By the year 2020, roughly 30 billion devices will be connected to the internet , more than half of the world’s population will be online , and approximately 60 percent will be living in urban areas . The continuing digitization, globalization, and urbanization will shape our economies for years to come. Meanwhile, some of today’s most advanced companies will be displaced by emerging market superpowers: It’s predicted that half of the S&P 500 companies will be replaced in the next 10 years .
Progress is not a given in this swiftly changing world and individuals and organizations alike must keep up with the accelerating Speed of Life. There are some distinct challenges presented in this new era that require a different set of paradigms. Let’s look at what those challenges are, and retrace our steps to figure out how the branding paradigm might become an even more important tool for any organization to navigate the future successfully.
Today we produce as much information in two days as we did from the beginning of mankind up through 2003, opening up a sea of new opportunities for many organizations. However, with this, the number of choices we are forced to make as individuals on a daily basis continues to increase. While this pattern has existed for quite a while already, one thing that hasn’t changed is that we have limited time, capacity, and resources to process information. On average, a human being absorbs approximately 11,000,000 bits per second through his or her senses. However, our capacity to process this information and translate it into rational thinking is limited to approximately 50 to 100 bits per second .
Too many choices means too many decisions to make. This can be overwhelming, at its worst to a degree that leads to no decision at all: standstill. If not to this extreme, too much choice often leads to dissatisfaction with the decision we end up making, as expectations that are piled up throughout the lengthy decision-making process aren’t actually met at the end.
The proliferation of information can be a force of acceleration as well as of resistance behind the evolution of humanity and our culture. And even though we all praise the great opportunities that so-called big data might bring, we’re not yet always aware of what can help us deal with the quantity of data produced, saved, and delivered—to ensure it remains an accelerator of our culture rather than the beginning of its end.
Let’s take a step back and explore how we started a long time ago to build the foundation of what is required today, more than ever, and learn what is needed to succeed and grow in today’s changing world.
THE STRUGGLE TO RISE BEYOND “THE SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST”
Historically, as human beings strive to grow and evolve, we aim to be perceived stronger and more attractive, to find the best partner in order to secure the existence of our kind. “The survival of the fittest” was, for generations, the main mechanism of life.
For a long time, it was enough to fight a battle or two, to mark one’s territory or claim leadership, and spread the word through the village to ensure you were seen and heard. For most people, the world was rather small, and everyone knew everyone. But times have changed, and our worlds are growing ever larger.
A single assertion of power, or an expressed claim of leadership has lost its impact and meaning—and spreading word throughout the village isn’t sufficient any longer to be seen and heard. The way we form relationships, create communities, and institute change is drastically different.
While we still thrive to be stronger and better, to be seen and heard, to be more attractive, evolve, and grow, our tactics have changed—we have started to adapt to the changing environment.
EMERGENCE OF A NEW PARADIGM
From the birth of civilization to today, as the ways and distances across which we trade and share goods and information became more diversified, people started using signs and symbols as both marks of ownership and as means of communication.
Early tribes marked their dwellings and faces with shared symbols to express unity and convey stories to others and the next generations. From the Mesopotamians to Ancient Egyptians, members of the Shang Dynasty and on, civilizations across the globe relied on symbols to document glorious achievements and record holy tales. And somewhere around 1000 BC, symbols began being used by merchants in various places around the world to mark their pottery or glass work and brand their livestock as they got sold and traded over ever-greater distances.
Today, we use signs and symbols to a greater extent than ever before to communicate with each other in an emerging global language across geographies and cultures, as well as to equip ourselves with signs of strength, wealth, health, and status.
THE RISING RELEVANCE OF OUR QUEST TO BELONG
In a world that has increased in speed and quantities at an unprecedented pace, we seek to be associated with groups that use these signs and symbols as a means to express and identify themselves, to stand out and stand apart, to define who they are in what increasingly becomes one global village.
We want to become part of those groups, to leverage their perception of strength for our own advantage and personal growth, to communicate who we are or who we one day want to be.
Besides gaining an advantage through shared perception of strength, we also gain collective power to effect change. As we come together in groups that share a common something, we increase our chances of achievement. This could be through sharing a time-limited goal such as playing and winning a game of soccer, or a set of common values that leads to something greater and longer lasting, such as the construction of a new cathedral or the revolution of a political system.
What arises when we come together in groups that share a common something is trust. And trust is a powerful force, for both individuals and organizations.
When we’re surrounded by the ones that share our values and beliefs—such as our families, our teams, our co-workers, or club members—we take more risks, we try more things, we go further and try harder. Why?
Because we trust that those around us will pick us up if we fall; help us out if we fail trying something new; support us as we continue learning, adapting, and growing. We know that only together do we have the strength to achieve our goals and ultimately succeed. Only together were we able to build skyscrapers and bridges, cross the oceans, construct rocket ships, and travel to the moon.
Even though we constantly compete, driven by our quest to survive and by our inherent desire to be perceived as the fittest, we more than ever strive to belong.
We have started to realize that this is the most effective means to our ends and that the whole is actually greater than the sum of its parts. We share information, goods, and spaces to travel further together than we would ever be able to alone.
In today’s hyper-connected, but at the same time highly anonymous world, every human being wants to belong. Belong somewhere, to something; belong to a family, to a partner, to a team, to a company, to a nation, to a cause or belief. Belonging breeds strength and personal fulfillment; but it also makes us feel protected, secure, and safe in an increasingly volatile world. But how do we decide where we belong? And what does this have to do with branding after all?
STRONG BRANDS AS DECISION ACCELERATORS
As processes become much faster and choices more manifold, the speed and quality of our decisions becomes the greatest currency of success—there’s little time to second guess.
Finding the right partners, the right people to trust, and the right information to rely on—this will create true competitive advantage in the future, for people and businesses too. But who offers what is needed; who shares what is believed?
People need something to provide orientation, something that enables them to make the right decisions faster, with better outcomes and a greater degree of sustainability.
Strong brands do just that, and more.
Brands, as I understand them, are sums of expressions that identify a specific source, the entity behind a value proposition. As such, brands help people to navigate a world that has gotten much bigger than they can deal with, at much faster speed than they can cope with.
Just think about the aisle at your neighborhood supermarket, where you can choose from up to 35 types of yogurts. If you would need to read all ingredients on of all these different types of yogurts every time you want to chose one, it would take you hours. Instead, most people choose their once-selected favorite over and over again, guided by the name, the logo, the colors and shape. Brands, those intentional expressions, help people to cut through the noise and complexity; they provide orientation within a vast sea of information, a quick understanding of what is presented, and trust that decisions made will pay off; that the yogurt you choose will be as good as it was once before.
As such brands are central to business growth. They help organizations to be seen, heard, and chosen. They signal to people what is offered, and, at best, communicate a shared belief, and thus enable the ones whose needs are addressed—and that might even share the same beliefs—to make the right decisions.
Strong brands enhance decision-making and help to build mutually beneficial relationships that are the cornerstone of sustainable value creation, and progress at large.
Brands are some of the most effective and efficient tools to help humans and organizations progress in today’s world: to communicate the right messages, to attract the right people, and to ultimately grow by satisfying the most fundamental need for human survival in today’s world—our need to belong.
LEVERAGING A BRAND’S FULL POTENTIAL
A major challenge today is that the term “brand” is often used as a metonym for a company or organization, leading to a misunderstanding of what brands are and what they can do. “Brands think this” and “brands create that” is what you read on a regular basis, leading you to the assumption that brands are companies, or the maker-of-products—that brands are actually the ones doing something. That isn’t the case.
Brands are sums of intentional expressions, which can be shaped, changed, and managed. They are neither companies themselves, nor products or people, they can’t say, nor invent the future—this is something only we as human beings can do. And as you think and talk about brands, it is crucial to keep that in mind. But brands have a special kind of power and influence. So then, how can leaders leverage their brands’ full potential?
To start, it is important to create clarity about the meaning of brand amongst all key stakeholders. Only if the above outlined small, but crucial difference is widely understood—and you have agreed on what you are talking about when using the term brand—can every member of your team start to fulfill his or her own role in shaping it. Too often, this is misunderstood, even at the highest levels of multinational corporations that claim to have played a major role in pioneering the art and science of branding.
The first step of great branding itself starts with knowing and agreeing on what you want to say, by defining your proposition that lies in the sweet spot, somewhere between your own capabilities and customer needs.
And while increased access to information bears many opportunities, the fundamental challenge for any organization in today’s world remains to maintain a deep understanding of the ever-changing needs and desires of its target audiences and create and refine its value proposition in ways that are addressing those needs, that are meaningful and relevant, and that credibly reflect the actual capabilities and personality of the organization.
Once the proposition is clear, organizations need to find the most effective ways of translating that proposition through various intentional expressions—those that make up their brands—and bring them to life across all relevant stakeholder touchpoints. Done right, this is much more effective than treating branding like a last-minute paint job after the actual product or service has been developed and is ready to be rolled out.
Over the last seven years, I have seen too many times that the branding teams of large international corporations were asked to come up with a name and logo, some colors, and supporting messaging at the very end of a development process. That isn’t how great branding is and should be done.
In order to ensure the most effective expression of your proposition, it is crucial that branding needs to be thought about as part of any business, design and development decision from the start. This understanding of branding can make a true difference in shaping the outcome. Whether it is the CEO, CMO, or the head of branding or product design leading the charge doesn’t make a difference in the end, as long as the “why” and “how” are clearly understood and agreed upon by all at the beginning.
Attentiveness to this process and the resulting strength of the brand defines its impact on the bottom line and determines the ability of organizations to leverage their brands’ full potential.
Both the quality of the proposition—which needs to change and adapt to the ever-changing needs of the target audience—as well as its translation into all forms of expression—from the portfolio strategy through to product design and development, advertising, communications, sales, and service experiences—determines the brand’s power to drive growth, build exceptional customer experiences, and have a lasting impact on the bottom line.
From the Catholic Church to Kongō Gumi, Barclays, GE, Coca-Cola, IBM, Google, and many more—the same holds true for all institutions: Only those that put a profound understanding of how brands are being built and leveraged at the center of all their decision-making—and don’t relegate it to one small department—will be able to fully realize the power of effective branding to remain relevant, evolve, and thrive over time. Branding should be understood across all key roles in the organization, ensuring that the intended proposition is effectively translated through all intentional expressions over time.
THE TRUE POWER OF BRANDING
As branding thought-leaders within organizations and consultants from the outside alike, our role is to help organizations navigate this ever-changing world, to remain focused and anticipate the changes that the future will bring, identify their propositions and translate those into meaningful expressions across the entire organization.
For this, we leverage our own experience and knowledge, curiosity, instinct, and rigor, along with our ability to bring different parties together and align the organization behind a common definition of success. We guide our organizations and clients on this never-ending journey to attract and to belong, to be seen and heard, to bring a message from one place to another. Most importantly, to do all this while always being able to believe in that message, and engendering that belief in people too.
We believe in the good of what organizations can do—for us as individuals as well as for society at large—and that their brands are among the most valuable assets they have to stand out, to be seen and be heard. Whether as individual people or together as companies and organizations, we strive to create and develop, we want to progress and grow.
Business leaders have a crucial choice to make: either they embrace branding and use it to its fullest potential, or merely reduce it to a siloed department amongst others in their organizations and neglect one of the most valuable assets they have.
I personally believe that a profound understanding of this branding paradigm is one of the most powerful tools for any business leader, be it as a CEO of a multinational corporation or as a young founder of a yet-to-breakthrough startup company. It is up to each one individually to decide if they treat branding as a mere afterthought, or if they make it one of the most important paradigms on their organizations journey to succeed and grow in today’s world.
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