In the first articles of the ‘Brands in the Boardroom’ series, I advocated that, within the higher layers of organizations, more attention should be paid to the business and financial sides of brand management. In my first article, I shared some tips on how brand managers can be heard in the boardroom, by focusing more on the ‘logic’ of branding, instead of just the ‘magic’ (creative) behind the brand. For boards to make decisions on what, where, and how much to invest in the brand, it is key to understand the financial engineering around brands – which I talked about in my second article. In this third one, I’ll dive deeper into what’s changing in the world of brand management.
We’re living in a time where we see accelerated change, where one plus one will often equal more than two. I see three main areas accelerating change for brands and communication. Let me run you through each of these areas, prior to summarising the consequences on how brands can be managed, or rather ‘not managed’, going forward.
1. Four technological disruptions for the brand landscape
Whether you are prepared or not, your business is being disrupted, impacting all aspects of your brand. Four innovations that will both challenge and inspire are:
AI/ML (artificial intelligence and machine learning)
Think of services like Google Now or Amazon Recommendations; from analyzing data today to predictive analytics tomorrow, artificial intelligence is already widely used in healthcare and defense, and led by technology companies such as ABB, Siemens, and General Electric, will become increasingly commonplace in other industries. In the future you will receive more and deeper insight into how people interact with your brand, offering multiple opportunities to increasingly interweave it into the daily life of your customers.
Internet of Things
Devices will be connected with each other, digitally. Maintenance of devices will be pre-emptive and executed before you realize, resulting in dramatically fewer unscheduled downtime. For brand-owners it means that interfaces for client interaction change and customer journeys need revisiting.
5G: fifth-generation wireless standard
Bandwidth will no longer be a limitation on high-quality communication and interaction. This will have a huge influence on the user experience – how your customers perceive your brand, collect information, and purchase your products and services.
“The rise of VR and AR means that new, creative (multi-sensory) brand experiences are possible.”
Virtual, augmented, and mixed reality
Currently a gaming hype, but tomorrow relevant to mainstream business and your brand, radically changing the possibilities for new customer experiences. Imagine the cost of refurbishing a car dealership, for example, and how that changes when VR reaches maturity. The rise of VR and AR means that new, creative (multi-sensory) brand experiences are possible.
2. The rise of corporate citizenship as a boost for brands: inextricable link between profit and purpose
In 2019, Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO of Blackrock, published Profit and Purpose, his annual letter to CEOs. Mr. Fink explained that it is no longer sustainable for businesses to only focus on business and financial performance. He argues that the sustainability of a brand’s success is now dependent on its ‘social license’ – for example, the organization’s ability to be empathetic to the environment and other stakeholders. Within the international corporate communications community, this thinking around corporate character isn’t new at all. My fellow members of the A.W. Page Society have been developing this approach for years, and most recently A.W. Page Society president Roger Bolton published his latest book, The New Era of the Chief Communications Officer, which addresses the topic and makes for a really good read.
“It is no longer sustainable to focus on business performance alone.” –Larry Fink, CEO, Blackrock
The new is that, finally, the financial world, dominated by Anglo-American governance, is putting emphasis on the fact that there is more to consider than quarterly results in isolation. From Mr. Fink’s letter, you can see that Blackrock has understood it is no longer sustainable to focus on business performance alone – without good stakeholder relationships and without a sense of purpose, a business will no longer be able to thrive. Following this discussion, in autumn 2019 we have also seen the American Business Round Table publish opinions of senior leaders supporting this view.
3. Covid-19 as an accelerator for brands?
I would think so. Not all changes that have been caused by Covid-19 will be long-lasting. There are several areas where the buying behavior of people will be affected structurally, and this will of course impact your brand:
We will buy from home
Being forced to spend more time at home, we have already seen a significant boost in online purchasing in the Western world. We will be buying online, and we will be doing that mostly from home, where Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple are waiting for us with an intuitive, seamless, and highly convenient purchasing experience. In the future, we will increasingly use in-home, voice-controlled interfaces such as Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and Apple Home to order products and services. By dominating the actual interface of user interaction, these companies get a massive advantage during the purchase process in the customer journey model. For brand owners, it means they have to up their game in other phases of the customer decision journey.
We will want to know the origin of our food and products
Covid-19 originated in China. Going forward, it appears as if we will want to better understand where our products come from. No longer will we think it’s a good idea to eat food at the lowest price, without knowing where it originated. We will want to know where it was produced, how far away, and we will require transparency along the whole supply chain. Already, companies are starting to offer services to monitor the supply chain, cradle-to-cradle (DNVGL’s ‘My Story’ for the food sector is a good example). You will need to think about how to make changes in organizational processes but also about the impact this has on your brand story.
ESG will become of mainstream interest
Whereas ESG (Economical, Societal, and Governance) topics were previously of interest to only a minority of buyers, I predict that, following the Covid-19 crisis, they will become of mainstream interest. We will be entering an era where ESG and sustainability topics are no longer ‘nice-to-have’, they will become table stakes in conducting good business. No longer will great advertising, great products, or low price suffice in creating brand awareness and preference. Buyers will demand transparency in what they’re buying: As well as wanting to know the origin of products and services, customers will want to understand their environmental impact, what brands stand for, and how they are ‘contributing’ to society.
The end of hyper-connectedness and JIT (just-in-time)
The world has become accustomed to the concept of everything being connected. This crisis has exposed the downside to this in a physical sense. Using the lowest-price products from far away will become a thing of the past. Just-in-time has, for decades, been the default manufacturing methodology to enable low inventory levels, short delivery times, and high efficiencies. To our own detriment, we have seen that the downside of this highly efficient model is that it can have disastrous consequences when it is disrupted, and the lack of availability of a minor component prevents production completion and final distribution of products. As a result, sourcing from (too) far away will no longer be seen as a great idea for long-term success.
Non-essential business travel will decline significantly
Traveling is another area where we’ll be much more considerate than before. Do we really need to be physically present at a meeting, or could we be just as productive (or more) using video calling? What impact does this have on your brand experience?
The changing paradigm of brand governance
I appreciate that all these changes are a lot to take in, so what does it all boil down to? Gone are the days where organizations could manage their brand or corporate identity by putting it on everything and logo-stamping their way around the world. Today, brand management is about orchestrating the dialogue between your organization and its various stakeholders. It’s about doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do right, and becoming increasingly agile – developing the organizational ability to move fast, give room to new initiatives, evaluate, and adapt.
“Today, brand management is about orchestrating the dialogue between your organization and its various stakeholders.”
Thanks to these developments, managing your brand has become much more interesting but simultaneously much more complicated. The era of simply steering, controlling, or managing your identity is over and we have entered the era of orchestrating your brand experience – a complex symphony involving the organization and its various audiences. Orchestrating a brand experience sounds simple, but it isn’t. It’s the whole spectrum of expressions, (behavior, actions, verbal and non-verbal communication) that create an impression of who you are and what you stand for. To return to how the Page Society is looking at it, it’s about how you articulate and convey your corporate character.
Those brands wanting to come out of the Covid-19 crisis stronger and ready for the future will need to reconsider their positioning, where necessary pivoting to better meet strategic challenges and audience needs, before working on effectively, efficiently, and sustainably bringing that positioning to life across all touchpoints and channels. The new brand governance paradigm is all about orchestrating a coherent brand experience across multiple channels and touchpoints – an extremely multi-faceted and complex task that requires more planning and preparation than ever before!