There has been a great deal of chatter in brand circles – from The New Yorker article commented upon here recently, to Harvard Business Review blog posts – about whether or not brands can survive in the consumer-empowered digital age. In an effort to dig deeper into exactly how the Internet and branding are affecting each other, I reached out to one of the global branding firms that is positioning itself to bridge those two worlds: Prophet. I spoke with its Chief Growth Officer, Scott Davis, as well as Chan Suh, who occupies the relatively new post of Chief Digital Officer (a position which, by the simple fact of its existence at the C-Suite level, is a telling sign of the changes in the branding business).

Brandingmag: It would be helpful, starting this discussion, to know exactly how you define a brand in this day and age.

Scott Davis: Great brands revolve around being the sum of all experiences, promises and touch points that surround a brand. Great brands, when built holistically, are able to drive choice and share of wallet.

Bm: The image of building holistically, buttressing from multiple sides, suggests a strongly reinforced brand platform. Yet a recent New Yorker article, by James Surowiecki, declared that, because of the Internet, “brands have never been more fragile.” Do you agree?

Scott Davis: If you are an aggressive brand builder, I’d flip the argument around, that the Internet empowers brands in new ways, to engage, build community, loyalty and trust. Actively building your presence is the key.

Chan Suh: The Internet tends to accelerate things, enabling challenger brands to compete with established brands more quickly.  I actually think it’s a great time to be in charge of a brand.

Scott Davis: It’s particularly important for brands to know how to relate to those who have grown up with the Internet. Those that understand millennials and the generation that comes after them, the brands that know how to motivate and get word of mouth… those are the brands that will win.  Traditional advertising may still be the top driver of awareness, but among millennials the number one driver of purchase is peer influence and the recommendations of others.

Bm: A recent Prophet presentation tendered “five tenets for building strong brands,” the third of which has special relevance to the digital life:  “Arm Your Communities.” Can you elaborate on that?

“You have to mobilize your communities… inside and out.” – Scott Davis

Scott Davis: You have to realize that internal and external communities are doing as much for your brand as any marketer could. You have to mobilize your communities. And when you are mobilized inside and out, you can not only react but also anticipate, actively shaping the brand experience in real time. Jet Blue recently gave us a great example. A passenger was dissatisfied with the service on a flight, tweeted about it, and within twenty minutes a flight attendant came down the aisle with both an apology and a free drink.

Another example of how this is changing is from our old client United Airlines. It used to be that every Monday morning they would go to a community site called Flyer Talk to see what was posted, looking for any negative commentary on United so that they could react to it.  Finally they decided they would rather participate than react.   Now United actually sponsors Flyer Talk events, and actively engages their consumers.

Bm: So is this kind of engagement really a power sharing with customers, or is it simply a new marketing tool to manipulate the supposedly empowered consumer?

“It’s Brand Darwinism, to see who adapts first.”- Chan Suh

Chan Suh: No matter how we look at it, there have to be commercial realties and goals.  But brands are now required to do relationship building – that’s the biggest transformation. They  can’t just phone it in, it’s expected that they engage, full-time, real-time. The ones that don’t are going to become irrelevant. It’s Brand Darwinism, to see who adapts first.

Scott Davis: And we live in an era of 100% transparency. Any brand builder that is seen as overly commercial in how they engage socially will be called out. But if you arm your consumer with helpful, worthwhile, authentic information, they are inclined to help build your brand. One study shows that when millennials love a brand it typically enjoys 264% more earned media impressions.

Bm: What about native advertising? Do you see it meeting that “100% transparency” standard?

Chan Suh: Native advertising is the modern reinterpretation of advertorials – it’s simply content in an appropriate context. But it has to be useful to be effective. If not done right, there’s definitely a risk [of losing trust]. Native advertising has to declare itself in a clear fashion. And when it is actually funnier or more relevant than the surrounding content, it blurs a boundary. The provenance has to be there.

Bm: Is there a danger to brands in “arming” their communities, akin to the political danger of arming insurgents who may later turn on you as the winds change?

Scott Davis: I think the game here is in paying incredible attention to consistency and promise and trust – and when that trust is broken there is some danger. I see it with a lot of companies that still believe going social is just Twitter and Facebook, and and not a 360º approach.

Bm: Is there still a point to brand positioning when so much control is in the hands of consumers? And even if it still matters, does the process of positioning need to change?

Chan Suh: The idea of co-creating a brand is very real. We used to plan from the inside out, but now brands are really co-created. People look at brands as a collection of features,  characteristics and experiences as much as a name or logo.

Scott Davis: We’re definitely shifting toward brand co-creation, brand agility and a test-and-learn approach to brand and product launches. Even if it’s not 100% ready to go to market you’ll see more “failing fast” to get to a next generation offering, something that is more in line with customer needs.

Bm: So how will those shifts in branding reshape firms like yours?

Chan Suh: I would say that first of all the foundation is understanding. We need to be really diligent to make sure we’re assessing behavior versus opinion data – what consumers do versus what they say – and most branding companies don’t yet do that.  So the most profound impact on branding, from the Internet, is really Big Data.