Grass roots

Young set own stan­dards us­ing new mar­ket­ing tool

Finweek English Edition - - Business strategy - SIZWEKAZI JEKWA

ONCE UPON A TIME mar­keters told con­sumers what they needed and con­sumers lis­tened. When a com­pany wanted to sell its prod­ucts, man­age­ment would sit in the board­room with a team of highly skilled mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tives and cre­ate strate­gies that dic­tated to con­sumers what they should as­pire to… Those days are gone.

Time mag­a­zine’s Newsmaker of the Year in 2006 was “The con­sumer” be­cause of the pro­found ef­fect he’s mak­ing on the mod­ern global econ­omy. The rise of con­sumer-driven re­sources such as blogs and Wikipedia has seen the Av­er­age Joe play­ing an im­por­tant role that’s in­flu­enc­ing the course of his­tory in com­merce and pol­i­tics.

No­body be­lieves an of­fi­cial spokesman any more, but some­how we all be­lieve the “un­named source”. Mar­keters world­wide have started to take cog­ni­sance of that power shift from cor­po­ra­tions to con­sumers. Nowhere is that trend more pro­nounced than in the youth mar­ket.

The ad­vent of the “In­for­ma­tion Age” has rev­o­lu­tionised the way young con­sumers make de­ci­sions world­wide. The In­ter­net, com­bined with other forms of tech­nol­ogy, has in­creased the speed and ease with which peo­ple com­mu­ni­cate and share in­for­ma­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to re­search done by In­stant Grass, con­sumers of to­day – par­tic­u­larly the young – are mov­ing tar­gets. They don’t be­lieve or ac­cept ev­ery­thing they’re told. They’re as­tute, in­formed and highly sus­pi­cious of mar­ket­ing. They carry finely tuned fil­ters that screen out the ever-in­creas­ing num­ber of com­mer­cial mes­sages that they’re bom­barded with on a daily ba­sis. They’re con­sumers no more. In­stead, they’re “PRO­sumers” and mar­keters are only be­gin­ning to un­der­stand how to mar­ket to this new and evolved variety of cus­tomers.

In recog­ni­tion of such chang­ing dy­nam­ics, one South African mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tive de­cided to en­sure that young con­sumers were be­ing heard and found a novel way to con­nect com­pa­nies to them. Ian Calvert, co-founder of In­stant Grass – SA’s first mar­ket­ing intelligence agency for young peo­ple – re­alised that most of those cre­at­ing mar­ket­ing strate­gies for that mar­ket didn’t know the first thing about them.

In his many years as a lead­ing ex­pert in his field, Calvert un­der­stood that the na­ture of SA’s pop­u­la­tion de­mo­graph­ics meant that the young were quickly be­com­ing in­creas­ingly im­por­tant to mar­keters. He also re­alised that many of the peo­ple in­volved in the in­dus­try were too old to un­der­stand or re­late to the peo­ple they were try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate with.

Says Calvert: “Over time, I re­alised that the sheer size of the youth pop­u­la­tion meant they’d be one of the most im­por­tant seg­ments to mar­keters. How­ever, the de­ci­sions made by mar­keters in re­la­tion to young peo­ple were made with some very anec­do­tal in­forma- tion. And con­ven­tional re­search just wasn’t cut­ting it any­more.”

With that in mind, Calvert de­cided to part­ner with Greg Pot­ter­ton to cre­ate a mar­ket­ing agency that could con­nect mar­keters to the young peo­ple they knew so lit­tle about.

In­stant Grass’s ma­jor as­set and num­ber one cur­rency is a net­work of very care­fully and specif­i­cally se­lected in­di­vid­u­als be­tween the ages of 18 and 28 in SA’s metropoli­tan ar­eas. They de­scribe them as early adopters of main­stream trends. They are the “grasses” – and they’re highly net­worked in­di­vid­u­als within their so­cial groups who pride them­selves on be­ing highly in­formed and opin­ion­ated about var­i­ous top­ics and so­cial phe­nom­ena.

The agency is con­stantly con­nected with its “grasses” – which they arm with an email ad­dress and a dig­i­tal cam­era. The intelligence the agency re­ceives from its “grass” net­work is com­pletely raw and un­tainted. It isn’t di­luted or con­fused by the con­straints of con­ven­tional mar­ket re­search. As a re­sult of its highly un­ortho­dox and open-ended re­search method­ol­ogy, In­stant Grass is able to trans­late the in­for­ma­tion it re­ceives into real-time in­sights into the young mar­ket’s moods and trends, which it uses to help com­pa­nies build bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion and brand mar­ket­ing strate­gies.

“There’s no sin­gle youth iden­tity in SA. It’s splin­tered into many tiny pieces and be­neath each cul­ture is a sub­cul­ture or tribe,” says In­stant Grass MD Greg Moloko. “Our grasses there­fore act as ac­cess points to their broader peer groups, giv­ing the agency wide-reach­ing in­sights into key tribes and sub-cul­tures.”

The In­stant Grass model ba­si­cally tries to iden­tify peo­ple who fall within those cat­e­gories and uses them to do all the work. Grasses are es­sen­tially a com­bi­na­tion of con­nec­tors and mavens and are there­fore ideally po­si­tioned

to gather and spread in­for­ma­tion among the greater pop­u­la­tion.

The beauty of the model cre­ated by Calvert and Pot­ter­ton is that mar­keters can use the re­source for a num­ber of things. Above and be­yond the sim­ple ap­pli­ca­tion of trend spot­ting and pro­vid­ing in­sights into what SA’s young peo­ple are do­ing, buy­ing or think­ing, In­stant Grass is able to solve mar­ket­ing “snags” by con­duct­ing probes to ex­tract spe­cific in­for­ma­tion on very spe­cific is­sues.

Sim­i­larly, it’s able to dis­sem­i­nate in­for­ma­tion through the Grass net­work to the wider young pop­u­la­tion like a virus by “seed­ing” brands and mes­sages in the net­work – an op­er­a­tion that they’ve ap­pro­pri­ately named In­stant Seed. Probes and seeds can take any form and deal with vary­ing mar­ket­ing is­sues, such as brand health test­ing, con­cept test­ing or even new prod­uct de­vel­op­ment.

Grasses are never paid to par­tic­i­pate, so their re­sponses are more hon­est and nat­u­ral.

One of the more in­ter­est­ing In­stant Grass case stud­ies was the Levi Strauss Eva Project. In 2005 Levi Strauss ap­proached In­stant Grass to help them un­der­stand why they weren’t grow­ing their busi­ness with 15- to 29-year-old black women. They wanted to find a way for young black women to in­clude Levi’s in their wardrobes. To that end they asked In­stant Grass to un­cover the un­der­ly­ing fash­ion and ap­parel needs of young black women. What they dis­cov­ered was noth­ing short of phe­nom­e­nal…

The grasses were given a voucher and asked to go shop­ping for jeans at any Levi store and then re­port back on their ex­pe­ri­ence. Levi Strauss had ex­pected is­sues of brand­ing and store lo­ca­tion and ad­ver­tis­ing to be the prob­lem but it was wrong. In­stead, the grasses re­ported that it was in fact the prod­uct de­sign it­self that was the key ob­sta­cle.

The probe found that most black women were ex­tremely proud of their bod­ies and acutely aware of their unique shape, which they en­joyed show­ing off. While it was com­mon for white women to try to hide their bad fea­tures, their black coun­ter­parts chose to high­light their unique fea­tures – in­clud­ing among other things wider hips and fuller but­tocks.

With that in mind, cloth­ing for young black women be­came a frame that ac­cen­tu­ated their unique fea­tures. But de­spite their de­sire to show off their fea­tures they weren’t pre­pared to sac­ri­fice com­fort and prac­ti­cal­ity for “the look”. The clothes there­fore needed to feel as good to wear as they looked.

The black fe­male grasses found that Levi jeans didn’t cater for their unique fea­tures and strug­gled to find a pair of Le­vis that fit­ted their frames. There­fore, the per­cep­tion among black women was that Levi Strauss weren’t in­ter­ested in them as cus­tomers. In re­sponse to those in­sights Levi de­cided to cre­ate a new range of jeans for African women, which they con­cep­tu­alised, de­signed and named with the help of the In­stant Grass net­work.

The grasses felt that the jeans should be called Eva, the orig­i­nal African wo­man. And so Levi’s Eva jean was born and be­came a re­sound­ing suc­cess – de­spite the fact that no mar­ket­ing was used for the first year the jeans were avail­able in its stores.

Har­vard Busi­ness School guru Robert Hayes says: “Fif­teen years ago com­pa­nies com­peted on price. Now it’s qual­ity. To­mor­row it’s de­sign.”

The Eva project is just one of many that In­stant Grass has un­der­taken on be­half of clients, which range from fash­ion brands such as Fos­chini and Hang Ten to fi­nan­cial ser­vices brands like First Na­tional Bank. They’ve also worked with com­mu­ni­ca­tions and me­dia brands like MTV, Me­dia24 and MTN.

In­stant Grass also acts as a use­ful sound­ing board to a num­ber of ad­ver­tis­ing agen­cies, in­clud­ing Saatchi and Saatchi, Lowe Bull and Ogilvy, who use its ser­vices to test their ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paigns.

Just four years since its in­cep­tion, In­stant Grass has of­fices in Jo­han­nes­burg and Cape Town and newly es­tab­lished branches in var­i­ous key emerg­ing mar­kets world­wide. Though the com­pany em­ploys only 15 peo­ple, it has small teams placed in Nairobi and Moscow, with an­other of­fice be­ing opened soon in In­dia, where 55% of the pop­u­la­tion is aged un­der 25. In­stant Grass rep­re­sents the “new age” of mar­ket­ing ex­perts that are pi­o­neer­ing the dis­cov­ery of pro­sumers. They recog­nise that con­sumers are no longer pas­sive and se­date re­cep­tors of in­for­ma­tion and their model is driven by the idea that par­tic­i­pa­tion and not dic­ta­tion is key.

Says Calvert: “Most peo­ple have a fun­da­men­tal need to be heard. The grasses in our net­work get a real kick out of the knowl­edge that they’re con­tribut­ing to some­thing. They like know­ing that their thoughts and ideas will be used by some big shot CEO sit­ting in his cor­ner of­fice. All brands of­fer as­pi­ra­tion, smart brands of­fer par­tic­i­pa­tion.”

In the age of the pro­sumers, reg­u­lar par­tic­i­pa­tion with a brand or prod­uct is one of the fastest ways to nur­ture brand loy­alty. Brand par­tic­i­pa­tion can take a num­ber of forms. For ex­am­ple, Os­car-award-win­ning di­rec­tor Peter Jack­son had a web­site that reg­u­larly in­ter­acted with fans and sought their in­put dur­ing the film­ing of King Kong.

Web­sites such as Re­porter.co.za now al­low the man in the street to re­port on the news rather than just read it. In Brazil, Kaiser Beer asked its cus­tomers to help it de­velop a new beer. More than 11 000 con­trib­u­tors in 130 cities through­out Brazil co-cre­ated its Kaiser Novo Sa­bor beer, a new pre­mium prod­uct re­flect­ing the per­sonal tastes and pref­er­ences of its cus­tomers. The beer be­came an in­stant suc­cess be­cause it had 11 000 am­bas­sadors keen to pro­mote the beer they had played such an ac­tive role in cre­at­ing.

Ex­am­ples like th­ese il­lus­trate that big busi­ness is be­gin­ning to un­der­stand that their brands no longer be­long to their mar­keters but in­stead to the con­sumers who want to con­trol the prod­uct they re­ceive and the brand they de­cide to buy.

The Jo’burg team. Daniel Beatty and Mnigi Mhinga

Con­nect­ing mar­keters to the youth. Ian Calvert and Greg Pot­ter­ton

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