Steve Walker was recently named global head of marketing at Sony Ericsson, after serving as acting head of marketing for the past five months. Based in the UK, Walker has been with Sony Ericsson since the mobile joint venture launched in 2001, working in various marketing and product planning roles. Here, he tells the Holmes Report how the need for continuous conversation is eroding the traditional importance of the big product launch, and discusses why communities are attracting Sony Ericsson’s attention.

How do you see your budget allocations changing this year, with digital and social media in mind?

We see budgets changing in 2 ways. The channel mix we are seeing is moving to a more digitally-led media mix. Also, what we see is more of what we call always-on marketing - much more continuous engagement. So we also see a flatter spend profile. Whereas we used to have enormous campaigns at the time of launch, now we see much more continuous engagement, which means continuous spend. Whereas you might say digital was less than 10 percent, now typically it’s more than a third.

How much of a challenge is this shift to “always-on marketing”?

It’s now without its challenges, absolutely. It’s interesting, because within the mobile business, the people who predominantly buy handsets from us are mobile operators. And they are very used to lifecycle management of their customer, the consumer. We, on the other hand, are selling a handset - so in the past we have lived on the reputation of the big launch, the big hero model. And then in the next three months another one will come along. These days we really recognise the need to create consumer loyalty. We are looking to get continuous consumer loyalty such that the consumer who has bought the handset from Sony Ericsson will come back to us once more. It’s a different mindset to generating loyalty and retention programmes are becoming more prevalent.

We’re also learning that as we move to a different operating system, where consumers can upgrade their phones themselves, there’s a need for us to continuously talk to consumers. Encourage them to upgrade their phone and get new features. It’s a challenge for marketers that were used to these major milestones. Now there is a milestone every week.

What does all this mean for the tone of your communications?

We find communications these days is as much about listening as talking. We invest a lot of time in product vox, where we are investing in two-way dialogue with consumers. Some very strong feelings are expressed towards our products, both positive and negative. Whereas in the past we might have engaged with 100, 200 or 500 consumers, now we engage with millions every single day. We can’t just tell them what to think, we need to listen to them and we need them to participate as well. That is the beauty of the mobile phone as a product category - because what you see is a blurring of the product and the means of communicating the product as well. We use Facebook as a primary communications channel and one of the things we sell on the phone is Facebook as well.

Have these changes in your marketing model also altered the types of agencies you work with?

To a certain extent it has. Obviously, the strongest agency relationships we have these days are agencies that really understand both the digital and traditional channels. Now we tend to see more multi-service agencies where digital is really at the heart of what they offer us. It’s really about digital engagement at the heart of the campaign - not just in terms of digitally-led comms but in terms of really understanding our need to generate active participation from consumers. We’re really looking for agencies to help us build those platforms.

With that in mind, do you think PR and marketing should be totally integrated?

It absolutely makes sense for them to work closely together. Whether they should be integrated is a different matter. We find the most effective way to work is in a network style - so a typical campaign could be created in one market, it could be shared regionally, it could crossover into another part of the world. By working in that style we can be fast and effective. What we see is marketing and PR resources working in this network way. For example, over the past year we’ve had product PR resources embedded into the marketing team. Our typical earned media engagement unit is staffed by both marketing and PR teams. What we particularly see is our local market teams - which are quite small - typically seeing one individual covering both marketing and PR.

You’re making a big push into gaming, with Xperia. How do you need to change your engagement strategies to target these consumers?

Sony Ericsson’s core product offer has always been advanced phones with an entertainment flavour. These days its very much a smartphone as the base with an entertainment concept on top. Nowadays, its about putting that gaming aspect on top. Its also joining communities together. In the US we’re doing a lot of work with Major League Gaming, which is a semi-pro network of people who play video games as their job. That’s a community that existed in its own right, but was not connected to the smartphone community. We’re going to see this more and more, working with communities.