New Media: Challenges and opportunities for brands

by Tom Sitati

What does branding have to do with new media? In my opinion, everything. Over time, brands have woven their way into our lives. They have done this to a fair degree by maximizing the power of various media channels. Any significant change in media introduces a material change in how brands are built, managed, and experienced.

New Media: Challenge and opportunities

According to Europe Logs On, an April 2009 Microsoft study on Internet trends in Europe, “Europeans spent on average 8.9 hours per week, or 1.5 days a month, using the web in 2008, up 27 percent from 2004.” By 2010, Europeans will spend over 2.5 days a month on the Internet. These numbers take on special significance when compared to the dwindling amount of time spent by the same population reading print media.

Print media in Kenya commands around 21 percent of advertising revenue, according to research firm Synovate’s 2008 figures. This is about half of radio and slightly less than television.

Other parts of the world have recognized the slowed demand and increasingly started to integrate media with the digital world, the space where readers influence content. In the U.S., print publications like The Christian Science Monitor have moved entirely online, and in Europe, more than 75 percent of newspapers allow readers to comment on articles. Recently, this figure doubled in a short period of time, prompting Universal McCann to cite “consumer power as the biggest trend in marketing communications today.” With over 65 percent of online time being spent on communication, including email and social networks, this comes as no surprise.

Statistics such as these make it all too clear that the environment in which brands operate is changing rapidly, virtually everywhere in the world. The traditional path along which brand communication has been fashioned for decades has, until now, been linear and controlled by brands. This model appears to be on its way out, courtesy of consumers’ newfound power. With the advent of the Internet-connected world, the ground has shifted right underneath the feet of brands—and many do not even realize this yet. This situation presents both challenges and opportunities.

The almighty Internet: An up-and-coming force in the
African market

No doubt the Internet is responsible for the growth of new media. Microsoft predicts that the Internet will overtake television as the medium of choice by June 2010. This assertion is supported by the organization’s Europe Logs On study. The findings have major implications for brands in terms of what consumer needs they satisfy and how they are positioned, communicated, distributed, and even consumed.

As of December 2008, Africa had 54,171,500 Internet users, representing a 5.6 percent penetration rate. This is impressive when you consider that North America has a 74.4 percent Internet penetration. And yet, while this may not change overnight, the fiber-optic cable due to go live in Kenya in the second half of 2009 is bound to cause major ripples. Faster Internet combined with further reach will make the prophesied move from television to Internet a reality. Brands will find themselves increasingly unable to ignore this development. Over the past five years, broadband connection in Europe has grown by about 95 percent! If a quarter of those connections were in Kenya, it would totally change the media consumption habits and alter the brandscape significantly.

According to statistics from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Kenya’s Internet penetration grew tenfold over the past eight years—from 0.7 percent in 2000 to 7.9 percent in 2008. This compares well with Africa’s largest economy, South Africa, which has an Internet penetration of 9.4 percent, while Nigeria follows at 6.8 percent. If one considers that the cheaper, more accessible, broadband Internet will also soon be accessible via the mobile phone, the numbers are likely to increase in the second half of 2009. It is not unrealistic to assume that it may eventually hit the same stratospheric North American (74.4 percent) and European (48 percent) levels.

Audiences glued to the screen, but which screen?

As Internet penetration spikes, the number of eyeballs on the computer screen will actually decline. According to Europe Logs On, Internet use of personal computers will drop to only about 50 percent within the next five years. This, coming from the present 95 percent, is a huge shift. Eyeballs are set to move to other gadgets such as IPTV, game consoles, and mobile phones.

Kenya has nearly half its population (43.64 percent, according to the Communications Commission of Kenya) now connected via mobile phones, more than half the market that can be counted upon to exercise what economists call “effective demand.” This means that a majority of the mobile phone consumers are actually in a position to desire to purchase brands and have the money (to varying degrees, of course) to go ahead and make the purchase. The shift from computers to cell phones is something for brands to follow keenly, especially as the content on mobile phones becomes more Internet-driven. This is particularly true among youth and the so-called young at heart, for whom the short message and phone call seem to be receding into history. As technology continues to evolve, it is important for brands to know which screen consumers are glued to.

New audience for brands: Wambui and Tumaini

Wambui is the typical urban Kenyan teenager, straight out of high school and eager to explore the new world. She owns a mobile phone she uses to keep in touch with her former schoolmates and the new buddies she meets virtually every day. Her new freedom allows her to go on unsupervised trips with her friends and hit the night spots that she could only dream of while plowing through books in the strict boarding school environment she had been confined to for the past four years. Wambui’s communication platform of choice is Facebook, a social networking website that allows her to share her thoughts, chat, send instant messages, and even organize social events. Thanks to Orange, Safaricom, yu, and Zain (Kenyan mobile phone providers), she does not need to go to a cybercafé to log on to Facebook. She gets her news, hears about new trends and events, has her debates on issues both critical and trivial, is updated about Lindsay Lohan’s love life, and can review Liverpool’s match from her phone. Wambui even has a Liverpool fan club where she and fellow fans can discuss “their team.”

Tumaini relocated to Boston in the United States with his family 15 years ago, when his British father and Kenyan mother decided to consolidate their U.S. business interests. At 19, he is at the vanguard of the Internet-led generation, which received a huge boost with the growth of broadband Internet availability. Research by Netpop on Internet usage in the U.S. revealed that “over half who recently became aware of a new company, brand or product say they first learned about it from an online source.” When the same respondents were asked about what influenced them most in a purchase decision, family and friends came first at about 60 percent, followed by instant messaging and chat rooms at 55 percent. Considering that Tumaini keeps in touch with family and friends spread across three continents via social networking site hi5, his brand conversations end up being held online. The influence of family and friends on his brand purchase decisions really comes to bear online as well.

Both Wambui and Tumaini—and young customers like them—suggest the shift from linear brand communication to networked brand conversations. They signify the shift from producers in one sphere and consumers in the other to a network of players who all cooperate to both create and consume brands. This has created a totally new brandscape, and it continues to evolve daily.

In order to stay relevant, brands must know where Internet-savvy customers like Wambui and Tumaini are spending their time so they can be there. They need to know what conversations they are having so they can make a contribution to the discussion.

Web 2.0 and new consumer interaction

While the Internet as we know it is only about two decades old, it has matched and surpassed the changes that other sectors took centuries to achieve within a fraction of that time. What began as a few interconnected computers to share military data has grown into a vast network that includes mail systems, media, academic institutions, and large corporations.

As we enter the next phase of the Internet, already dubbed Web 2.0, we’re likely to see the Internet impact our lives in even more profound ways. Whereas in the first phase of the Internet a few large brands acted as sources that controlled information and commanded a huge audience, this is increasingly being reversed. Weblogs, social networking sites such as Facebook, user-generated content sites like Wikipedia and MySpace, chat rooms, and mobile technology’s dalliance with the Internet portend a radical shift in which the audience plays almost as large, if not larger, a role than the big brands.

Web 2.0 has created a consumer that is not content just to listen. And this behavior is not just limited to Internet use, but is now influencing how consumers interact with brands of every kind.

Web 2.0 and Henry Ford's Model T

“Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it is black.” These are the famous words of Henry Ford. Around 1918, almost half the cars in the United States were Henry Ford’s famous Model T—and they were all black. This may have easily been a historical exaggeration, but the point here is that Henry Ford and many other industrialists to this day adopted a model that favored the creation of a “one size fits all,” mass-produced template that remained unchanged for years.

The world has progressed many miles beyond Ford’s mass production era. What is now termed “the Web 2.0 era” has introduced a radical development where brands remain in beta (testing) phase for long periods of time. The consumer is no longer willing to go for “one size fits all,” forcing brands to continuously innovate to suit consumers’ ever-changing tastes. Some technology brands such as Google even go to the extent of being in perpetual beta. Many consumers, especially in the technology sector, are now always ready and thirsty for one more development and will gladly contribute their ideas to it. What will it mean for brands if users demand the same from their cars, financial services, alcoholic beverages, confectionary, and other brands they consume every day?

Cooperate, don't control

What will it mean for your brand if consumers begin to demand more say in how your brand is created? What will it mean if consumers finally live up to what many academics have forecasted and want to tell you, the brand custodian, how they wish to have their brand best positioned?

Many of the Web 2.0 applications are built through the cooperation of a network of users. Some are specialists, but most are average users like you and me. The leading brands in this sphere are those that have found the best way to cooperate with users, taking their suggestions and creating platforms that offer them a presence.

The Long Tail

Chris Anderson’s publication The Long Tail is all about the tremendous potential in the 80 percent we have tended to ignore on a day-to-day basis due to our obsession with the few “hits.” According to Anderson, this happens for music, movies, sports, professional life, and most definitely with brands.

In the Web 2.0 era, small websites, when combined, make up the bulk of the Internet’s content and, therefore, traffic. At the same time, the music that did not hit the Billboard charts, when combined, sells more than the music that did hit the top 10. Anderson suggests that there is an opportunity to create a number of niche brands that dominate the 80 percent the “hit brand” is bound to ignore. He also suggests that new media may be the platform where brands we are yet to even imagine will sprout and grow to prominence.

But if this is the reality, where will that leave brands that are still thinking about the 30-second television commercial and traditional mass marketing? Most likely, in the dustbin of history, unless they continue to evolve with the digital landscape. Brands succeed or fail depending on the extent to which they are able to profit from delighting consumer needs, wants, and even dreams. And with consumers’ needs, wants, and dreams in constant motion, brands will need to keep up in order to prosper.

This is no small task. Even as brands grapple with this “potential” future of the Internet and Web 2.0, many are forecasting that Web 3.0 is already here. Nova Spivack, the founder of Radar Networks, is quoted in The New York Times online as stating, “…we’re now about to enter the third decade—Web 3.0—which is about making the web much smarter.” At this rate, we could be in Web 4.0 by the time you are finished reading this paper!

Still, despite the fast pace, there are brands keeping up. Nike, for example, keeps its own social networking going, on its own platform. Users are able to share data, “compete” across borders, and celebrate together when they reach new milestones. There is also a Nike+ blog that aggregates information from the larger community and creates a space for sharing and commenting on topics of interest to the community. Target is another good example. The brand has created a smartphone application that generates gift ideas.

Great brands are those that evolve with their customers and even take a further step to anticipate the next big thing customers will embrace. In this age of new interactive media, the brands that are staying ahead of trends by embracing the new interaction channels such as blogs, social networks, and smartphones are likely to be the leading brands of the future.


Tom SitatiTom Sitati is an Executive Director with Interbrand Sampson East Africa and a past Chairman of the Marketing Society of Kenya. He is the author of It’s a Branded World, a regular columnist with Business Daily (www.bdafrica.com), and has contributed articles to numerous publications in East Africa. He is currently a graduate student of New Media and Society at University of Leicester (U.K.).