Last month Marie Stopes announced its plan to broadcast the first TV ad for an abortion advisory service. The advert had yet to air but it soon became a source of hot debate in the traditional and social media. But what interested me most was a comment from Julie Douglas, the clinic's head of marketing: "We feel television is the best place to let women know who to contact if they need help," she said. "The campaign will encourage people to talk about unplanned pregnancy and abortion more openly and honestly".
Of course, it's the subject matter that has sparked the debate rather than the ad itself, but there is no question that this campaign has successfully raised Marie Stopes' profile. But is controversy enough? Can Marie Stopes consider its job done? And what can other brands learn from this?
Television is an excellent medium for creating awareness, but the process an individual goes through when deciding to make a commitment to purchase — or in this case commitment to use a service — is a far more complex matter.
The natural desire for a human connection combined with a healthy dose of media cynicism means consumers tend to look beyond traditional broadcast channels when it comes to making a decision. Most opt for channels that allow them to interact or discover something for themselves — such as seeking the advice of friends and family, or the opportunity to witness a product or service used by others.
At Jack Morton we recently conducted a study which demonstrated that channels like these are overwhelmingly the top influencers when it comes to purchase decisions (see our Experience Brands white paper which explores how consumers prefer to engage with brands). But it's not just personal contact consumers crave — they also look for a human connection with the actual brands. Brands which are prepared to truly open up and engage in an honest exchange with consumers can really benefit from this: Sun Microsystems' CEO's blog is a case in point — it was open, honest and transparent, and a huge success with customers; British Airways, despite struggling with volcanoes and strikes, has been lauded for its efforts to openly communicate with customers through social media, including a series of YouTube videos from the chief executive.
Conversely, brands fearing a loss of control often police their social media outreach to the point where they alienate the audience they so hope to befriend. In reality, successful marketing isn't a question of control but of building a partnership with the consumer which allows the brand to grow.
The message for brands is clear: while not every brand will be able to pursue a strategy as controversial as the Marie Stopes' campaign, it is essential to create a genuine talking point. And, if the relationship with the consumer is honest, that talking point will come naturally.
The other point to note is that no matter how digital our communication channels have become, it's ultimately the influence of real people, who've had really great experiences, that fuels growth for a brand. If your relationship isn't honest, the consumer will know — and will embarrass you publicly on your Twitter page.
So can Marie Stopes' consider its job done? It would be interesting to see how the organisation is using social media for its abortion advisory campaign, considering that the teen population must account for a large proportion of its target audience. When I tried to join a live chat on the Marie Stopes website I received a rather unengaging message: "Sorry, we are not available at the moment." Probably it's not indicative of the broader campaign, but it is a reminder that the greatest campaigns can be lost on the smallest detail - and that to be truly successful, a brand's engagement with its customers and delivery on its brand promise must be all encompassing.
Victoria Yates is Head of PR at Jack Morton, the brand experience agency. Visit jackmorton.com for more information. To see Jack Morton's Experience Brands white paper visit jackmorton.com/#/takeaway/downloads.
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