While branding has always been a complex field, paradigm shifts in technology and consumer behaviour have presented some modern challenges. The same rules that worked in the 90’s for Blockbusters, Lehman Brothers and Yahoo are not working today.
Marty Neumeier wrote in the ‘The Brand Gap’ that brands can lead through innovation, differentiation, collaboration, validation and cultivation. While these elements are still critical, they need to be grounded with a brand development system that is geared towards the digital age.
In today’s world, you don’t decide what your brand is, your customer does. Brands’ values, personality and promise can sway customers to purchase again and again… even sharing with others, so generating a ‘tribe like loyalty’ is now the aspiration of any branding professional.
The digital age, social media revolution and the wide range of subsequent technologies have made Einstein’s statement that ‘technology is exceeding humanity’ extremely pertinent. Today’s consumers interact differently with content, jumping from one channel to yet another new or improved channel and critically have easy access to endless choices of information sources through many types of gadgets. A digitised world has eroded traditional forms of consumer loyalty, making it easier than ever for users to shop around.
This in turn has made the field of psychology and Aristotle’s elements of persuasion ever more relevant to organisational communication and design strategies. Successful persuasion according to Aristotle must provide (1) the right amount of information and (2) convey credibility through trust. The differentiating factor and the one that organisations struggle with is (3) sparking emotional responses and alluring our imagination. The challenge for most organisations is that persuasion can take years and sometimes even decades to contrive which is why it is so important to bake it into the heart of a compelling brand.
BUILDING A COMPELLING BRAND
To develop a compelling brand system for 2020 and beyond, three pillars are needed: Personality, Behaviour and Communication.
The system needs to include Marty Neumeier’s facets of innovation, differentiation, collaboration, validation and cultivation. The facets should be interjected into the framework of these three pillars to aid in building a unique mission, strong narrative and a forward thinking marketing strategy. Doing this well not only protects brand loyalty in the digital age, but can even enable small, disruptive brands to cost-effectively hack their way to success.
Customers no longer buy brands, they join brands. And for them to do this, the brand needs an organising thought and a promise behind its existence. This thought and promise needs to be lived and breathed through every department, starting with marketing, all the way to production, operations, customer service, finance, HR and legal. Google is known for many things but if you ask someone for one thought or word that describes Google they will generally say: ‘search’. Google succeeded with search because of its brand promise which is to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” — this was their mantra from day one. Successful brands are generally known for one thing and when they do that thing well, they can enter new territories similar to Google with Gmail. In order to create a successful brand personality from the outset the brand must have an ambitious vision that everyone believes in.
The brand essence and underlying thought can be summed up as the one or two words you need to describe the brand — it’s central to the brand’s differentiation. Mini cars are ‘fun’, Innocent drinks are ‘healthy’ (although that’s now debatable) and AirBNB with its evocative “live there” tag line is ‘homely’. In the words of Brad Garlinghouse, a former Yahoo! executive, “if you’re everything, your kind of nothing”. Ironically, this lack of essence and focus was precisely Yahoo!’s demise. By 2001 Yahoo! had over 400 products, including an astrology hotline costing $15 a minute to call. It dabbled its toes in information, media, technology and entertainment with a lack of focus that resulted in an identity crisis.
An ambitious vision must underpin a brand’s essence — outlining what the brand really aspires to. When a company knows what it stands for (underlying thought) and where it is going (vision), it can focus its people and resources, enabling business units to run independently, while maintaining brand integrity. The most powerful example of a vision in recent history was in the space race, in which the USA relied on one ambitious statement to set the vision. John F Kennedy had originally wanted to go to Mars but engineers had to tell him it was just a “little bit too far”. Even when they settled on the moon, they didn’t have the know-how to get there — just a leader with a vision, determination and courage. By publicly stating their vision and earmarking a specific time period to achieve it President Kennedy gave America no way out. And to really succeed, brands should set their own ambitious ’space missions’ as part of developing their personality.
Great brands have an overarching narrative that users can identify with, and will want to share. This is the art of storytelling — building a framework that lets customers create their own narratives. As a result, the brand is more memorable, the consumer’s bond with it is strengthened and consumers are more likely to talk about the brand. When you buy a new Mini you’re given a ‘Mini Passport’ that looks like a person’s passport. In it, consumers are encouraged to affix a photo of their Mini, and name things like the Mini’s favourite stretch of road. This narrative encourages users to personify their Mini’s and I wouldn’t be surprised if, as a consequence, more Mini owners have named their cars, than any other brand of car.
Another great example is The Mast brothers — the poster boys for hipster gourmet chocolate. The brothers have an obsession with crafting chocolate and have crafted clever stories to create a narrative around their mission. Initially they claimed to make every bar themselves and also said “We’re from the 18th century, back when craftspeople were revered and took pride in working with their hands.” The Brothers said that they travel around the world by wooden sailboat to find the best cacao possible. Their narrative planted the seed in the consumer’s head, enabling consumers to build their own extended versions of the story.
This is the second pillar of the brand system: A brand’s behaviour is how it interacts with consumers, or rather the user experience of interacting with the brand through different types of interfaces or mediums. Modern, successful organisations need to create experiences around user needs and desires while removing obstacles through process changes, technological advances and integrative innovation. Failing to do so can have catastrophic results, as we saw in the demise of high-street retailer Blockbusters. The company failed to focus on user experience or innovate as the digital world transformed user expectations and video consumption behaviours.
Socrates said that without friendship there is no value in communication between people — the same is true of brands.
If you don’t care about your consumers there’ll be much less value in what you communicate with them.
User centricity is no longer confined to the realms of websites. It covers your offline service, the usability of your product or service and in fact touches every department of your company. Whether it’s a decision to add live chat support to your website (or even a social connected bot), offer free product returns, or provide wrap-around services, it’s all about keeping the consumer at front of mind in every business decision. Google sum this up nicely in their list of 10 things they believe — toping the chart at number 1 spot is “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”
Some nice examples of user centricity are Nespresso’s capsule brigade, which enables users (in the USA) to re-cycle their used capsules free of charge, or the Fiat 500 USB port, enabling you to download and analyse data on what type of driver you are.
Building habitual experiences
At its best, user centricity can result in habitual experiences where consumers come back, time and again, out of habit. Based on Nir Eyal’s Hook Model, this nirvana of the user centricity field, means the brand’s products or services have become sub-consciously ingrained in consumers’ daily routines. For instance, reaching for our iPhones to read WhatsApp when bored in the morning commute is a habit.
Our brains store these actions as procedural routines, so that internal and external triggers will generate future user action and provide them with rewards that keep them hooked. This kind of habitual interaction gives brand an enormous competitive advantage by making it much harder for competitors to steal users away. If the user’s rewards are also variable (i.e. sometimes there, sometimes not) the habit strengthens. For example, LinkedIn’s ‘how I rank for profile views’ feature can be quite addictive, providing ‘hooked’ users with the incentive they need to ‘invest’ in the brand (e.g. by inviting friends to join and uploading personal data).
Often user centricity requires brands to not just communicate differently with consumers, but to re-invest processes; forming new, better types of behaviours.
Virgin America reinvented the flight booking user experience from the ground up by creating a system focused on interactivity. The conventional user journey of having multiple screens for each part of the booking process was abolished in favour of a single screen. The key interactions, from selecting a destination, picking dates and choosing the type of seats are now presented via a single-page application (SPA) stripping out advertising. This ‘app like experience’ on a website required a reinvention of the visual language. The result is a web app that enables users to book flights at almost double the speed, across all devices.
In today’s interconnected world, another core element of a brand’s behaviour is integrative innovation. This sounds complex but it’s actually akin to someone going to a party and interacting openly with lots of different groups of people, versus someone who only interacts with their close friends. The downfall of brands like AOL, with a walled garden approach, coincided with values of openness and interconnectivity becoming mainstream.
Successful brands today need to behave in an open manner, interconnecting with third party touchpoints and weaving other brand platforms into the user experience. Interconnectivity also enables them to grow much faster.
Take for instance, the B2B instant messaging tool, Slack. It is the fastest growing B2B company in history, valued at $3.8bn. This is partly due to its personality and essence of efficiently but also largely due to its integrative, search friendly, channel enabled behaviour that makes it synchronise and easily integrate with a wide variety of apps and services (through APIs) that add complimentary value for its users.
Communication has always played a central role in brand building, but that role has now changed.
Communication is no longer one dimensional, but across multiple channels, and dialogue has replaced what previously was a branding monologue.
Some of the strongest brands have experimented with various channels, to see which combination works best for them. Nespresso, for instance, had been around for years but made a real breakthrough when they got their machines on first class and business class airlines. They also found that videos demonstrating how easy their machines were to use, really boosted sales, and in-store tasters resulted in a 6-fold increase in sales.
Furthermore, the growth of TED talks has been exponential since 2006 when their founder, Chris Anderson decided to make the talks (that cost approximately $5,000 to attend in person) more universally available to all via the web and social channels.
To make the most of a multi-channel world, successful brands put social connectivity at the heart of their communication, transforming multi-channel into omni-channel where there is a consistent user experience across channels, and communications are merely optimised for each touch point.
For instance, many successful brands by-pass a registration process and benefit from a seamless ‘single sign-on’ that also connects them to another brand. American Express users can now easily spend their points on Amazon without users having to do anything besides an initial ‘link-up’ and TED users can use their Facebook or Twitter login details to easily access their TED video lists when they move from one device to another one. In this way brands are developing a ubiquitous presence across channels and linking to their consumers’ ‘real world’.
Social connectivity allows brands to tap into the consumers’ wider network of friends and colleagues, offering enormous opportunities for growth hacking that has enabled disruptive brands to break through the noise and make a phenomenal impact, without needing substantial advertising budgets.
Some innovative brands have taken shareability a step further by merging the digital and physical user experience across channels through a new type of interactivity. Warby Parker, an eyewear shop, doesn’t consider social media as part of their marketing department but an integral channel that is ‘baked-into’ the customer experience. Users can order free samples of glasses from the website through their ‘Home Try-on’ service. Once they receive the physical samples, the user can upload selfies of themselves wearing the glasses to social media channels and get expert fashion opinions and live commentary from sales staff about which frame suits them better. Of course their friends on social media can also offer feedback, further sharing the brand’s messages. It’s not surprising therefore that in their first year of trading they hit their yearly revenue targets in 3 weeks with GQ Magazine calling Warby Parker ‘the Netflix of Eyewear’.
Dialogue replacing monologue
The growing number of user generated, online reviews has further supported this trend away from an advertising monologue and into a dialogue with consumers. Many brands now also offer live chat through WhatsApp, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter blurring the line between customer services, marketing, social media and business communication. The Dutch airline KLM has been trialling WhatsApp for frequent flyer communication.
Products marketing brands
Another innovative brand communication tool is creating products or infrastructure (be it physical or digital) that do the job of marketing the brand.
These aren’t the brand’s core products, but a sidestep created solely for branding purposes, offering yet another strong growth hacking opportunity.
In the early noughties, Guinness were losing 3% of their market share in Ireland and they realised they needed to engage millennials with their brand through a more tangible mechanism. They came up with the concept of renovating a warehouse plant, transforming it into a musical, theatrical and cultural centre. The Storehouse topped Trinity College in its inaugural year as one the top tourist destinations in Ireland. The launch event attracted some 4,000 people, featured a cast of 20 performers. Since that time the Storehouse has continued to re-evaluate Guinness’s brand experience.
Similarly, TED created TEDx, where institutions, such as universities, can add their own local talks, following TED guidelines that provided any new TEDx organiser a blue print guide to running a successful event. In doing so they managed to cultivate their brand and reach a further 123 countries adding tens of thousands of talks.
Finally, my company Cyber-Duck, produced a logo window display at our Farringdon office that connects to the internet allowing visitors to change the colours of our logo using a web app.
While just a fun gimmick, it has generated significant engagement with our brand, while showcasing our digital capabilities.
Whether you consider branding an art or a science, the rules of the game have changed. The digital age has brought with it almost infinite consumer choice, resulting in an erosion of loyalty and price wars.
Attracting and retaining your customer base, while protecting price points, is only now possible when brands create a tribe like following; inspiring consumer imaginations with their personality and narrative, behaving in an entirely customer-centric manner and interacting in a multi-channel dialogue with customers, through whichever medium they prefer. The pillars of personality, behaviour and communication provide some solid foundations for developing the brand systems of tomorrow.