Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Timing is everything

Andrew Walmsley
Andrew Walmsley

Brands are being pulled into real-time communications by consumers' demand for interaction.

The Toyota Production System, often known as Just-In-Time, revolutionised manufacturing. Between World War II and the mid-70s, the Japanese took processes pioneered by Ford in the US and built flexibility and responsiveness into them, improving productivity and, crucially, enabling the production of multiple variants on the same line.

Where Ford's method had relied on standardisation of colours, models and options, Toyota's enabled diversity while slashing inventory costs.

Giant manufacturing plants were turned into hyper-efficient machines, which were quick to respond to change and innovation. One author described it as 'teaching giants to dance'.

Meanwhile, in marketing, little changed. Our product was a single message, communicated via mass media. It was inflexible, had long lead times and was unresponsive to customers' feedback. When digital media came along, we cut some lead times, but delivered our message in the same voice.

While we have improved at targeting discrete messages to different segments, employing digital channels to listen to consumers and using this to shape our communications, we are still too slow - because the web is moving to real-time.

Back in 1999, the development of RSS allowed users to update their websites as soon as the sources of information changed. It was the first in a series of innovations that was to transform the web into a dynamic environment.

Twitter and Facebook put real-time in the hands of consumers. Now, we were sharing with friends what we were doing or thinking in the moment. With Facebook notifying us when friends changed jobs, partners or allegiances, it even changed the nature of conversation; research conducted two years ago indicated that when people in their early-20s got together, the first 10 minutes of the conversation were no longer dominated by 'catching up', before moving on to other topics. They had no need of this phase; they already knew.

Businesses started to pick up on this real-time trend, with Poke's brilliant Albion Bakery Twitter feed notifying its 1700 followers that fresh croissants were just out of the oven - a neat demonstration that you don't have to be a multinational to start a real-time dialogue with your valued customers.

Thousands of businesses now update their customers continuously; but crucially, consumers use real-time media to talk about brands; and they have come to expect an immediate response.

Psychologist Susan Wienschenk believes we are in a 'dopamine-induced loop'. 'Dopamine starts us seeking, then we get rewarded for the seeking, which makes us seek more,' she says. 'It becomes harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, stop checking.'

So consumers who tweet a complaint about a brand's customer service might currently be pleasantly surprised to get a response, but by the end of this year, they will complain bitterly if they don't.

Brands therefore have an opportunity; they can use the technology to meet customers' demands. They can master the real-time environment to steal a march on their competitors.

To do this will take money, resources and skills. The expectation of real-time interaction creates a fundamental shift in the set-piece style of traditional marketing, the economics of which are based on a one-to-many, one-directional and episodic approach.

In its place, dialogue is immediate, low-volume and as much between consumers as between them and the brand. Google is a window on these conversations; loving blogs and forums, exposing the discussions whenever a user searches for a brand.

The era of Just-In-Time marketing has arrived.

Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level

30 SECONDS ON ... THE TOYOTA PRODUCTION SYSTEM AND JUST-IN-TIME

- The Toyota Production System, developed after a delegation from the company visited the US in the 50s, was intended to 'design out' overburden and inconsistency and eliminate waste from the production process, while remaining as flexible as possible.

- Types of waste targeted by the strategy include overproduction, motion and waiting (of machines as well as operators), excessive inventory and corrections - reworking or scrapping items.

- The Just-In-Time (JIT) strategy is based on the concept that it is wasteful, inefficient and expensive for companies to carry large amounts of in-process inventory if they can improve their ROI by bringing stock into the process as necessary.

- The adoption of JIT usually demands significant changes within the organisation, as making exactly the right amount of stock available in the right place at the right time in this way requires excellent communication, efficient production, reliable processes and flexibility.

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