Brand identity as a network effect

This text was published in the latest edition of the Form Design Magazine. The issue explored how identities are made today.

When Lotta Volkova, of the fashion brand Vetements, was asked who in the fashion industry is in power today, she simply replied: the consumer. Not the CEO, the editor, the journalist or the fashion critic. The consumer.

Ms. Volkova is right. Cool today is not what brands tell you it is; it’s what the street demonstrates. “I didn’t create a pair of shoes because I wanted some editorials. Never. I think of a guy in the club, outside in the street or a friend of mine,” said Demna Gvasalia, Vetements’ founder. The result is clothes, not fashion.

Brands are products of their media. Jingles and slogans were all the rage at the time of radio. Print prioritized photography and logos. TV launched a 30-second spot.

Mass media separated brand identity from its execution. At the time of templated channels and messages, it didn’t matter so much. A company could give their brand identity guideline to someone in advertising, and expect that their typeface, logo, format or image is going to be applied.

The Internet is about networks. It is about networks between people, ideas, products, actions, content, memes, interactions or services. These networks are where social, individual and cultural identities are formed and confirmed.

A network does for 21st-century brand communication what the TV did for the 20th and print did for the 19th: It conveys brand identity in a tangible form. It shows us the organizing mode of communication. In the 19th century, it was the identity of a family business. In the 20th, it was the corporate identity. Now it is the identity of the consumer.

Internet networks are much less about brands and much more about people talking about themselves. Modern brands, like Gwyneth Palthrow’s online publisher and retailer Goop or a beauty direct-to-consumer brand Glossier, capitalize on these networks. They capture consumer imagination not by crowbarring themselves into conversation, but by being the subject of it.

They invest in content, communities, collaborations and online and offline activities as their audience-building strategies. Through these actions, they create authentic gatherings of people who share a common identity, interest or passion, and who want to meet, interact and build relationships. This makes them different from brands that use traditional advertising, with templated formats and rigid aesthetics, and put it out in the world for everyone to consume and eventually get bored with. More effective than a campaign imagery is the ongoing cultural commentary shown through a brand lens: a constant stream of brand references that move at the speed of a social feed.

Goop, Glossier, Lululemon or a luggage brand Away launched their own identity networks. Thanks to their extreme proximity to their customers, they were able to create a shared identity, sensibility and intriguing story. In the process, they built businesses that are meaningful and that people love to talk about. For these brands, the Internet is not just another place to put old-school messages, taking up space in-between people discussing more interesting things. Instead, Goop or Glossier are those interesting things.

They understand the connected culture at the level that goes much deeper than the legacy brands throwing millions of dollars at the latest technology, hoping that something will stick. These newcomers succeed because they look for the future of building a strong brand identity is in its past: in the intimate, local, one-on-one human connections responsible for creating loyalty in the first place.

All modern brands have in common the unorthodox way they establish and perform their brand identity to forge a lasting bond with their audience. They don’t hand off the attributes of their brand identity to media. Instead, they build their identity in their networks, one experience at the time. In retrospect, they all pursued one or more directions below.

Develop the narrative. The fastest growing companies today had their brand narrative figured out even before they invested a single dollar in their marketing. Uber is evolving the way the world moves by being everyone’s private driver, delivering on-demand flu vaccinations, Christmas trees, kittens, by being a nanny, a corner store and the same-day shopping service. Because Uber defines itself as a global urban infrastructure for shipping and logistics, the company now successfully competes in a wide range of markets and commands an impressive $70bn valuation. Its products and services keep evolving under the umbrella of Uber experience, which remains the company’s key competitive differentiator and the core of its lucrative business model. Similarly, Airbnb’s “Belong Anywhere” creates codes of conduct for both sides of its marketplace — hosts and guests — and makes it easy to understand and buy into. It is not hard to know what to expect from Uber or Net-a-Porter, which sees itself as “Fashion that Delivers.” All these brands have created a strong and compelling brand narratives, precisely because they do not obsessively control them. They allow their drivers, hosts, guests and fans to shape and perform these narratives by interacting with the brand and each other. Apparel brand Free People goes further, and draws on fan photos to help tell their brand story. Not every fan photo features products, but Free People shares those that convey the emotion and the atmosphere that fits into its brand narrative.

Create a feedback loop. The premium apparel brand Everlane launched a private Instagram account, @EverlaneStudio, in addition to its public one. The reasoning behind it is to create an Instagram incubator where Everlane can introduce new products before they become widely available to its most dedicated customers and keep close track of their feedback. It’s a scenario where fans act both as a source material, beta-testers and a focus group. The Everlane’s team then looks into the Studio’s comments, respond and apply customer learnings in their designs. This modern brand also combines social listening data, e-commerce and in-store sales data and search data to gain insight into the patterns of consumer demand across their merchandise. It informs the decision as to when and where to make different products available, depending on when consumer demand is the highest. This iterative approach to merchandise design enables Everlane to sell products that its customers want and are willing to pay the full price for.

Invest in the intimate community of fans. To differentiate in a market defined by networks is to have a strong, personal and deep-rooted bond around your audience’s passion points. LA-based fashion brand Anine Bing revolves around the singular identity of its founder — but also around identities around all of those who share the same aesthetic sensibility, lifestyle and taste. “I got onto Instagram really early, and I quickly saw the opportunity to sell product that way,” says Bing. “I launched a web shop and I was wearing the clothes myself and on Instagram and the blog.” Anine Bing brand is about managing an ongoing relationship with a very specific set of customers that enables their specific lifestyle. This relationship can also be created through data used to curate products, as Farfetch or Reformation do, or through the iterative and test-and-learn process championed by Lululemon, Ministry of Supply or Nike. Their customers become cult-like followers because they identify with these brands’ singular attitude and point of view, and with the community of like-minded others who “get it.” Belonging to a brand’s creative network signals that we are part of an exclusive community that shares the same aesthetic instinct, taste and identity.

Collaborate. A brand is going to become critically valuable to consumers if those consumers invest their own time and resources in it. In this scenario, consumers define their brand experience by re-making brand product and services more according to their own needs and likes. Big, upscale U.S. retailer Nordstrom partnered with Toms shoes to inspire its customers to design new Toms. Nordstrom attracts affluent customers who are looking for something more than just mass-produced clothes. They seek unique, elevated designs that are going to set them apart from their peers. Intimate knowledge of its customers allowed Nordstrom to come up with the initiative that responds to their needs in the best possible way. Nordstrom inspired its customers both to express their creativity through shoe design (and to own it), and to feel good about being part of a larger, meaningful humanitarian initiative. Big, upscale US retailer Nordstrom partnered with TOMS shoes to inspire its customers to design new TOMS. Nordstrom attracts affluent customers who are looking for something more than just mass-produced clothes. They seek unique, custom-made designs that are going to set them apart from their peers. Intimate knowledge of its customers allowed Nordstrom to come up with the initiative that responds to their needs in the best possible way. Nordstrom inspired its customers both to express their creativity through shoe design (and to own it), and to feel good about being part of a larger, meaningful humanitarian initiative.

Define your role in culture. Brand identities are often tied to a founder (Disney), a provenance (General Mills) or an experience (Coca-Cola, Nike). They are built by a handful of advertising agencies, consultancies and design firms. The resulting vertically integrated brand-media complex is decidedly anti-network. The pitfall of this model is consumer indifference, cultural isolation and lack of influence. At the same time, there are newcomer brands that are convincingly modern because they communicate through cultural exchange. Luxury fashion brand Gucci’s memes are worked because they enforce the web’s social mythology, they are unexpected, inherent to their network, and aligned with the Internet values of scrappiness, remixing and sharing. They are also fun. The Internet nurtures cultural niches that filter global creativity through their perspective and then use their niche sensibility to re-enter the global dialogue. Gucci successfully capitalized on this: its mix of references from art, theater, music, film, design and architecture turned this brand into a cultural creator and appreciator of all forms of creativity.

“When there is a wind of change, we can build a wall to protect ourselves from the storm or we can build a windmill to let the wind blow faster, so we can benefit from the wind and be part of change,” said Alber Elbaz, former creative director of luxury fashion brand Lanvin.

Change happens slowly and then all at once, the saying goes. Modern brands are identity networks. They are all about the individual who buys their products and services and not about the company who creates them.

To stay relevant in the age of networks, which diminish their traditional role in connecting products and consumers, brands need to start piggybacking on the identity of those they want to connect with. They need to convincingly embody the taste, aesthetic and cultural sensibility and lifestyle of their audience. Then, they need to augment through content, intimate community management, feedback loops, collaborations and convincing cultural narratives.

To rapidly shift their vantage point towards customer-centrism, traditional brands need to understand the role that networks plays in their business beyond advertising. Too often, they consider networks mostly as an advertising tool (think Snapchat filters, stickers and branded emojis), and not as an entirely new brand-building model.

As advertising, networks allow for more effective ad planning. As a brand-building model, they transform everything from brand vision, mission, positioning, capabilities, values and benefits.

The gap between these two scenarios reveals legacy brands’ short-term approach to their own growth. In contrast, newcomers all adopt the long-term view. They built their brands around networks and in the process accumulated the wealth of consumer data, created flat, fast-moving organizations and invested in sustainable and transparent customer relationships.

The network gap also reveals a discrepancy in competitive fitness among the main brand players on the global market. In the past, the competitive edge was achieved through amassing scale, vertical integration and increasing corporate marketing budgets. Today, this isn’t how the brands grow. If the twentieth century was the age of the brand-media complex, the twenty-first century is the age of a creative network.