Our most recent Premium Issue, entitled “Crafting the Brands of the 21st Century,” focuses on the newest generation of identities, images and adverts, on the practices that lead contemporary brands to the top. In an effort to garner some international opinions on the matter, I turned to Wolff Olins and several of its global creative directors. Here you will find a peek into my featured interview with them, starring Sandy Suffield (former art director at Apple) from the London office and Mike Abbink (co-founder of Method) from the New York office.
BM: Overall, what do you consider to be the first thing one must take into consideration when developing a brand for the audience of the 21st century? Any particular audience qualities that strongly differ from those of past generations?
Mike (NY): The Internet has made the audience much smarter obviously, they are more aware of what companies are doing and what they stand for. The Internet-fueled consumer is way more multidimensional. For example, what we knew or loved about Nike a decade ago is much different now. This ultra savvy, empowered consumer cannot be overlooked, especially as it’s becoming more mainstream.
Sandy (L): Very obviously the key difference is now there is much more of a conversation between audiences and brands. Audiences become ambassadors for brands if they’re treated right, which becomes an interesting sales tool. These days multimedia is more embedded now and has real authority. People are marketed to across all sorts of different media, social just being the newest in comparison to when the phrase ‘multimedia’ was first bandied about.
BM: Regarding the specific local market you currently work in, what should the first consideration be when it comes to brand development? Does it differ from your response to the first question?
Mike (NY): Everybody wants what they see on the Internet and companies are thinking about this more and more as they develop products on a global scale. As desire and products go global it becomes all about the user/brand experience. This is where I think understanding local markets is critical. Great product plus great experience is hard to beat.
Sandy (L): I don’t have a client that’s specifically focused on the UK market, globalization means that’s a real rarity these days. We’re working with Fortnum and Mason and much like Apple sells California to the world, Fortnum and Mason sells ‘Englishness’ specifically. That’s interesting in the context of homogenization – i.e. I can get the same Frappuccino in Moscow as in London or wherever – and the reaction to that is a thirst for individuality and local cultures.
BM: Have you worked in multiple markets (different cities, states, countries)? If so, could you give a short comparison by highlighting the key differences and similarities that you witnessed between or among them?
Sandy (L): I worked for Apple in California. Humour is a key characteristic of Brits and British marketing. Sometimes when you work abroad and view that from ‘over there’ it begins to look quite sophisticated and particular. Humour is such a strong tool for selling and marketing but don’t assume it’s more of a generic thing than it really is. Very often, humour doesn’t translate.
In the US brands hit much harder in their marketing, it has a lot of heft that wouldn’t necessarily work as well in the UK. There’d need to be an adjustment of volume!
BM: In your opinion, how does one overcome the obstacles of branding for a global audience? Was there an international brand that you worked on that taught you about the global market’s patterns toward brand reception? If so, what did you learn?
Mike (NY): Language can play a key role in building an awesome brand experience. Looking at our work with Mozilla, although the obstacles were different, they needed to translate their mission of promoting openness, innovation and opportunity on the web beyond the desktop and expand their reach to mobile platforms and new markets. The Firefox OS product was developed for those growing markets where its consumers have not spent much time on the Internet or even smartphones for that matter. So the challenge was to find a way of talking to those consumers that would make the Firefox OS offer relevant and desirable. Getting to that relevance also would lead to why one would need the new Firefox OS.
Sandy (L): There are different approaches. Nokia doesn’t sell Finland to the world; instead it adapts to each market and tries to speak to the countries and cultures individually. Whereas Apple sells California to the world in the same way across territories – sometimes even headlines aren’t translated.
BM: What is the most recent brand that you worked on? Looking at that project, what observation(s) did you make that can be applied to contemporary branding, as a whole?
Mike (NY): To Todd’s point that product is your brand, you can take a look at what happened with Nokia. Seven years ago they were at the top of their game and for the last five years at the bottom. It has been a struggle for them but I think slowly but surely they can make a comeback with the new products they’re making. But also, working with one of our technology clients I’ve seen that if a company-wide ethos is changed and everyone gets behind it, the ship can turn quickly. In this fast moving world that kind of ability to change is necessary and the more nimble you are the better. Is Apple going to be in need of a change soon?
Sandy (L): My observations are; be fast! Listen to the audience and don’t patronize them, be them. At the very least do everything you can to get to know them.
Skype is interesting. It offers free video calling but others do that now too and so brand and marketing become really important in how it differentiates itself. Skype has just celebrated its 10th birthday and I wonder if age in technology lends a brand authority. People tend to use the same brands and services as their peers so Skype’s users are a different demographic to those of WhatsApp. Something Skype will think about is how to keep appealing to younger, tech-savvy audiences.
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BM: What are the biggest transformations that you have witnessed in brand development since you entered the industry? Did you find it easy to follow along?
Mike (NY): Beside data management it’s all about user experience. Obviously good old fashion story telling and design are important but the experience is more critical than ever. Brand experience is now a much bigger and more complex nut to crack.
Sandy (L): The impact of technology since I started designing has been enormous in a practical sense. So, the speed and sophistication of design and production, the creation of 3D animations and fly-throughs. Beyond production and in a more general sense, the fact that a brand is a joint property between consumer and client and more potentially more democratic is a major change. People are more wary of monoliths and big brands now.
BM: What role does the progression of technology and design have in brand development? Do you see its current acceleration (and the subsequent lower barrier to entry) as a benefit or detriment to the branding industry?
Mike (NY): Technology spotlights the importance of experience and storytelling. Now that user experience plays such a big role in the brand experience it will force us all to consider why we’re doing it all. A huge amount of our time is spent basking in technology. We’ll have to consider other things to contrast that. I believe this is why DYI, craft, organic farming, world traveling will all become even more important to us as consumers.
Sandy (L): I think I’ve answered this in a previous question in a way. I’d say absolutely both a benefit and detriment. There has been democratization in branding. Potentially everyone has a platform. But conceptual and craft skills are still of huge value and not everyone has them. Even if they have the tools. You’ve got to have some sensitivity and brain cells!
BM: Nowadays, it seems that consumers expect more of a personal connection to the brand. How do you go about building a brand that can generate that personal appeal with such a large number of people?
Mike (NY): People get personal with brands through connecting. This comes out through great stories, great products and experience with that brand. A brand that wants to do all those things has to care about quality, design and technology. Without doing these right, the savvy consumer will eat you for breakfast.
Sandy (L): Adaptive logos – like AOL, NYC, Oi – projects Wolff Olins have done. Clients can draw attention to the fact that your brand has an adaptive logo, e.g. Oi adapts to the sound of the users voice. That helps build the brand in a personal way.
Brands can embody human characteristics that people can connect to. People don’t like arrogant people; therefore don’t have an arrogant brand. Humility has become more important maybe – exaggerated by technology because clients have to listen to their audiences now.
BM: When it comes to your audience versus your client, how do you balance the expectations of both? Do you find that one has become more difficult to please than the other? Better yet, does your execution stem from one more than the other?
Mike (NY): Consumers need to be listened to and addressed properly. It’s important for the client to address how they’re treating people, how they make their product for them, how they treat their employees, etc.. You have to ultimately respect mankind and the product has to live up to that value…again, the user experience. Counter to this, on the client side, they must be bold, true and focused on their vision and deliver great products that make people’s lives better.
Sandy (L): You’re designing for the audience of course. You hope that the client will help direct and manage that because they know their better than we do. Some clients are good, some are bad!
And this is not all! I also spoke to London’s Chris Moody and Owen Hughes, New York City’s Todd Simmons and Jordan Crane, and Dubai’s Sebastian Klein. If you wish to read each of their opinions and advice regarding modern branding success, then you can purchase the Premium Issue here. Better yet, you can subscribe to Branding Magazine and be one of the first to receive all future, in-depth interviews with the world’s leading experts.