In a part of the world where television plays no major role and other mass media falls short, mobile devices have become the king of communication. Employing mobile devices as a tool and a methodology to learn about their uses was the goal of a unique program for executives who traveled from Africa to Indiana last summer.
An Indiana University business school alumnus saw an opportunity to demonstrate his pride in his alma mater to his company's upper-level executives as well as expose them to a unique learning opportunity on IU's Bloomington campus through a four-day program developed by Kelley Executive Partners (KEP). Curt Ferguson, president of Coca-Cola for North and West Africa, brought key team members to southern Indiana over the summer to take part in a customized learning event that was designed to introduce the executives to cutting-edge marketing tools and build team cohesion.
Selling Coke's wide array of brands to a geographically diverse region that is often short on strong marketing tools presents unique challenges. While KEP could have offered any number of classroom-based case studies or other traditional lessons to the group, the executive education program gave the visiting executives a taste of what it was like to be on the consumer end of the messaging.
Ferguson's team members are geographically dispersed. They were interested in new technology and strategies to allow them to communicate better. Coke faces a unique marketing challenge in the region, despite its worldwide iconic image. Consumers like the brand, but it is very difficult to communicate with that market; television has little impact, and computers are rare. Social media was seen as an option, but when people don't have computers there is an obvious roadblock. The solution became mobile devices - cell phones and PDAs.
"The Kelley Executives Partners' program introduced us to new technology that young people are quickly adopting, and that we need to leverage to communicate effectively with consumers," says Ferguson. "Despite the perception, African consumers are using these technologies. And those who are not using them aspire to do so. These are innovative communication tools that we need to understand and apply across all of our business functions, not simply in marketing."
Research showed that in the region there is a ratio of 20 mobile devices to every computer, and the users are highly literate with their devices. "Consumers in Africa are extremely connected through their mobile telephones," adds Ferguson. "With relatively low fixed-line telephone penetration, mobile telephones have become a key communication technology, and one that offers a strong, personal connection to a consumer."
"We immediately knew the solution had to be a game," explains Sarah Robbins, KEP's director of emerging technologies. "Alternate Reality Games are the most extreme application of the mobile advertising spectrum. They are the most participatory, and they use a lot of different technologies.
The consumer has a choice about what is available to him and how he participates. You are talking about a very personal type of marketing. The brand marketer is literally sending something to the consumer's pocket. It's difficult to ignore."
The game was part treasure hunt, part puzzle as teams used clues and input from people they met on a trek that took them to all corners of the Bloomington campus. One quest was to touch every statue of a person. During one team's visit to the statue of songwriter Hoagy Carmichael, a Coke truck rolled down the street to make a delivery at a nearby building. The team was convinced it was staged. "But that is part of the uncontrolled, unpredictable part of this sort of thing," says Robbins. "It's that sort of thing that makes it work. Alternate Reality Games are a bleeding-edge method to engage customers in a brand in a genuine way that associates the product with a positive experience shared with other consumers.
"The game allowed the Coke participants to reflect on their strategies as a team. They could cooperate or compete. They could allow one person to do all the work or share the burden based on their skills," explains Robbins. "We also were able to illuminate some of the cultural differences in the team members and how those differences enhanced and complicated their work. We wanted to let them play the game the way they wanted, but we could also pause it and reflect on how they worked as a team. How they played the game was as important as the game itself.
"The game was an extreme experience with the technology," adds Robbins. "It was an introduction to a marketing technique and a team building exercise at the same time. The game mechanics helped with that. These executives don't meet or get together very often, but at the same time they need to know each other and work together closely. And they need to understand how they work as a group."
Every team member was supplied with an iTouch, which, on campus with its WiFi coverage, worked as a cell phone with pre-installed applications such as Skype and accounts already established. Players were given a card with the phone numbers of their team members, as well as needed account information and passwords.
"The team building game was an effective way of having senior members of my management team interact firsthand with this new innovative technology," said Ferguson. "My team members are always ready for a challenge. "We have a diverse group of executives from different countries, and their participation provided interesting [lessons] about how the game can be used in different cultures."
Ferguson says that his team, which included members from Tunis, Casablanca, Cairo, Lagos, and other locations, was enthusiastic, but just a little leery about coming to Indiana. "Frankly, some of them were skeptical about coming to Indiana," he says. "Most of the non-Americans had never been to the state or the university previously. However, after seeing the resources available at the school and witnessing Kelley's academic expertise, they understood that this was a valuable learning opportunity for them."
A tech person accompanied each team all day, and all of the activities were monitored. "At night they were tweeting each other, planning the next day, forwarding links, and reading clues," says Robbins. "We didn't ask them to do that. They were meeting early to compare notes. That told us they were totally immersed in the game, and they couldn't help but learn what we wanted them to learn. They didn't sit back and expect us to just tell them what they needed to know. They were really engaged."