TRUE talked to Christina Liao about how the corporate use of data is changing the way companies see themselves. Liao recently led Coca-Cola’s research into brand equity and the ROI across paid, earned, shared and owned media. She now heads FleishmanHillard’s global research and analytics team.
Q: What constitutes advanced research and analytics at this point and what is simply the norm as far as corporate use?
Liao: My answer may be a little bit controversial because I think the advanced use of research analytics is when a company can actually use the past to predict and invent the future. I know saying this is a no-no for many people who don’t believe we can really do this, but I think that’s because they are too narrowly defining what it means to use the past. When I look at past business performance of my company and really intersect that with trends for the industry and cultural trends, that’s when we begin to see the real power of analytics.
Consider Blockbuster. Looking at its performance very narrowly, they weren’t doing that badly from year to year. It appears there was a sudden change in the marketplace. But if you look back at trends, you could have predicted the company’s problems much in advance of when it started doing badly, which meant they may have been able to do something much in advance to avoid what happened. They could have in essence invented a new future.
A positive example of this is Amazon. Amazon, for me, is one of the organizations that have shown some of the smartest uses of research, analytics and big data. For instance, recently they came up with this idea of doing delivery by drones. To many it was something out of the blue, literally. But in fact it was an example of how Amazon was using analytics to reinvent its future.
Amazon can be seen as a pretty mundane company by today’s standards when everyone is using the Internet to sell. Suddenly they bring up the idea of the drone and they’re a cool technology company again. The idea is very appealing to a younger generation that loves tech. That means that they have a lot more purchases they will be doing throughout their life stages. But the idea also resonates because of a trend in society: People aren’t patient. They want immediacy in everything they do, every purchase they make.
So after floating the idea of drones, Amazon is now really part of that conversation well before they ever planned to launch anything. It generated a lot of buzz around Amazon, but it also provided Amazon with opportunities to hear a lot of the feedback about the idea. Without them paying any money for research or consulting, people will now offer suggestions and ideas for improvement. I have no doubt that Amazon has a team ready to analyze every idea they get, and that might help them refine their strategy. As they get closer to unveiling something, it will also give them ideas about how to communicate their plans. Rather than throwing up a trial balloon, Amazon was doing product development—and essentially for free. They were using their tech roots and trends in society to reinvent their future. Potentially, it’s very clever.
There’s a lot of talk these days about how human beings are producing so much more data than in the past. I don’t see it that way.
Q: Coca-Cola is known as a company with great insights into its brand and the public it serves. How much of a role did research and analytics play at Coke?
Liao: It plays a huge role at what is a very global organization. Research and analytics is almost embedded in every aspect, so we worked with the finance team, we worked with brand management. We worked with PR and marketing and advertising and the new product development team. Just as important, we were there from the start to the finish of campaigns or product launches, whatever. Traditionally, research and analytics doesn’t operate that way at most companies. Yes, they are usually involved but often in a back-end role, analyzing what was already done rather than helping to shape what will be done or even evaluating ideas before they are implemented but not being involved to shape the ideas in the first place. It’s usually being initiated by another business function saying, “Can you look at X, Y, Z?” It’s something much more passive. That was different (at Coca-Cola), and it’s changing at other companies. Many times you will find research and analytics actually leading the development of a certain idea or strategy because it is the research team supplying the analytics and insights behind the initial development. That is something very new at some companies, but we had been doing that for several years.
For example, even when we were developing a piece of creative and launching a campaign, research and analytics was at the table from the very beginning, even before we developed the creative brief because we actually were doing the trends analysis that would inform that brief. We even used research and analytics to determine the placement of a particular message, whether it’s on TV or on print or social. We did neuro-marketing to try to find the ideal placement of images in a particular creative. It has always been an integral part of that.
Q: What role has technology played in the evolution of data and analytics?
Liao: There’s a lot of talk these days about how human beings are producing so much more data than in the past. I don’t see it that way. If we think about a day in our lives, all the different things that we do, our tasks, and the conversations that we have, we’ve always had all of those in the past, but without today’s technology, without the social media platform, they were lost. I think about people sitting around the dinner table conversing. Today everyone would have their smartphone or iPhone out, and that same conversation may get broadcast to friends. Suddenly those thoughts are captured. They can be collected and analyzed. That is the key impact of technology. Today’s technology has allowed all of the data we produce to be captured and become accessible. And beyond collecting data, technology also has made analyzing that data cost-efficient, and again that is a very important contribution. You can gather mounds of data, but you also need cost-efficient ways to analyze the data or it’s meaningless.
Q: How has the real-time nature of social media changed the effect data and analytics has on a brand or campaign?
Liao: Social media provides a kind of early warning system for brands, allowing for both real-time monitoring and real-time course correcting. It gives brands instant feedback on a campaign or really any action a brand takes or message it puts out. It allows almost a do-over, because really you don’t have to wait three or six months for data to accumulate. So the amount of damage done by a misstep is limited and often with good advice can be corrected quickly. But it is not just the data alone that allows you to do that. It’s the real-time analytics that we do that allows you to understand what exactly people are reacting to. Without analytics, data can be misinterpreted and you can find yourself compounding a situation or even over-correcting for a problem. You can be wasting money because you already hit the threshold and it’s going to plateau at that level no matter how much more money you pour in. At what point do I actually need to do something before it’s too late or when am I being premature? Data alone can’t tell you those things. That insight all comes with the analytics.
The real-time nature of social media has also elevated the importance and impact of earned and shared channels on brands and campaigns. Every brand with a presence in social media is grappling with the issue of understanding the new ecosystem of paid, earned, shared and owned channels and how they interact with one another. Data and analytics help bring some clarity to the relative importance of each channel, depending on the objectives of a brand or campaign.