When considering the future of branding and brands, it is important to properly understand that Communications is now a fractured, complex, and diverse discipline. The challenge for a PR and brand team – and, indeed, for an entire business – is to get everyone working as one. The overarching task is to impart and nurture genuine empathy and understanding for what a brand stands for, along with the overall business goals. The next step is to plan on how that gets communicated effectively to the outside world.

In Communications, working in silos doesn’t cut it anymore. It requires complex, interwoven, and often co-dependent messaging played across advertising, branding, packaging, PR, digital, customer service, and more. Symbiotic, interlocked, and constantly evolving, there is no solitary lens for PR. Instead, there is a brand kaleidoscope that acts as an ever-changing window into how a brand is perceived through the entirety of its communications.

Social media perfectly illustrates how interlocked communications channels can be for brands. A misplaced tweet or a tone-deaf post can quickly catch fire as a PR disaster that can lose customers or have a negative commercial impact on a business. When Dulux became the sponsor of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club this year, one of the first things the paint brand’s social media manager did was engage in some Twitter banter about the club’s lack of trophies. This quite quickly whipped up into a PR storm about how a new commercial partner was making a major faux pax by denigrating its new partner. There were questions asked about the suitability of the partnership and it has resulted in the commercial relationship getting off to an unsteady start.

With an improved lens on PR, the brand would have anticipated the potential problem here. In a future, more perfect world, PR fails can be mitigated by ensuring those who are in charge of social media are adequately briefed and aware of the power of social as a communications channel.

In a future world, this sort of mistakes would be stopped at the source because companies would understand how interlocked all their messaging is with the perception of their brand. A misjudged post on social media has the potential to be just as damaging as Gerald Ratner’s quip in 1991, that the jewellery he sold was “total crap”. His tongue-in-cheek remark in front of the Institute of Directors promptly wiped £500 million from the jeweller’s valuation and nearly took the company to the wall. Reflecting on the incident in 2021, Ratner tweeted, “It is 30 years today when I made ‘that’ speech. It seems like yesterday. I wish it was tomorrow. I would cancel it.” A PR blunder can have a lasting impact. Lessons for the future are often gleaned from what has happened in the past.

In a perfect future vision, PR would always have a board-level seat at any business – helping inform and shape decisions as they are made. PR is not an afterthought. PR is not the red phone to ring in a panic when the shit is about to hit the fan further down the line. Nor is it a cherry to stick on top of a cake with a positive business announcement or new launch. It is not enough to position PR and marketing at the end of a business process. That does not work anymore and brands who do it will often come unstuck or fail to properly connect with their customers.

Another great example from the world of football this year is the abortive launch of ‘The Super League’. As the breakaway scandal unfolded, it was revealed that the organizers only decided to appoint an agency to look after PR on the day of the announcement. What they fundamentally misunderstood is that PR cannot be an afterthought. It’s not about managing a few negative headlines with the belief that today’s newspapers will be tomorrow’s chip papers. PR is vital to monitor the pulse of a brand or an idea. It is about fully understanding and communicating effectively with your customers.

PR is a preemptive tool that is as much about anticipation as it is about activation. Like the tip of an iceberg, with PR there is much more to it beneath the surface than you end up seeing in public. As soon as the tsunami of negative responses hit, The Super League brand was dead in the water. If the clubs had effectively engaged PR earlier in their process they would have realized the whole shebang was a bad idea a lot sooner. This whole episode serves as a lesson on why engaging with PR early is a necessity for any brand.

In recent years, technology has seen brands become more and more efficient in how they target their audience. Data-driven intelligence hoovered up from our online activities means that advertisers often seem to know us better than we know ourselves. In the early days of this tracking technology, this was hailed as new nirvana. We’d be served better because we’d get shown what we want rather than things that weren’t relevant and of interest to us. We were heading to a perfect world of branding and advertising. With minimum wastage for advertisers, you would only see the products you’re interested in.

More recently, however, that dream has turned somewhat sour. The dystopian vision in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, of being relentlessly targeted with ads, looms larger like a tangible reality. Documentaries like Coded Bias, The Great Hack, and The Social Dilemma each portray a dark and damaging heart at the center of this technology, purely focused on milking and manipulating consumers for all that they are worth.

From a PR point of view, consumers are waking up to how their data is being used and brands need to be mindful of this. Customers don’t like it and the resulting bad PR for their brands may be commercially damaging. From a brand perspective, we may end up shifting in a different direction, with more organic, transparent, and authentic connections being a prerequisite of brand communications. Privacy controls will be placed back into the hands of the customer and, as a result, the PR wildfire that is burning about privacy and data may start to recede. We’ve already seen this come to light with Apple’s new privacy feature, intended to put the brakes on the sharing of customer data across multiple sites. By preventing the targeting that is the bread and butter of many brands online, its introduction may be a catalyst for a dramatic change in the entire online advertising industry.

From a brand perspective, we may end up shifting in a different direction, with more organic, transparent, and authentic connections being a prerequisite of brand communications.

Brands need to continue to adapt and change in step with the world in which we live. Many cultural commentators believed that, after COVID-19, the consumer’s relationship with brands might change dramatically. Our values would shift away from a disposable, frivolous culture and brands would need to follow. The jury is still out on whether this will, in fact, come to pass. If the queues at the UK’s high-street stores, when the lockdown was lifted in April, is any barometer of a new consumer consciousness, it may not, in fact, be the case at all. The hunger to spend on a wide range of goods still appeared to be firmly intact.

It is fair to say though that brands continue to become more socially aware. As part of a brand strategy, CSR is often now firmly embedded into many companies. However, CSR is only really effective when it is integrated properly and not just used as a PR badge to appease a target market or drive sales.

In the future, unpicking the relationship between CSR and PR will be a great step forward for brands. If you consider a brand like Dove, which has ‘body positivity’ at the heart of its brand purpose, you can see how powerful this can be – not just part of a marketing strategy but an entire business philosophy. It’s not just a PR badge adopted in order to shift their products.

In summary, I feel that it is worth addressing the elephant in the room.

“What is the perfect future version of branding and brands?”

Well, there isn’t one, of course. We live in an imperfect world and nothing ever stays still. When Brandingmag launched, 10 years ago, the world was a very different place. Fast forward 10 years from today and I expect, fuelled by technology, that change will be even greater. PR, as a profession, continues to evolve and it is now part of a larger, more integrated, communications ecosystem. The days of fluffy ‘Ab Fab’ PR – with boozy lunches and ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ dynamics of doing your job – are long gone. The future vision for perfect PR and brands is to refine and adapt to the broader, interlinked way in which communications operates. It’s also imperative for PR to be positioned at the heart of every business operation. Perfect? No, it will never be perfect, but that’s what keeps the craft of communications such an engaging challenge.

As Brandingmag reached its 10th anniversary this year, we’re putting together an original series that envisions a perfect future for branding. Ten articles will explore ten different sides of branding, each one through the eyes of an expert on the subject. Join our celebration and stay tuned for the next installment in the “Branding’s Perfect 10” series.

Previously: Olaf van Gerwen on advertising
(Branding’s Perfect 10 – Full Circle? Boring AF)

Next: Ivan Gurkov on marketing
(Branding’s Perfect 10 – Absolute Marketing)

Cover image source: Alex Iby & Sharon Pittaway