Today, we are living and working in what many are deeming a third age of branding; one defined not by how a brand carries itself through external communications, but by how people experience the brands around them. It’s an age shaped and formed by the ever advancing and emerging influence of technology, along with the empowerment of us as humans.

When the first ‘companies’ sprung up, they were inseparable from the product. There was no distinction between the brand and what was being sold; the values and merits of each were one and the same. Purchasing decisions were based upon pure objectivity (and, of course, the sales pitch). That was the first age of branding.

But soon, with status such an integral part of the fabric and structure of society, the merits of a product or service were affected by who was buying. If celebrities and trendsetters deemed a product worthy, then it must have been more valuable. The ‘brand’ began to distinguish itself and, today, we see how powerful the brand has truly become—a far greater entity than the product. Marketers took great pride in constructing brands that resonated with consumers, influencing them to act with teasers of aspiration and a certain lifestyle (which would be promoted heavily through advertising and celebrity endorsements).

But this approach to branding was soon rejected. A growing number of consumers began to realize that the marketing hyperbole surrounding many brands did not actually match the experience they had. Clearly, Naomi Klein’s book, No Logo, and the beginnings of social media chatter sent many brand marketers into a tail spin, leaving consumers more cynical and inquisitive about where brands originate, how they behave and how they perform.

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Today, as much as traditional brand experts may flinch at the prospect, the truly great brands are no longer being built on the 35th floor boardroom of an agency’s ‘ivory tower,’ nor do they come from in-house marketing departments pushing one-directional messages built upon the singular goal of sales. This third age of branding puts the human firmly front and centre in determining a brand’s real-time equity. We are the people that enable those global superbrands to shine, and we allow those who fail to deliver to fall into irrelevance.

Brands in the third age are experienced ‘in the round’—at every moment, at every interaction and every day. They are set free from the straight jacket of traditional analogue thinking and given the space to share information openly and freely with anyone. The words we hear used more often to describe brands in this new era are authentic, transparent and real. Can we imagine buying into any brand today without going through reviews, recommendations, ‘likes’ and everything in between? Once upon a time, Mars told us in all seriousness that a chocolate bar would help us ‘work, rest and play.’ Today, we would laugh and turn our attentions elsewhere. Now, we let brands know whether we deem them worthy of our time, whether they meet our standards.

The path towards great experiences is paved by a brand excelling at what it excels at. That may sound like an awkward concept, but what is important is that it requires a brand to discover (or rediscover) why it exists and what difference it is trying to make in the world. Only then can the brand deliver consistent experiences with a well-centered and meaningful purpose.
With a clear sense of self, brands can buck category trends and be more disruptive. Look at how Virgin has delivered its brand experience through multiple services and products with its distinct, defiant attitude towards the dominant category leader and convention. Look at how Nokia, once the envy of all handset manufacturers, teeters on the brink of utter irrelevance in front of today’s design savvy consumer.

But to look at individual brands alone neglects the larger picture. What about the current predicament the retail industry finds itself in? We are speaking specifically of those retailers which are struggling to see how a physical presence on the high street adds real value to their consumers, consumers who can now browse and purchase in clicks rather than visit bricks. If (as I imagine) the future of branded experiences will be far more specific and tailored to the individual, what role is there for mass retailing when technology drives and shapes the experience?

There too lies a paradox to this new found state of greater liberation – a world that creates its own set of unique challenges and consequences. While social media has generated some wonderful stories of communities mobilising and galvanizing around a positive cause, there also lies countless more occasions where that opportunity has been exploited to incite social disruption.

It is big thinking, but we need to play out potential, far-reaching consequences in order to understand what might be possible (although unthinkable) in the long run and the responsibilities we hold in this new branding age. We often speak of Big Brother, 1984, Minority Report and other dystopian visions of a futuristic society, but the data question remains unanswered. Therefore, with such an uncertain future, brands now have to show greater purpose and moral imperative. If not, they will be found out and shut down in the blink of an eye. Every moment of interaction between brand and user must feel like a real relationship and not contrived. Some brands may be able to fend off negative headlines around tax evasion, morally-suspect production chains and unethical practices, but accountability still lies at the hands of the consumers. A back-to-basics approach for many brands would merely consist of halting the customer-centric talk and actually starting to walk it…

This third age of branding requires a different set of skills and thinking from those within the industry. In response to a new age of brand challenges, agencies must craft strategically robust and creative answers by defining, creating and curating moments of interaction to deliver positive experiences..