A New Tradition in Tech Branding

*Insert excuse to post a still from my all time favourite film and teenage crush Edward Furlong

Something is about to kick off in the worlds of tech and adland and I’m excited to have front-row seats. I can feel the anticipation rising in my stomach as I’m typing this. I don’t want to go to the loo in case I miss the start of the show.

I started my first job in the ad industry in 2001. The golden age was over but the equal (-ish) power balance between clients, agencies and media owners still enabled respectful, mutually beneficial relationships. Procurement departments hadn’t quite got their whips out yet. The loooong, mostly liquid lunch was still around but having a fag in the office was starting to get frowned upon.

Crucially, Google AdWords was in its infancy and Facebook wasn’t even a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye.

The 30-second TV ad was still the best way to tell the brand story, get the greatest reach and spark an emotional reaction in the audience. Experiential, digital marketing and branded content were waiting in the wings, getting ready to play their part. No one knew then which was to be the rising star.

This month, Facebook and Google revealed the massive scale of their online advertising business, through their quarterly earnings and the rate of growth of said revenue. Experts predict that the traditional TV ad market is finally going to tumble, 15 years after I got my first 30-second TV script signed off by a client.

But that’s not the bit I’m getting excited about. Excited like a giddy schoolgirl seeing a surprise tiger cub in assembly. (That happened btw.)

The Google and Facebook chiefs are talking about the what’s next on the horizon to propel the digital ad industry forward. Machine learning driving chatbots, virtual reality and mobile advertising developments are the cards already shown. All technology developments. All driven by the same pool of talent.

So much time, money and energy is going to be expended on tiny, incremental technological advancements. Difficult to protect legally and quick to reverse-engineer by competitors. Conversely, in the eyes of the customer or user, these tech-driven products and services will be seen as pretty much equal. UberEats or Deliveroo?

It then comes down to who has the deepest pockets to outspend their competitors in marketing and exclusive partnerships. Or I propose, the company which has the strongest brand to connect emotionally with their audience.

A quote has started to roll around like marbles in my mind — ‘Somewhere in this industry, this has happened before.’ said Roger Sterling in Mad Men

Flashback to Madison Avenue’s golden age when it was first conceived that the name of a brand, or its logo was only the visible part of a much more rich, complex reality. How the brand made its audience feel was the competitive advantage in a sea of post-war consumer goods that were previously seen as commodities.

Back then traditional advertising and packaging were the key deposits in the bank of the brand. Now, thoughtful touches in the UX and UI of a digital product, an authentic origin story told online and user reviews are also in the ever-growing account.

Now we are getting into the touchy-feely, slightly mysterious world the tech world really isn’t au fait with. The creation and ongoing behaviour of iconic brands cannot be data-driven. It cannot be automated.

Marketeers know that however much we love precise planning and measurement of results, the power of the brand has the ability to override rational, predictable outcomes. Those decisions are made on instinct. The value of the brand drove the eventual sale prices of lastminute.com and O2 rather than ownable tech and is now something savvy investors look out for.

I have been schooled in the difference the brand can make when you are essentially selling a product or service with the same functional attributes, whether it is washing powder, breakfast cereals or mobile networks. Do the rules change when we are talking about a multitude of on- demand food delivery services, mobile-first banks and dating apps? When all else is practically equal in terms of functional attributes and technological catch -up is reaching warp speed, who is going to win the hearts of the user?

AirBnB and Facebook are creating campaigns designed to create emotional connections with their audience and hiring more creative heads from adland. Advertising agencies are willing to totally rethink their time-based business models in response. Their stock is rising again with their valuable and irreplaceable expertise in creating emotional connections with audiences through the combination of words and images, whatever the platform.

Perhaps the emotional, human connection of the brand might be the feather that tips the balance between success and failure, rather than the technological advancements driven by VR and AI. Why all this reminds me of one of my all time favourite films, Terminator 2 I have no idea. It’s not exactly human vs robots but if it was, I know which side I’d be supporting.

Tech startups have been successfully disrupting industries that may have been caught napping, perhaps over reliant on brand loyalty at the cost of urgent innovation and agile thinking. It is now the turn of the tech companies to get to grips with the most unquantifiable customer acquisition driver out there — the brand.

Let the games begin.