Some of you may know that I started my career in traditional advertising, working on several BMW accounts. After university and all the theories they teach you, I was lucky to experience what it means to contribute to building and leading a brand by communication means. I also had the best mentor anyone could wish for, a guy who lived and breathed for automotive brands for decades, and so I am confident to have had a very solid education in branding, and the way I see it, everything I learned in these early years of my career is still valid today. But just like any other area of business, branding is impacted by digital,too, and in 2016 I noticed a significant rise in projects where digital transformation reached the brand and CI departments. This may be accidental and only happening in my personal environment, but is still a good enough reason for me to summarize my view on digital’s impact on branding in three areas that are all closely interconnected.
These are, of course, not the only aspects you have to think about when building a brand in our times, but from my experience, these are the key areas that are being underestimated by brand agencies and managers that sometimes don’t have a full understanding of digital.
The higher purpose
Maybe it is the startup culture – that every pitch should answer the question which problem is solved through its existence. Maybe it is the disruptive times we live in, so everyone sees the chance to conquer new grounds, or maybe it’s just the fact that so many things in modern life have become commodities. But I have noticed in recent years that brand visions and missions have moved away from their products to serving a higher purpose. When in the 1990s a washing machine was there to reliably clean your clothes with a sense of ecological responsibility, nowadays providing clean clothes is just a function – to lead a better life, to look better and have a higher self-esteem, to save household-time you can better invest in your career, or to save the planet by not using too much water and energy. So the problem solved may be cleaning clothes, but merely in order to serve a higher purpose. This may sound ridicolous, but I think that for branding this is the right direction to go: In our society, clean clothes are a given, and every washing machine should provide that as the short term result of using it. But if you want inspire your employees, impress your partners and, ultimately, charge higher prices than your competitor, if you want to avoid a pure price-driven downward spiral with competitors and retail, your contribution has to be more than clean clothes. The (brand) question is: what do you do with your clean clothes? What are they for? How does this help you? What is the higher purpose that you can relate your brand to?
More examples? Almost every automotive company is about mobility. They are about engineering cars, but also about experiences you can make while driving, or about experiences by “getting somewhere”. Except that one automotive company that saves the planet, and its drivers’ lives by letting computers do the driving.
Airlines don’t fly you from A to B anymore, they help you to grow personally through travelling, they help you to discover new places, to “widen your world” (Turkish Airlines), to be successful in business or to visit your family more frequently, and therefore uphold traditional values. Shoes don’t prevent you from getting wet feet in the rain or dirty feet on the street; they don’t even make you look fashionable only – they boost your self confidence by knowing that you’re looking good (and have warm & dry feet, but that’s the commodity). I could go on forever, but you get what I am aiming at: a higher purpose puts your product into a context that actually means something; it inspires your employees – if they believe in it -, and ultimately allows you to sell your products at a higher price. I don’t pay for a watch. I don’t even own a watch. I merely preserve it for future generations. Who thinks of the price when it is about starting an own tradition, leaving something behind for their own children?
The problem with a higher purpose is: you don’t get to handle this with communication only like in past times. When your washing machine contributes to saving the planet, you better act like this on every level, not only in communication. When your furniture is supposed to help me create a beautiful home for my family, it’s better not coloured with lead paint in China. The “shitstorm panic” from a few years ago might be over, but that does not mean you can get away with lies and wrong behaviour. In transparent times thanks to digital, a higher purpose means that you should actually really mean it in order to reap the benefits.
The brand narrative
Derived from a higher purpose, it is very helpful to develop narratives that translate your reason to exist and the purpose you serve into stories you can tell in day-to-day-communication, and that ultimately also lead to your product. This whole area, in times where analog media dominated brand communication, used to be covered by campaigns. “Here’s our vision, here are our values, now please develop a campaign that translates this into advertising.”
Some campaigns ran for a few months, others for a few years, but today you have to post at least five pieces of content per day on at least three social networks. Every day. Once a customer follows a brand on social media, their relationship changes; the frequency of contacts throughout a year was unimaginable in analog media, and for a brand, this means responsibility – to convey your higher purpose, your values and your products in an entertaining and engaging fashion, in a previously unknown quantity no less. You can’t do this with campaigning only. You need a narrative that can carry a brand, day in, day out, on a variety of channels. Don’t let the juniors in your social media department do this job. Just like CI/CD work in the late 90s was focused on print and TV and analog media, but ignored digital, and produced results that sometimes were impossible to translate into websites, often brand models (identity, core, values) nowadays are impossible to translate into social media, because they don’t provide a narrative. But most brands really need this, unless you want to post your print ads over and over or want to simply link to your online shop 90% of the times, but maybe, just maybe this might damage your brand, too.
So let’s assume you are an insurance company. What are you going to post five times a day? You sell hair shampoo. Will you talk about the price and the shape of the bottle, every day? Will you talk about the carefully selected Salami on your frozen pizza? Or is it about your nutrition, about feeding your family, about how you lead your life, about your opinion on vegan lifestyle? I don’t know. I just know that when you talk about Pizza as such, every day for 5 times, either an algorithm or the customers themselves will take care of that.
The user imagery
In my honest opinion, this is the single most important aspect of branding (and therefore I am one of the guys who think that the following questions are constantly underrated): Who am I when I am using your brand? Who am I when I am your client? How do I feel about myself when I use your brand’s products, and how do I think others perceive me when they associate me with your brand? To me, this is the essence of branding, the thing that stays when you melt down the higher purpose, the brand narrative, the brand values and all the communication and let a consumer digest it: The user imagery is the motivation for behaviour towards a brand. You may think this is too psychological, but once you read up on what really drives purchase decisions, especially with relatively public products that are – by objective criteria – hard to distinguish from one another (take cigarettes for example, a pure branding product, or cars in the same segment, like a 3 series BMW or a Mercedes C class, or robust business trolleys), you will see that “belonging to the group of brand users” is a key decision influencer. I want to be one of those guys with a Rimowa trolley – or I don’t. The actual quality of a Rimowa trolley is less important than the psychology of being (or not being) the guy associated with that brand.
Of course (and as with everything in branding) this aspect might be more important for some industries than for others. The more “public” a brand is for your wider and closer environment – the car I drive, the polo I wear, the phone I use, the cigarettes I smoke, the watch on my wrist – the more important branding is for how I feel and how I think I am perceived by others. The more private – my telco provider behind my smartphone, the tomatoes I eat, the machines in my kitchen, the toothpaste I use, my washing machine – the less important this aspect becomes, at least on the public side of things (still, branding is important, as my very close environment will still perceive the brands I use, and I also will want to feel good about myself using a certain brand, just for me).
And here’s the thing: These “private” brands became more public, and the public brands became more public, too, thanks to social media. Never before have I had more insight into who of my friends and acquaintances are using a kitchen aid machine, without having ever been to their homes. I know car brands people use who I only met in meeting rooms and never on the road. I know who is wearing a Burberry coat and who has listens to his music with Sonos speakers, and like it or not, my image of these people using the brand affects how I see them, and how I see the brand; and their perception of my opinion about these brands is one of the reasons they expose me to them. I have never had a single post in my newsfeed saying these socks from kik for 1 Euro a piece are good quality for money, or that these discount Lidl tomatoes are somehow as good as the organic ones from the farmer’s market. Or “Hey, I am so glad the package from cheapshit24.com has finally arrived”.
Consumers define themselves – not only, but also – through brands, and they have the means in production (smartphones) and distribution (social networks) to express themselves more than ever.
This is where all three aspects come together: A higher purpose, brand narratives that are derived from it, and whether customers can identify with these (and with other customers) or not. Digital has a high impact on these mechanics. Their importance has grown. The impact of classic campaigns has fallen. The user imagery question – who do i think I am because i can associate myself with your brand – to me is the essence of branding and was of very high importance before digital, too, but it has become even more impactful, and I think ignoring it can become a very expensive mistake.