Maxis' Tai Kam Leong: Oversimplified marketing is dehumanising

Brands today have gotten into the habit of oversimplifying information and such behaviour has its detriments. Tai Kam Leong (pictured), head of brand and marketing at Malaysian telco Maxis, said during the recent Spotify Audio Amplified 2020 that oversimplying is "dehumanising" because it runs the risk of individuals jumping to conclusions.

"It gets us hooked, much like junk food which is tasty and entertaining. But it also leaves very little room for interpretation," he said. Tai explained that both brands and consumers nowadays view the world in binaries - black and white, good or bad, right or wrong. As such, there is very little room for conversation or nuanced understanding of narratives, stories or meaning.

If we start thinking about the world as binary and there is no grey area in between, we are forced to pick camps.

"The room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation is hugely large and the implication for marketers is huge," he added.

According to him, marketers spend time focusing on whether their initiatives will be a hit or miss, the same way information is oversimplified and processed. In the pursuit of efficiency, marketers have "lost patience and cannot reap the benefits of a nuanced conversation," Tai said, adding that everything has to be a hit quickly, or liked and shared instantly, otherwise it is a no go and brands will move on to the next big thing.

The use of audio

Tai added new rising avenues such as audio could play a part in changing this behaviour given "sound has the amazing potential" to shape stories not only in how they are told but also the meaning behind it. This is also done in a relatively short period of time without running the risk of oversimplying messages or narratives.

For this year's Hari Raya, Maxis first launched an 8D audio as a teaser for its festive video. An 8D audio means that the sound includes spacial reverb and mixing that seems like the audio is moving in a circle around one's head. Tai explained that when consumers heard the audio for the first time, many thought of it as a happy occasion. "But in times of the pandemic, there is a different interpretation of what a festive occasion is and this is where nuances come in," Tai said.

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A few days later, Maxis released the full film where the audio is juxtaposed against the images, consumers are then able to see the full picture of the challenges that individuals face and situations of the underprivileged.

"When you juxtapose the audio against the narrative, you have a different feeling. You might feel partially guilty and sympathetic. Through this campaign, we were hoping to convey feelings of gratitude and remind consumers to count their own blessings. This campaign, more than anything I think in recent memory, showcased the ability of audio to really shape stories," Tai said.

If we take advantage of audio, we can make our storytelling a lot more richer and nuanced rather than oversimplifying it when we chase efficiency.

Besides using audio to add more nuance to a brand's storytelling, Tai pointed out that sentiments are also shaped by sound. When brands move way from viewing audio as just a background track or a trivial sound effect, only then can they truly immerse consumers and society in general in more nuanced conversations and real storytelling.

"People find a lot of hype in talking about the death of something. We used to talk about the death of long form, such as storytelling or copywriting. However, there is an opportunity to use audio to make brands and brand storytelling emerge again and be important," he explained.

Macro trends in the age of streaming audio

More than just a background track, audio has the ability to showcase moods, moments and mindsets, allowing brands to understand how consumers think, behave and feel. Spotify's recent "Culture Next" study, which surveyed about 2,500 Millennials and Gen Zs in Southeast Asia as well as artists and creators, revealed several macro trends that brands can keep an eye on.

1. Band of others

The purpose driven Millennials and Gen Zs are creating micro-communities made of self-forming tribes that celebrate the same micro-cultures, fringe fashion and social causes. Majority of those surveyed (81%) believe that music allows people to connect with each other and other cultures, while 60% say they are friends with someone from a different country online.

According Spotify’s head of marketing, Asia, Jan-Paul Jeffrey, these groups are forging bonds beyond social media to incite changes and push the boundaries of belonging. He explained that one such example is Kpop, which first started as a microgenre but has now exploded worldwide.

2. Polyfly

Pop culture has gone political, with politics and activism becoming unavoidable. According to Jeffrey, the intersection of these worlds is hardly new, as politics has long been a thread in entertainment. However, recent watershed events have marked an inflection point worldwide. About 79% of Gen Zs and Millennials surveyed expect brands to promote more progressive values and play a more meaningful role in society, while 56% say they have to be less complacent and stand up for what they believe in.

An example of pop culture and politics intersecting is Childish Gambino's song "This is America", which had a 3,000% spike in plays in June. Jeffrey explained that 55% of those surveyed are constantly stressed about the state of the world and as such, it is crucial to understand their state of mind and how brands will be perceived in terms of the values they present that are important to the younger generation.

3. All the feels

Jeffrey explained that there is a palpable strain of melancholy running through culture today that Millennials and Gen Zs are openly addressing. Not only are they deeply aware, but they take proactive steps to address mental wellness and express their feelings. According to the study, 61% said their generation finds camaraderie in sharing deep feelings, including feelings of sadness or loneliness, while 65% believe brands should convey messaging of moral support and show they understand consumers' struggles.

According to Jeffrey, the total streams across Southeast Asia for sleep, calm, sad and emo moments in the first quarter of 2020 grew by 60% compared to the same quarter last year.

4. Social distancing causing individuals to spend more time indoors

Every day is a Sunday in terms of consumption. Jeffrey explained that individuals are listening for productivity and on a mix of devices such as game console, TV, desktop, speaker and cars. Commute is no longer a moment that is significant anymore as people are listening across connected devices, he added.

5. Surround sound

About 43% of the younger generation surveyed said they like to use voice activation for things they used to find through visual media. According to him, 92% of Millennials and GEn Zs are streaming few times a week, with 40% listening to podcasts at least once a week. Also, the younger generation is suffering from screen burnout and fatigue. WIth too much visual stimulation, Jeffrey said audio is a nice escape.

"Before the pandemic, driving, commuting, exercising and running were some of the top moments which Gen Zs and Millennials were streaming music," he said. However, there has been a shift in listening habits. In fact, there is now a reduced consumption of music during those periods and an uplift in listening while working from home, gaming, shopping and doing household chores.

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