Nils Koch Jensen, Partner
Is branding important in the digital age?
Digitalisation (smart phones, websites, search and social) of the buying process fundamentally changes how companies should think and act. Not just in respect of how they should improve their digital presence, but also how they view their brand. Marketing pundits state that brands are now born of spreadsheets, as the world becomes increasingly quantified due to the rise of “big data”, search engines and marketing automation. Others say that due to the rise of social media, brands are now formed and owned by customers. Some even believe that branding is dead, put to rest by the complete transparency of the digital age and the rise of online shopping.
I disagree. I believe that understanding, articulating and living the brand is as important as it has always been.
Fundamentals stay the same, but opportunities are changing
Based on my colleagues’ and my own experiences with clients across Europe, I see several trends. Some of these trends support that the fundamentals of branding are still the same, while other trends affect how you deploy your brand:
- Human nature stays the same but our behaviour changes
A common claim is that - due to digitalisation - consumers have changed for good. I don't subscribe entirely to this belief. What hasn't changed is human nature – our basic needs, desires and motivations. But what has changed, is our behaviour: the way we research, buy and consume. Understanding the difference between universal human nature and changing behaviour is the key to successful brand management in the digital age.
- The rise of the empowered customer
Consumers and decision makers have become more and more empowered. They proactively review and research – and look for insights, fresh perspectives and guidance throughout the purchasing process. As more and more of this process transfers to digital channels, brands now need to meet customers instead of just seeking them out.
- Shifting authorities
The financial crisis and increased transparency and availability within the digital era have accelerated the diffusion of authority. Traditional company figures such as CEOs and spokespeople are losing authority whereas subject-matter experts, peers and employees are considered substantially more trustworthy. They now have a voice, which can potentially reach millions of people in a split second.
- Companies are losing the monopoly on information
Due to digitalisation, traditional one-way corporate communication channels are losing credibility. Now people seek out third party sources of information such as blogs, news sites, review sites, social channels and forums that lie outside the traditional customer-company dichotomy.
- Increased transparency
With the proliferation of product ratings, reviews and social media, brand transparency is not a choice – it is a reality.
- The convergence of online & physical channels
Even though e-commerce is gaining more and more traction a mere 5-6% of all sales in Denmark are conducted online. But it's the research part of the purchasing process that is undergoing the greatest change. In B2B between 50-60% of the purchasing decision is conducted prior to the meeting with the sales rep. While in B2C more than 60% of Danish consumers research online prior to purchase. More companies are therefore realising that having a single online/offline focus does not reflect the purchasing behaviour of modern consumers, who are in touch with various channels and platforms across the journey. As a manifestation of this tendency Amazon is reported to be opening its first physical high-street store in New York.
I believe, that you shouldn't confuse this slight loss of control brought about by the digital age with complete brand inertia. Understanding and managing the brand is becoming more complex, yes, but by no means less important.
To address these changes you still need to have a story that underlies your company. This story should be fixed, coherent and provide clear direction. Because if you don't take control of your brand – someone else will.
Avoiding pitfalls and grasping opportunities in the digital age
As more and more of the buying process transfers to digital channels, it is increasingly important to consider how the brand is constructed and deployed through these channels. I have listed six key points, that based on my experience and beliefs, can be useful when working with branding in the digital age:
- Be transparent and demonstrate - don’t just state
Good intentions can be justified, but rather than telling your customers that, show them. In the digital age, empty talkers are quickly outed. With a shift in authority and a rise in transparency, brands need to adopt a more humble, authentic, truthful, honest and clear value positioning and communication strategy. You need to provide straightforward facts and hard proof for what your brand claims. Do not be afraid to embrace accountability – it will give you a head start, and consumers will force you to do it anyway.
- Let the employees be the brand
With diffusion of authority from CEOs to employees, companies should revisit the role of employees in the context of brand management. Allowing Employees to thrive as experts and ambassadors will make the brand come alive, greatly increase your reach and provide your employees with purpose. Employee advocates are more important than ever, because:
- Employees are considered more trustworthy than board-room executives
- Employees can reach larger audience than companies alone
- Content shared by employees engages between 8-10 times more usersthan that shared by brands
- Build your brand on ideas worth sharing
Does the brand stand for something bigger or is it just a platform used to promote products? Brands built on ‘big ideas’ can use these ideas as the core of content creation and brand deployment (think Red Bull – the brand and content is uncompromisingly aligned with extreme sports and action). Stories based on an idea or brand promise create a stronger culture, are a stronger anchor point for content creation and build more durable market positions.
- Use data – but do not follow it blindly
In the digital age, data is abundant and it opens up many possibilities. But it can also be a trap, because data is dead. Data has no heart. The supposition is that certain initiatives, such as posting pictures of kids, babies or a lightly dressed woman, will generate engagement regardless of whether the sender is a premium brand, value brand or anything in between. You will perhaps increase traffic but you will also hurt your brand in the process. So data is not always enough – use your heart and mind as well.
- Think customer experience and channel integration
Fully embracing and anchoring the brand is a huge task. A few years ago, ‘The Funnel’ was the framework of choice for marketing planning. This framework formed a linear step-by-step process ending up with a sale.
But marketing and brand management in the digital age is so much more. Now people jump back and forth between physical and online channels, do research and expect instant guidance and support. Consequently the brand experience is increasingly happening before and beyond the actual purchase. To meet this tendency, companies need to define a bigger story and brand-experience that travels across the online and physical presence. And in the digital age, marketing should own the customer experience – not just ‘The Funnel’.
Think beyond technology
As markets and marketing continues to digitise, marketing’s fetish to chase the latest technologies is misleading marketers to think that the glue of their brand is simply software.
But with the professionalisation of the customer and the explosion of touch-points, defining a strong story is as important as ever.
Technology without a story is an empty shell. It evokes no feeling and can lead companies down a reactive route, without purpose, meaning or direction. Technology is a ‘must have’ – but it is an enabler of your brand, not the other way around. So beware marketer; if technology is your only love, it might be nothing more than a one-night stand.
I admit that much of the above is easier said than done, but beginning with a clear and unique story is a good start.
So remember, keep technology close – but your brand closer. That’s the trick of the game.