I remember about 10 years ago that many people in “the industry” predicted that branding, like several other aspects of business, would die at the hands of the internet.
This idea started when the internet represented a new way of choosing things to buy, where traditional media and retail channels would be overtaken by digital substitutes and people would return to buying products not brands.
The concept experienced a reincarnation of sorts in last few years.
Web 2.0 was going to replace a brand’s reputational promise with transparent user reviews. The Long Tail effect was going to allow niche offers to overtake famous “big hit” brands by allowing buyers to express their true preferences - buying the products they really want, unfettered by production, distribution and communications bottlenecks that have been the traditional battlegrounds for brands in the past.
Well it’s fair to say that brands have survived these pressures. But the practice of branding has been significantly impacted in the process – and not just as a result of the impact of the internet.
It’s also true that while advertising agencies have famously struggled to re-invent themselves – brand consultancies have not always been at the leading edge of innovation in their own practice.
So what are the factors driving change in branding? At FutureBrand we work with renowned futurologist Richard Watson to identify the key macro trends with the most widespread real impacts.
• Changing demographic shapes – tailoring products to the needs of aging populations and the expectations of “digital native” youth
• Global connectivity – the fact that while many people in emerging markets in particular may not have the money or access to brands, their ever increasing exposure to those brands in context of marketing and entertainment shapes their aspirations
• Technology –a range of categories are on the cusp of significant change from technologies in genetics, robotics, nanotechnology and the internet. These will have the effect of shifting their overall value propositions and evidentiary basis for benefits
• Sustainability – this is an issue that’s not going away. Relative to say Europe, much of mainstream Asia remains preoccupied with prosperity rather than sustainability. But consumer niches are growing, and progressive governments and corporates operating in more demanding international environments are starting to offer leadership on this issue
• Emerging economies and Asia – particularly post the global financial crisis, it’s fair to expect that economies and cultures in this part of the world emerge as producers and shapers of brands – not simply large masses of consumers to be exploited
Considering these trends and forces of change that put pressure on brands and the practice of branding, FutureBrand has been giving thought to what makes a ‘future brand’ – a brand that maximizes its long term potential to create business value.
1. It must strive to make people’s lives better.
2. It must do so based upon a future forward view of their category in which their brand, that of the company or organisation and their products and services are driving positive change.
3. Related to this, it must provide an emotional connection to those who are the brand’s greatest advocates or ambassadors, that sets a future brand apart from its more rational or ‘me too’ competitors.
4. And, finally – it must actively understand, manage and appropriately exploit all touch-points at which a consumer or stakeholder interacts with the brand as an organisation, a product or a service. All sensory stimuli are used to connect and differentiate so that the brand values, experience and consumer preference is reinforced and aligned to a brand’s vision.
These characteristics naturally have an impact on the practice of branding in a variety of ways. For example, managing and maximizing touchpoints now means designing great screen-based experiences. Offering compelling emotional connections with brand advocates requires the acceptance of a degree of freedom in customers’ participation with brands, rather than trying to stage “controlled” experiences. So brand management becomes a highly dynamic process of influential interactions with people – not being the logo nazi.
So yes, branding has a future, but its practice is not the same as its past. Brands remain critical assets that drive and deliver ‘value’. As we move into the 21st century, the challenge for marketers and practitioners is to understand how brands can evolve and facilitate growth for the benefit of investors, stakeholders, consumers, customers and employees.
Tim Riches is chief growth officer, Asia Pacific and chief executive officer, Singapore for FutureBrand.