The following is a collaboration with BLOCK71 SE Asia Booster, an immersion program to help startup founders in Southeast Asia scale with insights and strategic market connections.
In recent times, telcos have never been the epitome of ‘cool’ when it comes to brand positioning. Because there are usually only a couple dominant telco players in each market, they usually don't have much incentive to innovate or provide a stellar customer experience.
This means it’s rare for customers to get truly excited about a telecoms brand. At least this much is true according to Delbert Ty, head of marketing at Singapore-based digital telco Circles.Life.
Circles.Life is on a mission "to bring power back to the consumers," explains Delbert. Launched in 2016, the company offers no-contract mobile carrier plans with fully digital support.
While this is the norm in many developing nations, the approach is considered novel in developed markets like Singapore, as incumbent telcos tend to lock customers into 12- to 24-month contracts and provide SIM cards and customer service at offline branches. With Circles.Life, customers can instead buy a SIM card online and pay as they go. They can take comfort in knowing that the amount they spend on mobile fees is in sync with the data and minutes they actually use.
In 2019, Circles.Life claimed to have reached a 5% market share in Singapore. The company then expanded to Taiwan and Australia that same year.
On top of simple and unique offerings, Circles.Life's marketing efforts have injected a breath of fresh air into the regional telco space. The company has consistently created viral campaigns that get the public talking.
For example, the brand made waves during its 2016 launch by involving influencers who vandalized what seemed to be a new telco's outdoor ads offering 3GB data for S$40 (which was the norm back then). The campaign sparked conversations that the offering was indeed nothing special and garnered media coverage about Circles.Life’s new data plan (20GB for S$20) after the brand unveiled itself as the one behind this stunt.
Viral campaigns get folks talking about your brand
When done correctly, viral marketing can significantly increase brand awareness. People will Google the brand responsible for interesting campaigns and visit the website. This, in turn, can help the company retarget them later on using paid ads. Generally speaking, retargeting campaigns cost less than those that aim to bring in new visitors. As a result, this helps to bring the customer acquisition cost (CAC) down.
Higher awareness should also help increase a brand’s overall search volume on Google. Ideally, this will help increase SEM impressions and bring CAC costs down even further. According to Delbert, these tactics can apply to any industry, whether it’s B2C and B2B.
"Be clear with your strategy, message, creative material, and plan,” says Delbert. “They all have to have in clear linear sync -- meaning 'this therefore that.’ When it comes to execution, you should be able to explain this to any layperson.”
In the case of Circles.Life's vandalism campaign, the idea was about waking people up to the reality that what incumbent telcos offer is -- quite simply -- not good. Instead of just showing a 'brand A vs brand B' message, the team brought to life the sentiment of customer dissatisfaction through faux vandalism.
Circles.Life announced its largest no-contract data plan in this campaign, which was 20GB for S$20. This was an outsized improvement from the 3GB for S$40 commonly offered by other local telcos at the time.
Viral campaigns should evoke strong, visceral emotions
The core component of viral marketing is actually not so different from regular marketing. Practitioners need to have a strategy, a target audience they want to reach, a clear message they want to convey, a creative idea, and a plan that stitches it all together coherently.
"The only thing that sets what we've done apart is the creative idea. We think of the Nth level extreme of what can elicit a visceral and emotional response," says Delbert. "This usually takes into account culture and local norms, as what gets a strong response in one market could very well fall flat in another. But there’s also a flip side. Something that gets the appropriate emotional response in one market might end up being way over the top in another."
In the case of Circles.Life's vandalism campaign, Delbert believes the strategy might not work in a country where vandalism is more common (in Singapore, there is very little vandalism). So it's essential for marketers to fully understand each target market's culture. According to him, culture is the vehicle in which a company's ideas can be distributed.
To find viral campaign ideas, the team does rapid-fire brainstorming sessions to populate a list of ideas. The team discusses trending topics, perennially hot topics, and tries to explore which ones sync well with the brand’s strategy and messaging.
Delbert notes that marketers should always try questioning the premise. He asks, "Why are certain things done the way they are? Why is this the right channel? Why should we be liked as a brand? Through this line of questioning, you'll unearth the weirdest, wackiest ideas that will help you drive distinction.”
To objectively assess whether an idea has a strong score in "discussion worthiness," Delbert’s team will check Google Trends and Twitter to see what’s actually trending. Another avenue is to look at media mentions via various tracking tools such as Google Alerts and BrandWatch.
"Lastly, we've also explored doing 'fake door' tests on ideas by creating meme versions of the concepts and posting them on social media organically. Based on the upvotes and likes, we're able to assess its discussion worthiness," adds the marketer.
How to handle mystery brand reveals
Several of Circles.Life's publicity stunts have been kept unbranded initially, with the brand then revealing itself later on to spark interest. This is designed to explore whether the team can achieve greater virality if the campaign is perceived as ‘organic’ by the public -- rather than an advertisement.
In Australia, the team decided to do a fake print ad of a scorned lover breaking up with her partner on a major publication. This stunt generated several media pickups, including one from world-renowned tabloid Daily Mail.
As a former Procter & Gamble marketer, Delbert shares that he uses Pantene's playbook for mystery brand reveal activities. He emphasizes the importance of providing a clear narrative that follows each initial mystery.
For the Australian fake ad stunt, the team followed it up with another print ad. It revealed how this disenchanted lover was actually breaking up with her telco and that Circles.Life is here for her now.
Delbert explains, "This continuity in narrative makes it easy for the audience to recall the previous coverage and we eventually are able to drive the user’s journey back to our brand.”
That said, some stunts don't need to be mysterious at all. For example, earlier this year, the telco created a S$20,000 lottery for families who, for some reason, are not eligible for housing benefits or loans from the government. The stunt was introduced as part of its new family plan launch.
Delbert adds, "Even though we knew it would ruffle feathers, it only made sense if we put our name on it. In this case, we believed that because we were making a stand, literally putting our money where our mouth is, and most importantly, not selling anything, we'd be able to achieve the cut-through we wanted."
He reminds fellow marketers to make sure that there is a reason why they're not revealing a brand during bold marketing stunts. Further, each stunt should be carefully orchestrated not to contradict the creative idea. Lastly, practitioners should be mindful that this is a tactic. Tactics don't work indefinitely and they certainly don't work if the strategy is wrong.
He explains, “Our approach here is that with risky bets like stunts and viral activities, there is an inherently low chance of success. So, no matter how creative you and your team are, you'll never have a greater than 50% hit rate.”
Because of this dynamic, Circles.Life’s marketing team hedges the risk by spending less than 20% of their time and money on publicity stunts. This allows them to be braver and not worry about the cost of failure. They spend the majority of the budget on more traditional and reliable channels that are easily trackable, like performance marketing.
Delbert says, "Don't be afraid to fail. Failure is okay, so long as you have a contingency if it does happen.”
Delbert Ty is a BLOCK71 SE Asia Booster mentor. Learn more about Branding for selected startups by joining the program; Cohort 2 begins September 6, 2021.