For the past seventy years, business branding has been largely guided by principles developed in the 1950s and 1960s, when there were only three television networks, messaging through advertising was easy to control, and information flowed from a few “trusted” news sources to millions of people.
This one-to-many model of information flow has been upended since the advent of the Internet and social media. Now, information flows in millions of different directions at once—to, from, and by people all over the globe—in an all-to-all free-for-all for eyeballs and market share. Some of the well-established rules of branding still apply in this new, hyper-connected environment. But that doesn’t change the fact that building and differentiating a brand is harder than ever and will only prove even tougher in 2015.
In the coming year, the technological connectedness of everyone on Earth will reach a level never before experienced by humanity. The old rules don’t apply in this world. New rules must be developed.
Here are a few to start with:
BE WORTHY OF YOUR CUSTOMER’S TRUST
At its core, effective branding is about a consistent connection between a company, its products, and its promise to customers. No matter what physical product or service you sell, your true product is trust. On the Internet, trust in a brand can be destroyed in an instant, so safeguarding it is of paramount importance. The good news for serious brands is that, because the Internet is so full of scams, half-truths, and outright lies, people will continue to look to brands as a trusted resource. Earn their trust—then work every day, as hard as you can, to keep it.
DON’T JUST AVOID EVIL—DO GOOD
Google’s infamous tag line, “Don’t be evil” is not the same thing as “Do be good”—and the latter is a much better motto to live by. Young people, particularly Millennials and the generation after them, Digital Natives, like their consumption to reflect their values. More often than not, they make buying decisions based on what certain brands stand for, whether it’s environmental friendliness (Prius), fair-wage pay (Costco), LGBT equality (Kellogg), sustainable energy (3M), or whatever. Spin will only get you so far, though—at some point it has to be backed up by honest, well-intentioned action. The world is full of cheaters and liars. Don’t be one of them.
FEWER MEMES, MORE ME
Because messaging can no longer be controlled by the messenger, brands have had to figure out how to get customers themselves to spread the word. One of the most effective ways to do this is through a “meme” that grabs people’s imagination—such as the Ice Bucket Challenge—and goes viral. Modern marketers spend a great deal of time trying to figure out how to create successful memes. Some work, but most don’t, because the nature of memes is that they are spontaneous and unpredictable.
So-called meme-marketing is still in its infancy, but it is already giving way to a more me-oriented form of messaging: the sort of super-targeted, hyper-personalized messaging that is becoming possible with the convergence of Big Data, artificial intelligence, and ubiquitous mobile and personal devices of all kinds. There will always be a place on the Internet for absurd humor, but Big Data allows companies to understand and connect with each individual customer in ever more intimate ways. In turn, each of those customers has unprecedented control over the messages they receive. Memes may work for a long time to come, but more “me” is what people really want. Learn how to give it to them.
COMFORT THE AFFLICTED
The speed of technological and cultural change people are experiencing today isn’t just mind-boggling—it’s disorienting and, for some people, quite scary. The world they used to know is disappearing, and the world that is replacing it isn’t always reassuring. Time-tested brands can often serve as psychological anchors in turbulent times. People are creatures of habit, and they seek out comfort, particularly when they are uncomfortable. Brands that can provide that comfort (Campbell’s, L.L. Bean), or serve as signposts to a better future (Charles Schwab, Apple) will continue to attract loyal customers even as the retail marketplace continues to fragment and choices multiply. Sometimes, the tried and true is the only thing people will try.
SHARE, DON’T SELL
All social-media platforms in existence today rely upon one basic principle: people like to share. Brands, too, can benefit from sharing—but many are still too focused on selling. Sharing, for brands, means connecting customers with information, ideas, and resources that can help customers improve their lives. The “selling” is done by associating the brand with related networks of information that may or may not have much to do with the brand’s products. The term of art for this approach is “curated content,” but it’s really about offering help to people in ways that don’t feel like a direct sales pitch—because they aren’t. They’re just useful pieces of information that you gave them, with no strings attached—and for that, they will remember you, all the way into 2016.
Owen Shapiro is the author of Brand Shift: The Future of Brands and Marketing. Shapiro is a market researcher, strategist and speaker and spent more than 30 years in customer insights and market strategy. He has a career-long interest in helping launch innovative start-up companies, several of which have become well-known brands, including Staples, PetSmart, Sports Authority, Ulta and Five Below.