Membership is the Future of Brand

With competition increasing in a number of categories and consumer loyalty at an all-time low, it’s clear that businesses need to rethink their brand building strategies. The brands that will thrive in this new era of rapid commoditization are those that have a vested interest in cultivating strong relationships with customers, emphasizing personalization and emotional intimacy. Companies must find ways to appeal to deeper needs, such as creating connection and belonging, and offer ongoing support, rather than expecting a one-way loyalty pledge from consumers. Doing so has never been more important than during these times when trust must be earned daily through building meaningful relationships with people.

The primary way that Hellen responds to this shift is through a “membership mindset.” We’ve seen the importance of adopting this organizational mindset at a number of companies we’ve worked with — namely Nike, which has doubled-down on creating personal, ongoing relationships with members over the years.

There are many different cultural, technological, and competitive forces that are driving the need for a membership mindset. Here’s how we see a few of them.

Traditional avenues for growth are becoming too expensive.

The decline of scaled acquisition channels, whether it’s TV, digital display or even cheap social — really most of the traditional avenues for growth — are too expensive to work. In today’s digital landscape, the acquisition channels that used to comprise an effective growth strategy are no longer as cost-efficient. This is a trend Mary Meeker identified in 2019, and it’s only accelerated.

This is leading to the rise of new models that prioritize reciprocal value for consumers as a means of enticing and acquiring new engagement — one of them being the web3 “ownership” model, which promises greater ownership and deeper emotional connection with customers through increased opportunities for participation.

Brands need to offer more than surface participation in order to succeed.

The rise of web3 “ownership” propositions will set new consumer expectations, meaning that every brand will need to offer more than surface participation in the future. Right now, even many web3 models are very transactional and lacking in emotional depth — but this is inevitably going to change. The rise of web3 has introduced a new way for companies to interact with their customers, allowing consumers to have a more meaningful relationship with the brands they engage with.

As traditional avenues of growth become too expensive, we see the need to move away from brands favoring surface level engagement and towards an ownership and belonging model where customers are truly invested in the success of their favorite brands. The shift towards web3 models is revolutionizing customer retention, engagement and cost of acquisition — making for better experiences for both customers and companies alike.

This shift causes us to rethink how we view “brands,” favoring brands that are built on Customer Dominant Logic as opposed to top-down, superficial relationships.

The very nature of brands is shifting — and the majority of a brand’s meaning and value will be generated by its customer and partner ecosystem.

In many categories brands mean a lot less than they used to — they’re being commoditized at a rapid speed as new brand formulas pop up. Consumers are less loyal than ever, especially after the pandemic, and direct relationships with customers are critical. The brands that will be advantaged are those that will become deeply intertwined with their consumers. Traditional linear customer journeys collapsed long ago — and in its place we’ve seen a Customer Dominant Logic emerge. This means that the strongest brands will operate more as ecosystems of benefits — decentralized platforms that bring meaning and value through a complex web of offerings and partnerships.

Membership is the new container for brand experience.

Brand membership can operate as a hub, a sort of philosophical and experiential thread across platforms, touchpoints, and services that help people get personalized benefits, personalized meaning, and new connections. Meaning and value are borne from purpose-driven experiences, and the best membership programs operate as a kind of scaffolding for all of these interactions.

Even the more transactional programs, such as Delta’s skymiles membership program — now allow you to use Skymiles not just with Delta or Amex, but a host of other partners. Membership is the through-line. This is still a tightly brand-controlled example — but imagine a future where web3-enabled brands allow you to use your points or experience as currency across an entire ecosystem of offerings.

Businesses need to respond in kind to this new branded ecosystem mentality — and be okay with individuals having far more control in crafting their own brand experiences. Add into the mix AI technologies that will personalize content, messaging — even things like voice and tone — and what you’ll see is a massive amount of fluidity from brands. A tightly controlled, singular brand experience will be a thing of the past. Every journey will be personal. Every brand will mean something different to each individual. And membership will act as a brand through-line between experiences.

Hellen Contributors: Adrian Ho, Pierre-Laurent Baudey, Elsa Perushek, Peter Petrulo, Jason Zabel



Jason Zabel
Hellen—Membership for the World’s Most Loved Brands

partner and creative director @zeusjones and @hellenmembership. writing about culture, brands, belonging and the future.