Industrial era brand strategy was so simple. In 1909, Henry Ford famously said, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” More colors would only add more complexity to his finely tuned assembly line model of production. The cars were black and that was that.
This mentality in the market today sounds absurd. “The consumer is in control,” is the popular refrain of our times.
However, I continue to see brands managed in much the same way Ford managed his automotive production. The brilliant machines designed to scale become the immovable barriers for innovation (see McDonald’s). Equities remain unchangeable, regardless of cultural context, category drivers, competitive disruption or consumer tastes. Brands find themselves defined more by their products, their visual equities, and their infrastructure than they do by their values and their actions. It’s a hangover from years of brand building doctrine that was largely grounded in this same industrial era mentality.
It’s time for a major overhaul to the processes, frameworks, organizational structures and fundamental philosophies associated with industrial era brand building. A new era has arrived. It’s time we trade in the dogma of the past for the fresh, objective thinking needed for modern brand building. It’s time we focus on building economies of connection as much as we do economies of scale.
For roughly the past 30 years, brand building has been rooted in the realities of mass, one-way communications, and linear media. The dominant strategy was to establish a clear position in the marketplace and then create a finite set of design assets and communications to scale across a very limited number of channels. This delivered a consistency of message and image that reinforced memory structure, delivering significant competitive advantage. Investment, in both time and money, in those assets could be considerable. But the economies of scale, amortized over several years, provided returns that easily justified the investment. One need look no further than the dramatic increase in value attributed to goodwill on corporate balance sheets over this time period for quantifiable proof.
This approach to brand building led to the rise of a branding industry preaching the gospel of brand’s intangible, but now very measurable, economic value. New dividing lines in the field of marketing emerged. A segment of branding agencies was born to capitalize on the distinction between campaign development (temporary, disruptive, promotion-centric) and brand building (evergreen, continuous, consumer-centric). The consulting gods looked at what they had made, and saw it was good. And so it was, even into the emergence of digital agencies, which early on simply represented another form of promotional advertising.
However, with the rapid and continuous evolution of digital, we now find ourselves in a landscape that is at once ephemeral and evergreen, disruptive and continuous, promotionally driven and community-oriented. The clear demarcation between brand, campaign, digital, product, experience, and culture have all but been erased.
Brands now exist as complex systems of engagement – the sum total of every interaction, experience and touchpoint a consumer may encounter. In the digital age, brands are by definition holistic and dynamic in nature and therefore require high-performance collaboration for successful development and execution. Experiential brand building requires seamless collaboration between marketing, product development, design, technology and more. It requires a much faster, more iterative, test-and-learn approach. It needs to inform not just its look and feel but how it behaves, in real time, in contextual settings along every step of the consumer journey. In other words, the realm of brand now is not only the discreet management of positioning, equities and communications (ex. logo, packaging design, tag lines, ad campaigns), but the continuous, cross-functional innovation of culture, product, experience, and distribution as well.
And yet we continue to see that most companies (and agencies) are still operating under industrial era models. Functional silos are designed to scale a single output very efficiently, and then move it down the assembly line to the next silo. This works great when the goal is predictability and efficiency through scale. It falls flat, however, when the competitive landscape requires an organization to excel at pulling multiple dimensions of a brand experience together, quickly and in a dynamic fashion, over and over again.
For modern brand building, strategies that can generate economies of connection – the ability to bring together multiple disciplines and facets of your brand experience quickly, again and again – have become as critical as those that deliver economies of scale. Companies and brands would do well to design more resilient brand cultures and systems that quickly adapt and innovate against new consumer experience opportunities as they arise in real time.
If positioning frameworks, guidelines, and asset management systems are the tools to gain economies of scale, here are three vital principles needed to gain economies of connection.
1. Know your purpose and commit to it fully.
Why does your brand get out of bed in the morning? Seems like a simple question, but it’s amazing how many brands don’t have an answer. The great brands inspire a level of engagement and a sense of connection that is bigger than their products.
Positioning is a helpful framework to remind you what messages (benefits, RTBs, etc.) your brand needs to communicate (at scale), but it doesn’t do much to inspire advocacy. That’s the job of purpose.
No brand understands this more than Nike. I know, I know – could I choose a more obvious example? Probably not. But that’s the point. Having a purpose is no sweat. Committing to it – day after day, year after year, decade after decade – is what distinguishes the best. Nike has long since given up trying to differentiate through positioning and benefits – those things have shorter and shorter shelf lives. Nike believes that if you have a body, you’re an athlete. Its purpose is “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” Nike plays to make everyone better. This purpose-driven leadership has allowed them to grow their brand by not only increasing share, but growing the pie – expanding the appeal of sport and inspiring more participation in sports at every level through innovations like Nike+, NikeID, and NikeBetterWorld.
This commitment to their purpose delivers the economy of connection of a brand narrative that they’re able to keep fresh time and again. A perfect example is their most recent “Believe In Something” campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick. It’s the same hero’s journey, just reimagined for maximum cultural and commercial impact. Their purpose also fuels their ability to translate their narrative into a transformative retail experience that Nike’s Chief Design Officer, John Hoke, describes as “a plural reality of the physical space and digital space.” In Nike’s world, campaign and product, physical and digital, are all experienced as a seamless, multilayered system of engagement (aka an amazing brand).
2. Be obsessed with understanding your customer and building community.
It starts with a mindset of living for your people, not off them.
Yet so many brands today still speak in terms of marketing to a “target” as if they were some savage, foreign subspecies, completely separate from the people they interact with every day. As a result, their brand efforts feel like a con game and eventually, people revolt.
You have to be one with your pack in order to build the trust, empathy and intuition needed to quickly act and react in ways that add value and build loyalty.
In a recent Recode Decode interview, Emily Weiss, CEO of online beauty brand Glossier, stated, “…fundamentally, we just think about how do you give people amazing experiences. We’re very devoted to the customer from the standpoint that we don’t want to put things that aren’t amazing into the world. Since we launched, we’ve always relied a lot on user-generated content and feedback.”
And it’s not just a siloed insights or marketing department responsible for this level of customer-centricity. Glossier generates economies of connection by aiming every aspect of its business towards its customer. As Weiss states in that same interview, “…we’re about a third tech across engineering, digital product, data, design, and then we have an in-house creative team, we have in-house R&D, development, and I think we’re all very connected to the customer.”
It’s this customer obsession and internal connectivity that allows the brand to create a highly-engaged system of engagement by delivering brand experiences worthy of being captured and shared across social media. It’s customer-centricity that results in customer advocacy. Seems to be working. Weiss states that Glossier has had triple-digit growth year over year for the past four years, with 50% of last year’s revenue from repeat customers.
3. Cultivate a highly-aligned culture.
For many of our clients, maximizing the value of their brand has nothing to do with updating their identity, their positioning, their messaging or even their strategy. Their biggest challenge is activating their brand culture. Investing in a robust brand strategy without a robust brand culture is like buying a Ferrari and then realizing you don’t know how to drive. A high-performing team will find the right plan for any number of challenges. However, a great plan in the hands of a dysfunctional team will only lead to dysfunction (and the waste of a beautiful Italian car!).
Netflix literally wrote the book (deck) on cultivating a highly-aligned culture. Their core philosophy is “people over process.” They understand that hiring the best talent and arming them with the clarity of purpose and a deep understanding of their customers and giving them the freedom to go accomplish great things is what fuels their brand. They were born a category disruptor – an extremely difficult position to maintain. But it is precisely their investment in a culture of innovation and disruption, over that of control and predictability, that has allowed them to stay ahead of their competitors and continue to grow.
While the tools to scale are still vitally important, it’s clear they aren’t everything. To quote His Purple Majesty, Prince Rogers Nelson, “Don’t get on the scale if you ain’t got the weight.” In fact, an over-reliance on those tools and that mindset can work against you in today’s fluid and interconnected environment. Before seeking to leverage economies of scale for your brand , make sure you got the weight. Invest in economies of connection (through high-performance teams) and you’ll have a brand that’s truly worth scaling.