Six Key Themes of Branding in the Digital Age

Lets start with some key dates In January 1977, The first successfully mass marketed personal computer, the Commodore PET was introduced to the world. In the same year, the Apple II (usually referred to as the "Apple") was also introduced and the digital age, also known as the information age, as we know it began. On 6 March 1983, Motorola launched the DynaTAC mobile phone the first commercial mobile phone and on 6 August 1991, the World Wide Web went live to the world and on 30 April 1993 CERN put the World Wide Web software in the public domain.

And I think its fair to say the world hasn’t been the same since.

Today, of the (approximately) 7.2 billion people on the planet, 3 billion of us are active internet users, 3.6 billion are unique mobile users and over 2 billion have active social media accounts.
Clearly the digitalisation of technologies like the web, smart phones,tablets, search and social have integrated themselves into every facet of our lives; there’s no such thing today as dead-time, on the train, at the play park, in the bath, life is always ‘on’. We don’t memorise our own phone number anymore, watches have ceased to have much of a function and its really easy to cheat at your local pub quiz. We are our own doctors and everyone can be a celebrity, a reviewer, expert and critic.

From a commercial perspective, digital platforms have transformed consumer behaviour, most evidently through online shopping but actually across the whole buying process; from the point we recognise a need, to the point where we sit back and review our purchase. This has fundamentally changed how businesses need to think and act, the while the fundamentals of the branding process remain as important as ever there are clear trends appearing that will have a manifest effect on the future role of marketing, of brands and of business in general.
Here is my take on just a few of those trends.

1. People are still people

Talk to me, listen to me, make my life easier, better, give me self esteem or a sense of belonging; solve my problems, make me richer, educate me or make me laugh but please, please but don’t try and sell to me because it just won’t work. Do you like to be sold to? Nobody does. Do you like to be helped? I think most reasonable people do. The difference between the two positions while subtle, is very meaningful. And very human.
It is a basic aspiration of the human condition to want to be noticed, wanted, be popular, have friends, join the club, have our lives made better. Not to be 'strategically placed' a quicker and more efficient sales tunnel. That hasn’t changed and that is what businesses and the brands they control must remember. Brand managers today need to understand the difference between basic human nature and the benefits of technology-driven change. This is an absolute strategic key to successful brand management in the digital age.

We have many proven examples of how the strongest brand stories can transcend technical boundaries and reach out to multiple aspects of the human condition. Super-brands like Nike, Coca-Cola, and Burberry do this incredibly well and have been successful in maintaining their brand heritage and story despite the multitude of ’touch points’ and the speed of digital innovation that confronts them. It is also fair to say the path to this type of success, clearly, would be more challenging, for smaller, less resource-rich organisations.

In the end, technology is an enabler but people remain at the heart of every commercial engagement. And its not the brand or digital strategy that your customers experience; they hear, touch, smell, see, and taste brand moments. And because at its core, a brilliant brand strategy in the digital age must have a very clear insight into the human condition of its buyer.

2. Consumers have become more informed and influential

It is hard to pinpoint exactly what has created the shift from the passive to empowered consumer but without question we are witnessing a shift in the balance of brand power. From a companies USP to a customers MSP – the Me Selling Position.

Perhaps increased connectivity, the speed and abundance of choice we now have, or the ability to get what we want when we want it, where we want it. But there is no doubt, a new consumer is emerging that is in control of the buying process. Now consumers can seek out third party sources of information such as blogs, news sites, review sites, social channels and forums that lie outside the traditional customer-company conversation. And because of that they can critique, review, discuss and share like never before.

In this environment first impressions are even more important than they ever were. And if your consumer decides they like you, they now have the ability to ask you anything they want, whenever they want. And if you they don’t like you, or they don’t like what you’re telling them, they have the power to tell the world in seconds just how disappointed they are.

3. The age of mass marketing is over

Branding used to be an exercise in mass communication – cast the net, blast out a few messages, speak to everyone and hope you land a few sales. With the rise of digital and the proliferation of social channels, today this is simply not an option or indeed a wise use of your marketing budget. Social media has meant we can no longer communicate everything to everybody. In this bigger the world, there is a greater need to focus.

We now we need to understand how our brands fit into people's lives, how they can become relevant, valued and trusted, and we now need to deliver much more personal, much more tailored and contemporaneous communication. As I read recently: "Facebook, Google, and Twitter are the NBC, ABC, and CBS of the future”.

In this environment, some branding is inevitably intentional, but much of it is not. Social media in particular has created a new silo of marketing that crosses sector and media; P2P marketing. Person to person.

This type of marketing is very much based on building relationship’s, generating meaningful moments of engagement between brand and consumer and working on the long sell. Remember customers willingly spend with companies they know, like, and trust. Since many companies offer similar services or products, the winners will be the companies with the best relationship, credibility, and rapport with the marketplace.

4. Up the workers

The financial crisis and increased transparency and availability within the digital era have accelerated the diffusion of authority. Traditional company figures such as CEOs and spokespeople are losing authority whereas subject-matter experts, peers and employees are considered substantially more trustworthy. They now have a voice which can potentially reach millions of people in a split second.
And powered by the likes of social media, workers are ever more capable of building up an employer’s reputation or tearing it down. More and more a firm’s brand strength is moving from the marketing department to the hands of employees, they are the true owners of your reputation.

5. The shop still matters

Most companies today are realising that having a single online/offline focus does not reflect the purchasing behaviour of modern consumers, who are in touch with various channels and platforms across a standard purchase journey. Not even Amazon relies solely on the online shopping experience these days and it is reported to be opening its first physical high-street store in New York any day.

The challenge for the more traditional bricks and mortar companies and stores is “thinking” digital and online and “immersing” a business in it. The challenge for the digital retailer is understanding that the role of the physical store is as important as ever.

A great example of the latter is a a walk through any Apple store. You won’t see endless cluttered shelves full of stock. You won’t see a bulky cash register with a line of people waiting behind it. What you will see is Apple staff focused on serving customers all throughout the store. Customers can explore the Apple products in an environment that feels more like a home office than it does a retail store. When you do buy something an Apple staff member will take your payment on the spot – processed on an iPhone – and then send you a receipt via email.

The physical environment they create and the queue outside an Apple store are the results of great branding. Posting a picture of a queue outside an Apple store is the act of branding.
And its not only Apple thats bringing digital innovation to in-store retail. Starbucks is an old-fashioned coffee shop but they have worked out how to engage customers both in store and in cyberspace and Burberry has made significant investment in combining the best of their online and offline environments to create a more immersive brand experience. Burberry.com and Burberry’s flagship retail store on Regent Street, London both provide music, live events, and of course products for sale. Burberry’s aim is for brand experience consistency across their channels. Customers don’t just come to the Burberry store to buy the products – they come for the whole experience. This is the modern face of shopping, frictionless, cross-platform and experiential.

6. Transparency, honesty and responsibility now drive the message No business ever gets a free pass and today, no brand does either.

Reputation has always been a core strategic concern for any business and with the proliferation of product ratings, reviews and social media, complete brand transparency is no longer an option, it has to be a given. A good rule in maintaining reputation is to remember that everyone you will ever meet, in any media, already probably knows something about you. And every consumer, every one of them, will have little time for any brand that violates their trust, loyalty, social, cultural or environmental sensibilities.

Today, values are be as important as functional benefits, a point of view is as important as a point of difference and building and facilitating customer communities will be as important as broadcasting to mass audiences.

The marketing battles of the future will be won by those brands who become purpose-driven, social brands, marketing, sustainability and CSR operating as one, aligning to bring a cohesive brand story to life. Purpose driven brands have authenticity and integration at their heart, and we the consumers, will believe, because of what they say and what they do not just because of what they sell.

In conclusion If our branding works, our customers develop an emotional connection with our products or services that aligns with their own life and the lives of other brand enthusiasts. But unquestionably, this understanding of what branding is, is now being shaped by the worlds of social, content and digital. And Technology is shaping every aspect of branding as a discipline, creating new challenges and rewards on a massive scale.

But while technology has undoubtedly taken huge steps forward, what hasn't changed is human nature – our basic needs, desires and motivations. But I believe that branding today is as it always was, a process around telling the right story, building positive relationships and owning the right emotional responses in your customers. The predominant issue for modern branding, caused directly by the digital revolution, is that there is, less and less, such a thing as ‘the protected and lasting impression’.

To address these changes brands need to have a story that is as far as they can make it, unique and genuine to them, and is delivered much more personally. A story that underlies the true value of your brand, your employees and your business, a story with a coherent vision, value-based and with real social value.

The modern marketer will consequently spend the bulk of their time and budgets anticipating behavior and preferences, engaging with consumers on their terms, listening, learning and adapting, interacting with growing “communities of we” in every way, working to earn the trust of their audiences and building stories that consumers can emotionally connect with.

Evolving technology platforms should not be mistaken for a shift in the fundamental needs of humans in society. Humans still want to be noticed, wanted, be popular, have friends and you can say the same for brands in the modern economy.

Indeed, the net result of so much technological development and change is that the human face of a brand will become far more important, focussing as much on developing legitimate emotional connections and improving peoples’ lives as on balancing the figures and building the bottom line.

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