture of marketing innovation. It is much easier to pull off a sporadic viral hit than to build and sustain a proactive and trendsetting digital marketing engine.

Management guru Peter Drucker once wrote, “The business enterprise has two--and only two--basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results: All the rest are ‘costs.’” BMW took this axiom literally and created a “Marketing Innovation” group. Mielau described how the Bavarian carmaker concluded that an innovative brand needed truly innovative marketing and consequently put its money where its mouth is. With the Marketing Innovation department, it installed a function that was freed of any P&L pressure, given a considerable budget, and the mandate and support to experiment with various types of emerging marketing technologies and techniques--occasional failures included. Serving as a sort of marketing R&D, sounding board, incubator, and innovation catalyst, the Marketing Innovation group explores new user behavior trends on the Web and on mobile devices, while at the same time rapidly prototyping tools and campaigns to address them. While not every program has been an immediate or massive success--BMW’s engagement in Second Life, for example, was terminated, albeit in an elegant way--all activities undertaken by the group helped BMW learn by doing and enabled it to be the first mover when new formats eventually became mainstream. This has led to the high ‘social media readiness’ needed to instigate, enhance, or rebut conversations occurring in the echo chamber of BMW’s expansive and influential social graph. The key is that BMW’s short-term social media agility is based on a strong commitment to a long-term vision for its brand.

This very vision would help Vodafone these days, whose “Generation Upload” campaign in Germany has been the subject of much ridicule and scorn from the very Digital Natives it so eagerly (and maybe a little too eagerly) aimed to embrace. The company had obviously studied the social web playbook and thought it was doing all the right things: It created cross-platform social media channels for live-feedback to the campaign’s launch press conference; it put user-generated content at the center of the campaign; and it featured a prominent German blogger as the campaign’s ‘hero.’ However, it made one big mistake: It launched the campaign without backing it up with an actual product offer for the targeted “Generation Upload.” The “medium is the message” approach was simply not enough in this case. Sure, the Gen Y’ers love to converse--but they also appreciate products and rates that meet their needs. Besides that, “Generation Upload” is an unfortunate term that describes user behavior as purely mechanistic when in fact it is not so much characterized by the function of uploading but the desire to share.

And yet: “If you can’t get fired for your marketing campaign, it is not innovative,” marketing author Seth Godin once pointedly said. I’m not sure if any heads were rolling at Vodafone, hopefully not. The company deserves credit for taking a risk and jumping right into the social Web without a safety net. Ultimately, I believe, this strategy will be rewarded by the marketplace. Already, the campaign--notwithstanding all the negative comments--created a lot of buzz. And as they say, there is only one thing worse than negative PR--and that is not being talked about at all. This truism is magnified on the social web. With a long-term commitment and flawless follow-through similar to BMW’s, Vodafone might indeed have made a first step towards transforming its brand.

Marketers, beware! The New Digital Divide is very real--but you may not always know exactly which side you are on.