This AMA is an abridged recap of a session from our private community.
Delbert Ty looks after marketing at Circles.Life, a digital telco founded in Singapore that’s since expanded into Taiwan and Australia. As a challenger brand in a competitive industry, Circles.Life has built its reputation partly through a steady stream of headline-stealing, buzzy campaigns.
In his AMA, Delbert’s talks through their creative process, how to connect “awareness” to business results, how to think about launching multiple markets, and more.
Keep reading for Delbert’s insights on:
- How to convince your CFO to fund PR stunts
- How to get a quick read on you vs your competitors
- How to manage brand & performance spend during crises like Covid
What does the internal process look like when you’re brainstorming a PR stunt?
First off, you have to understand that when it comes to the crazy things we do, it’s a function of necessity.
Think about it: we’ll never outspend our giant competitors, and therefore if we want to stand out, it’s necessary for us to be different and do unorthodox campaigns.
It starts with an internal brainstorm that’s pretty standard. We do rapid fire ideation, throwing out random ideas and populating a list that we collaborate on. People build on each other’s ideas. Then we start diverging. We select the best ideas, then do breakouts: each group fleshes out one of the ideas and imagines executional complexity, what could go wrong, etc. Post that, we regroup and select the ones we’re most excited about. Finally, we score the ideas through the lens of brand-character fit, discussion worthiness, and linkage to strategic initiatives.
We also think about testing and quantifying the potential impact of concepts and ideas. There’s nuance here though. Lots of things that can be thought of as “crazy” … some of those can be measured, but for others, it’s a waste of time to try.
For example: let’s say we want to test a purely voice activated website. No words. No buttons. Sounds crazy right?
Well, we could potentially test this and be able to see the impact: we would split the audience, funnel some to the test and some to a control. Then have a measure comparing something like the number of orders placed within X hours or X day.
We’ve also tried to validate ideas by testing them “in the wild.” One weird way that we were able to get feedback on one of our crazy ideas was by posting it anonymously on sites like Reddit or 9gag, etc, but not branded as Circles.Life … we would just post it and look at engagement and meme-worthiness.
So, you can have crazy ideas. And you can make them seem less crazy by thinking about how to validate and test them. But some ideas we cannot and should not test.
For example, the Circles.Life $50 cash machine, vandalising billboards, the statue of a finger, etc.
In these cases, at best, what we try to do is expose this idea to advisors internally and externally to get a POV. We just have to have conviction in our judgment and get feedback from people we trust.
After all, at the end of the day we have made a strategic choice to be bold and stand out.
How do you connect brand awareness investments to revenue? For example, how might you explain or report the success to your CFO?
In summary, brand awareness brings down CAC.
The way we look at brand awareness can be justified through the following flow:
This is just one way. We measure impact from a data standpoint too. We look at trends in branded search volume. We see our brand SEM campaign impressions going up, we see higher conversions from that brand SEM campaign, and again all this leads to lower overall CAC.
For stuff that is crazy and therefore hard to do the bottoms-up math on, like I mentioned before – we don’t even attempt to.
We are also comfortable with an approach where if we spend $X on top funnel with a $Y CPM then we should get Z impressions. Then based on historical data, we know these impressions translate into some meaningful action.
How do you do “market diagnosis” to measure where your brand stands vs your competition?
We have a recurring AIDA (Awareness, Intent, Desire, Action) tracker that gives us 2x a month read on what’s going on for us as well as our competition. The challenge here is less around measuring and tracking, but more about translating that into action — or deciding to not take any action at all.
This costs us around $2-$3K USD per month for around 300-500 base survey. Quick tip: to get costs down go with the actual survey production companies, vs. research companies like Nielsen, TNS, etc
When Covid hit in 2020, how did you manage balancing investments between brand and performance spend?
Let me start off by saying – we didn’t do it the best. I can say this as I would have approached things differently if I could go back in time. So let me start off with our imperfect approach.
Our spends are essentially bucketed into top funnel, mid funnel, bottom funnel. This is not novel in any way, but it allows for some seemingly easy decisions to be made. Now I say “seemingly” because the impact of TOFU and MOFU is not as clearly understood as BOFU.
Hence, a linear take on this issue is to just cut and/or reduce TOFU and MOFU, since when you’re comparing based on CPAs, those spends are always going to “lose.” This is essentially what we did in 2020, and I think this is the action most companies took in the face of so much uncertainty in the market, and what felt like a lot of time pressure to do something quickly.
The result here was while we were able to maintain our growth, brand health metrics like unaided awareness suffered.
So, in hindsight I would’ve loved to take a more nuanced approach to this challenge. If I had a time machine, I would have reduced brand spends only to a certain level that was sufficient to maintain the health of those awareness metrics.
Essentially, instead of just chopping off TOFU and MOFU with a blunt instrument, we could’ve tried solving for the right mix of spend and channels to translate into the most bang for buck and connection with our target audience.
When Circles.Life launches in new markets, do you follow the same launch process as when you first debuted in Singapore?
With each launch, we follow a playbook to maintain a level of executional consistency across markets, For instance, our back-end systems would be the same across countries to allow for a faster rollout. We’ll use the same CMS stack. We’ll use the same strategic frameworks for brand building.
But more importantly, each launch has to take unique elements of that country into account. Our approach to that country depends on how we view the market situation and customer expectations.
What this means is that the launch process is not just a checklist of promotional activities that you do. It begins earlier than that and we have to think about how we can successfully compete in that country based on the landscape. We have to think about product changes as well.
An example of this is Taiwan. It’s a 100% unlimited data market where telcos are only competing on price. Everyone pretty much offers an unlimited data plan with a limited data option as a cheaper alternative.
So when thinking about launching in Taiwan, we have to find another angle, and we chose to compete on a superior experience.
Once we figure that out, we then build out the promotions and launch strategy.
Can you tell us about campaigns or initiatives that failed, and what you learned from those experiences?
At a high level, when things have failed, the culprit is usually our insufficient vetting of the bottoms-up assumptions.
For example, one campaign I really love, and which I hope to try again one day, was our campaign on liberating people from their telco contracts through a crowdfunding page. The gist of it is that we’ll pay — along with other people globally — for people to get out of their telco contracts.
Looking back, we could’ve seen that the assumptions don’t work out.
The reach for it was insufficient to have driven proper traction. We didn’t invest in the right amount of reach for it to get into its own momentum. In hindsight, we should have looked at the channel distribution mix and investment necessary to get to a certain threshold of reach which could give it a chance to snowball into something.
Another “failure” is when we launched $3 Unlimited Data per day. I call it “failure” because a lot of people think of it as a successful launch which caused a lot of awareness for the brand, which it did.
However, the intention there was to drive a significant bump of new customer signups. Instead, what we found was that new potential customers were just confused! People who were not aware of how a digital telco works couldn’t understand how something like daily on/off unlimited data was possible.
In contrast, our existing customer base totally saw the value and understood exactly how it worked.
Even though the campaign still drove significant revenue, we failed here because we made incorrect assumptions in the user journey, and we also didn’t sufficiently vet the concept to ensure clarity for the target audience we were trying to hit.
Delbert Ty is responsible for developing the marketing and business strategies to drive growth at Circles.Life. With 10 years of experience, starting at P&G, Delbert has been creating brand value and business growth for billion-dollar brands like Tide, Duracell and Pantene across Asia. His experience has been enhanced beyond marketing as he led the separation of Duracell from P&G and created a new go-to-market strategy for Asia Duracell. Connect with Delbert here.