“Sign up here”

Traditional brands, especially fast-moving consumer goods, want to be first choice for consumers at every opportunity. Across a month someone may make 10, 20, 30 or more choices about what soft drink they want to drink at a particular time, in a particular place or on a particular occasion. As a marketer, your role is to ensure that yours is the brand of choice for as many people as possible, as often as possible.

Huge budgets are invested in building front-of-mind awareness and brand preferences, with large sums also spent on cementing emotionally-led connections with existing users. After all, marketers have long been taught that they need their consumers to have a deep relationship with their brand – a relationship based on notions like ‘brand love’. However, if your brand operates on a subscription model, like Netflix, Adobe, Microsoft, Dollar Shave Club and so many more, then the dynamic fundamentally changes. When a customer signs up for your services, the relationship becomes very different – and so does the role of marketing.

No longer is there a series of daily or hourly contests that your brand needs to win. That reduces the need to spend large sums on brand-building and reinforcing spontaneous awareness. Then there’s packaging: for consumer goods, packaging is known as ‘the silent salesman’. It’s a constant reminder of the brand in the customer’s cupboard or fridge. Nowadays, the silent salesmen are the icons on your computer, console or phone screen: the access points to the subscription.

For these brands, choice is no longer daily: it is more likely to be an annual affair. In place of the nebulous notion of brand love there now stands product performance – and, when needed, service recovery. These are much more important factors in the choice to renew. In this new environment, some companies see marketing’s role not as brand building, but focusing on acquisition, and customer experience. Experience is now critical to building brand loyalty. Marketing is no longer about trying to convince people to buy from your brand: the priority is providing fantastic customer experiences that keep people coming back. (This tighter focus on product performance, and the customer experience it delivers, are in part why the chief marketing officer reports to the chief operating officer in many subscription-based firms.)

The new approach also has implications for innovation. Some digital and content-led brands are replacing cross-functional ideation and consumer co-creation with greater reliance on technical development, content creation, and constant online beta-testing. Others, though, recognize that they don’t have to do the radical innovation themselves: they let others do it for them. They keep a close eye on the market’s new entrants and invest in or simply buy up-and-coming technologies. It’s an approach that UK telecommunications firm Virgin Media, for instance, has been following for the last decade or so, after recognizing that it was no longer the hotbed for innovation it had once been.

Digitally-led, direct-to-consumer and content brands are today’s superstars. ‘Traditional’ marketers need to evolve; to recalibrate what they contribute and how they do it. Many of the traditional strategic planning tools still have a role to play, but they need to be deployed to different ends. Marketers also need to find new ways of demonstrating the power of classic brand building, by developing new measures to evaluate the effectiveness of what they do.

Subscription models have transformed the brand environment. The future is here. Marketing has little option but to sign up.

––– Giles Lury is a senior director at brand consultancy The Value Engineers