The Future of Brand Building

By Jez Frampton

The last five years have been marked by economic crises, sending businesses running for cover and searching for answers. The immediate response for many was to attack the “supply-side”: trim the supply chain, seek internal efficiency, and attack costs. But the brutal truth is that in recessionary times competition becomes even more intense, and this strategy has diminishing returns. Five years in, the mantra is shifting towards the demand side of the equation.

Driven by ever more demanding customers, pushed by emerging market competitors, and inspired by companies like Apple, many businesses are re-discovering the power of creativity and design, increasing investment in innovation, and trying to better understand how brands drive their business. In short, we are entering a new age of demand; no longer about latent, passive consumption, but about dynamic, connected, and active markets that drive competition and, ultimately, success.

Given this, we believe brands will play an increasingly important role. Over a decade ago, The Financial Times classed brands as the ultimate source of sustainable, competitive advantage. This August, The Economist stated that branded businesses enjoy margins double that of their counterparts, with greater levels of loyalty. It’s clear that in this increasingly competitive world, well managed brands drive profits, so it’s logical to expect greater degrees of innovation, sophistication, creativity, understanding, and, of course, accountability to a forensic level of sensitivity.

The rise of the conversation

One of the biggest challenges facing the marketing world over the next 10 years will be the increasing importance of the conversation. The Cluetrain Manifesto (Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger, 2000) defined markets as conversations between companies and customers — a conversation that has since expanded between customers.

At Interbrand, we see interactivity among customers and business shifting B2B and B2C toward B&B and B&C. This presents new possibilities for brand building via innovation, interactive experiences, and communication inside and out.

The rise of social truly changes communications — more dynamic, and one-on-one customer interactions are becoming possible by combining “big data” with key developments in artificial intelligence (AI). This accelerates the dynamic nature of advertising on the Web; conversations are now “managed” via a combination of AI and human inputs.

But do all these conversations mean the end of image building? Recently, a high profile tech CMO asked me if we needed brand positioning in a world where opinion shifted from minute to minute. My answer pointed to the importance of context. Every message from a brand is viewed in the context of that brand: its market position, personality, values, competitive stance, etc. In other words, it shapes the way we interpret the message, and in a world where our communication with brands is increasing exponentially, a clearly defined brand becomes even more important.

Choice is changing

Recent papers published by McKinsey in the Harvard Business Review, and by Interbrand in Fast Company, illustrate that the two key drivers of brand value, choice (role of brand) and loyalty (brand strength), are both significantly affected by the post-digital world. Purchase decisions are becoming more fluid, better informed, and dynamic. There is always someone a “step ahead” of you, and easy access to other user experiences and long-term opinions affects the assumptions of loyalty. Both of these trends provide significant opportunities for marketers, and brand experience holds the key to maximizing the opportunities.

Holistic — the new mantra

We believe that great brands are “business strategy brought to life” delivering a seamless experience across product and service, physical spaces and places, internal culture and communications. Companies like Apple have already set customer expectations and it doesn’t matter if you are a bank, a business consultancy, a retailer, or a hotel chain, the message is simple: Join up!

Whilst the solution may seem simple, sadly, the barriers frequently come from within: silo mentalities and politics. The opportunity is to deliver seamless experiences across the silos, combined with creative curation to ensure high quality and innovative expression. The role of digital experiences within this holistic world cannot be underestimated, and it seems clear that the potential of digital to augment, extend, and create whole new interactions will continue to shape companies.

The primary role for digital is to act as the glue, both joining together the many fragmented elements of an experience chain, and providing a basis for on-going communications and interactions with customers. Despite the fact that digital should become central to building relationships with customers, many businesses still treat it as a promotional or idea-generating tool, rather than a means to enhance, augment or create new ways to interact.

Digital permission

Seth Godin pioneered “Permission Marketing,” a shorthand for understanding the boundaries for brands in a world where customers are in control. We believe the next step along this curve will be the notion of digital permission: the granting of rights by customers within the digital world.

Remarkably, Levi’s saw this coming a full 13 years ago. They created a fitting process involving a laser body-scan to create personalized jeans. The core idea, however gimmicky the execution, was groundbreaking: that one could have a truly digital self. My digital me: a perfect scan of my physical being fused with attitudes, purchasing behavior, likes, dislikes, interests, even connected to my everexpanding social network.

These aggregated images (made possible by big data, superfast networks and artificial intelligence) could create a whole new world of marketing for us to explore, where my digital me would browse for me, bring things for me to see, explore social opportunities, and save me from ever having to go and buy socks again.

This may well still be a leap, but the cost/ benefits are worth considering. Consumer trends point to greater reliance on the Web, and we all have busy lives nowadays! Why not delegate a little (or a lot) to a digital self? The technology is already in existence and the possibilities for marketing are endless.

Certainly all of the above trends and conjectures point to incredible opportunities for those building brands, through communications or otherwise. They also pose significant threats: can brand owners change their structures and behavior towards faster, flexible, more holistic ways of working, reducing silos and increasing innovation? Can agencies and consultancies adapt their skills to personalized, dynamic demand management, with a heavy emphasis on digital, crowdsourcing, and creative curation?

One thing is certain: within this complex world, the focus provided by a well-defined and executed brand will become ever more important as internal/external beacons of direction, purpose, value-creations, and experience.