How Branding Has Changed

In a rapidly changing world, don’t expect branding to remain the same.

One of the most exciting things about our world is the ever-present potential for innovation. Five years ago, no one had heard of Uber or Airbnb. Today, both companies are shaking the foundations of their industries.

This capacity for revolution has consequences. Products and services face aggressive and swiftly evolving competition — just look at the battles between Samsung and Apple as both companies quickly match each other’s most recent features. With the transparency of social media, consumers are savvy — they follow trends and switch allegiance freely.

In this kind of environment, it’s dangerous for businesses to be complacent about their brands. The techniques and principles that were once used to create buzz and fuel differentiation — broadcast campaigns and corporate identity — have become increasingly less meaningful in recent years.

Traditionally, companies valued consistency as the most important principle of branding. Today, however, strong brands strike a balance between conflicting strategies. They find a way be true to themselves while evolving with culture. Uniformity across a brand remains valuable, but it’s no longer enough.

Brands must adapt to cultural needs to thrive.

The One Thing That Changed Everything Is Technology

It’s important to have some context to understand this paradigm shift. Until roughly the mid-nineties, commerce operated within the framework of the industrial age.

In the industrial age, there were certain unwritten laws that everyone obeyed. For instance:

  • You couldn’t start a business without capital.
  • You needed a certain level of personal qualification and social status to be successful.
  • Gatekeepers monitored broadcast channels like radio and TV.
  • Success was a result of offering better products than your competitors at a better price.

During the industrial age, production shifted from cottage industry to factories. Companies began “branding” products for the same reasons ranchers branded cattle — to indicate ownership. Initially, they were just trying to keep things straight.

Pioneering companies like Coca-Cola demonstrated that well-executed branding could add value to a company. With a distinctive logo on the packaging, it was easy for customers to identify a quality product.

Coca-Cola was among the first products to be “branded” to increase the consumer’s awareness of the drink.

Strong branding also allowed companies to expand across global markets while maintaining the same core values and messages. Consistency was the key.

But that was a long time ago. With the advent of the Internet, everything changed. The relics of the industrial age have given way to the age of information.

In today’s new system, there are different rules:

  • You no longer need cash to start a business. Connection is the new capital.
  • Anyone with an idea can start a business — and stand a solid chance of success.
  • There are no gatekeepers. With social media, everyone is a broadcast company.
  • Success is a result of creating a positive customer experience.

Today, consumers’ attention may be the scarcest resource in this new world order. Without gatekeepers, anyone can create and broadcast media. As a result, consumers are over-messaged and exhausted.

PewDiePie, YouTube’s biggest star, has over 45 million subscribers.

Audiences are savvy and quick at determining what content is a paid ad and what isn’t. Millions and millions of people will watch PewDiePie play video games on YouTube, but it can be a real struggle to get impressions for ads. Consumers know what they want, and it usually isn’t a promotional message.

This new dynamic between companies and consumers is very different from the traditional model. Where companies used to control their brand narrative through media channels, the power is now largely in the hands of the consumer.

Social media gives everyone a voice — a brand may not have the largest megaphone, even in the conversation about itself.

Connection is as valuable as capital. Customer experience is as valuable as consistency. Consumers now control the brand narrative. Welcome to the information age.

Consumers Want to Build Relationships With Each Other — Not Brands

Not everyone has successfully adapted to these facts of life. Some companies mistakenly try to “make friends” with consumers by blasting out perky messages — trying to create their own branded PewDiePie. This strategy almost always backfires. Ordinary people don’t want to have relationships with brands. They want to have relationships with other people.

DiGiorno’s Twitter account hijacked the trending hashtag #whyistayed for increasing awareness of domestic violence to sell frozen pizza.

It is possible, however — and important — to encourage positive feelings for brands among consumers. Brands don’t need to be their friend, but brands can be an excellent and trusted resource with meaningful exchanges.

When brands aren’t getting the warmth they want, they tend to try and compensate in other ways. Some social media initiatives alienate consumers by being intrusive, or even deceitful.

Companies that aren’t exciting enough to generate talk-worthiness on their own merits buy followers, fake likes, and incentivize sharing. These tactics don’t build brands. They weaken them by eroding trust.

It can take years to regain customers’ trust after losing it through deceitful and inappropriate tactics. Why don’t more companies launch immersive, experience-driven campaigns? Because they’re difficult.

This New World Requires a New Way of Thinking

It’s no wonder that many take such a passive approach to branding. From a young age, the school system teaches us to work that way. It rewards those who keep their heads down, do the job and bow to authority. We’re trained to study just enough to pass the test.

There’s a lot of confusion about what a brand is, which makes matters even more complicated. Is it a logo? Is it a color palette or a tagline? Is it a person or a story or a package? Few people are in agreement.

In the same way, that social media is more than just a tool for “befriending” consumers, branding is far more dynamic than a logo or packaging design. Strong brands are engaging and multidimensional. It invites consumers to participate in an experience.

It’s certainly harder to build a brand like this, and it may go against the social training we learned in school, but it’s well worth it.

Designers are in a perfect position, as creatives, to discover competitive advantages. Design courses teach more than technical skills. They teach students how to define their aspirations and use the tools available to be successful.

For this reason, many large companies are now hiring chief design officers to leverage design thinking to solve problems and build creative strategies. Design thinking is more important in today’s world than it has ever been. The age of experience we live in is, by necessity, also the age of creativity.

Creative people are a critical resource in today’s world. Technology has a place, but you can’t teach a computer how to create an experience — or how to think about a problem from a new perspective.

Remember creativity’s role in landing on the moon. Scientists had a long-standing assumption, fueled by Jules Verne and Georges Méliès, that success would hinge on a single spacecraft which would leave Earth, land on the moon, blast off and return home. It took a lot of lateral, left-brain thinking to debunk that assumption and put Mr. Armstrong on the lunar surface.

Scientists had a long-standing assumption, fueled by Jules Verne and Georges Méliès, that success would hinge on a single spacecraft which would leave Earth, land on the moon, blast off and return home.

In the same way, lateral thinking is necessary to create a dynamic, modern brand. There are long-held misconceptions to get away from, like the idea that uniformity is the only important element of branding, or that people want to have relationships with corporations.

Pricey paid television ads are no longer optimal for many businesses. The best way to market a product or service is to get other people talking about it, and the best way to do that is to provide an incredible experience. Design thinking helps elevate businesses above outdated ideas. The fundamental purpose of branding is still to stand out from the crowd, but there are better ways to do it.

To Generate Buzz, Innovate the Brand Experience

One of the great branding triumphs of the last few years was Coca-Cola’s Share a Coke campaign. Subversively, Coke replaced their logo, one of the most valuable brands in the world, with consumer’s names. It was a gift from the company, and customers loved it. Suddenly the brand was personal. They felt ownership.

For the summer of 2014, Coke replaced its iconic logo for the most popular first names among Americans.

Pepsi quickly followed with its custom labels featuring emojis, but there’s no sweeter sound than your name. Intrigued customers generated a lot of buzz for the Coca-Cola brand — and expansive media coverage. Ultimately, the campaign was a masterstroke, and it began with throwing the most time-honored and abstract element of a brand out of the window.

Coke successfully maintained their classic red and white stripes while updating the brand experience to remain relevant. They stayed true to themselves while adjusting with culture.

Branding Is Now an Evolving Relationship With the Consumer

The wisdom of traditional corporate identity is that logos and packaging are static. They’re designed, released and then left alone. This kind of static thinking is becoming outdated.

A modern brand never stands still.

Consider Nike and Reebok. While Nike continues to reinvent itself, Reebok has been hesitant. Which brand has more sales?

In 1966, Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman promoted the benefits of jogging with this self-published, 20-page booklet, titled Jogging.

Don’t get me wrong — Nike has been consistent. They simply never stand still.

Nike’s greatest achievement wasn’t the Nike Swoosh. Nike’s greatest achievement was creating America’s jogging culture.

In 1966, Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman created a whole new culture in the US when he published a book titled Jogging. The brand has continued to be at the forefront of cultural movements ever since.

Nike continues to succeed because the brand is like a chameleon. It’s always changing to meet market needs.

In fact, despite being the most valuable clothing brand in the world, Nike is not built on sneakers or clothing. Nike is built on the athletic experience. As consumer interests have shifted, Nike has moved from clothing into wearables like the Nike+ FuelBand, and other immersive, fitness-oriented experiences.

Design Thinking Is Today’s Key to Success

The bottom line is that experience innovation is integral to building a brand. Where consumers were once passive bystanders, they are now active participants. The more relevant an experience a company can provide, the more buzz they will generate and ultimately the more revenue they will earn.

Remember, nobody wakes up in the morning and wonders what meaningful brand interactions the day will hold. They will, however, remember how frustrating it was to wait in line, or how disappointed they were when a piece of content failed to live up to the promises made in its headline.

Design thinking is most powerful when involved at every step of the business process. It begins with empathy and goes all the way through to prototyping.

Today’s creative briefs ask, “How do you earn the consumer’s attention without losing their trust?”

Success in branding hinges on understanding business needs, empathizing with consumers’ needs and providing a creative solution that addresses both. The starting point is respect and a sharp sense of relevancy.

The strongest brands successfully walk the tightrope of reinvention. They’re able to be true to themselves while simultaneously evolving with culture. They’re flexible. They roll with the punches. They hold to core tenets, allowing them to tell a consistent story while innovating the brand experience to attract attention and create a dialogue with respect and relevance.

The world is changing, and it’s time branding caught up.