What is the future of branding?
Once upon a time, branding was a tool for cattle owners to identify their herd. It’s been on an incredible journey since then, moving from labelling products to designing experiences, and from being created by brand owners to being curated by customers. So where is branding going next? In this post, we try to ﬁgure that out…
The only constant about branding is that it is always evolving. Oh, and that it’s always been about ownership and differentiation, but even these are evolving concepts. To answer this question, perhaps we ﬁrst need to ﬁgure out what the future is in the ﬁrst place, and how to think about it. Speculative ﬁction author William Gibson once said, “the future is already here – just not very evenly distributed”. The quote’s original context alludes to how most of what we consider as being in the future already exists, to some extent, in the now.
Thinking about Gibson’s quote, the future of branding is just as he put it – very simply, what we see now already includes a blueprint of what will be in the future, or rather, it’s a blend of the old, the current, and the new. Trends that are being formed today, whether it’s in the adoption of new technologies such as AR, VR, AI, and sonic branding, all seem to point to experience and self-realisation as the locus of branding in the future. Brands are increasingly required to satisfy our needs on several levels, all at once. Firstly the level of the senses – to hear, to touch, to taste, to see, to smell… and secondly the level of the heart – to be loved, to feel secure, to be fulﬁlled, to save the world.
Brands in the past such as Coca-Cola and Nestle placed a huge emphasis on claims about the quality and performance of the product; what it was made from and how good they said it was for you – with the image of the product front and centre. Whereas with the brands of today like Nike and Airbnb, utmost importance is placed in the arena of knowing and understanding the wants, needs, and desires of their consumers, and connecting that directly to where brand value is created.
To reference Marty Neumeier in his excellent book ‘Brand Flip’, we are seeing a general shift in power from companies to consumers. And consumers are not so much focused on products and their features, but on brand experiences, and how the brand enhances or endorses their sense of identity. Brands are not so much ‘sold’ by their producers as ‘bought’ by consumers, because it had already been pre-sold to them by their social media circle, or an encounter they’d had of it. As a result of this power shift toward the consumer, we see ﬁve emerging trends that give an idea of what the future of branding looks like:
1. Customers increasingly shape and ‘own’ the brand
Marty Neumeier famously said, “A brand is not owned by the company, but by the customers who draw meaning from it. Your brand isn’t what YOU say it is. It’s what THEY say it is.”
Empowered by social media, the customer now has more control than ever over the brands they buy. We are now living in a new customer-centric marketplace, whereby customers are the people who essentially shape the success and life of a brand. Rather than asking the question of “who are we”, brands today should ﬂip the script and begin to question “who they are” instead. In this world, the main beneﬁt that a brand can offer customers is a kind of self-realisation, and partnership in the brand building process.
Bearing in mind one viral video from a customer can either build or undermine your whole brand narrative overnight, brand owners will need to ﬁgure out ways to partner with customers in the storytelling, and curate that narrative with them, in real time.
2. Growing cynicism about social media reviews, but long live the tribe
Even as social media and online purchasing increasingly dominate the retail space, and the power of social media inﬂuencers and online ratings is growing, we can see the limits of this inﬂuence as its authenticity and independence is increasingly being called into question. When it becomes clear that online reviewers and inﬂuencers are all rewarded in some way by the sellers, how can you trust anything they say?
Which is why the ‘tribe’ has become so important – a smaller circle of inﬂuence made out of close friends, families, and kindred spirits. Because we trust our tribes and are loyal to the brands they endorse. So brands that understand this tribal dynamic will inevitably win in this scenario. Since tribes happen organically, they’re perfect for growing a brand. So when a tribe forms, brand owners should recognise it, develop it, and partner with it.
3. Telling the brand story matters more than ever
With the social media revolution pushed into overdrive by the Covid crisis, many companies are being panicked into short term ﬁxes like social media marketing, rather than longterm investment in building their brand. In an economic crisis the ﬁrst thing that usually gets cut is the marketing spend, particularly on brand building. But you can’t attract new customers and expect them to become loyal to your brand, if all that you’re doing is hyper-targeted social media messaging, highlighting things like discounts.
If the customer doesn’t know and trust your brand already, they won’t stick with you when the crisis is over. It’s only brands that are able to build a long-lasting emotional connection with their customers that will succeed in the long run, because they reward these brands with their loyalty. This only comes about by steady, long term brand building. So even in a time of crisis, telling your brand story consistently in a way that connects with your target audience, matters more than ever.
4. Values, health and authenticity will increasingly drive brand loyalty
One unique effect of the social media revolution is in driving awareness of three related things – authenticity, health and values. These are the main concerns driving generations Y and Z – because they are the children of this revolution. They want brands to be authentic – which means not only that they must be true to who they are and deliver on what they promise, but also it’s about origins. They want to know not only what a product does, but also how and where it was made. They want to know about the safety and quality of the ‘ingredients’, as well as the traditions and techniques of its production. And increasingly, they also want to know about the values of the company that produced it, to see if they align with their own values.
The brands that future generations reward will be those that look beyond just delivering a product or service for proﬁt, to be more socially and environmentally responsible. Brands that are driven by a sense of a higher purpose they can identify with, and are working towards a better future for the current generation, and the generations to come.
5. The human experience is making a comeback
Burberry Regent Street moves beyond purely retail to offer an immersive experience where walking through the doors is like walking into their website. They call it ‘Burberry World Live’.
Adidas ﬂagship store in New York offers a 360 degree VR experience. The main objective is to enhance the retail brand by delivering unique customer experiences relevant to the brand story.
Branding of the future will see the triumph of the ‘phygital’, where online and ofﬂine customer experience fuses into one integrated whole. In the last ten years we’ve seen the decline of the ‘bricks and mortar’ retail experience, in favour of e-commerce, inﬂuencer marketing and online reviews. But now we’re seeing a resurgence of the physical space as as an ‘experience’ centre which becomes an integral part of the buying process. And this trend will only increase. Because you can’t tell the full story about your brand online, neither can people truly understand what it is like, unless they know how it feels, smells, tastes and looks. Only a physical environment can offer this, which is why ‘bricks and mortar’ and the human experience aren’t dead.
So where your brand lives physically and how it is delivered in the human experience makes all the difference. In a future where the customer will increasingly inﬂuence the brand narrative, human engagement with the brand in a physical environment will be key to brand success. Inviting your customers on an experiential journey curated for them from start to ﬁnish, will be what takes your brand from a purely digitalised interaction, to becoming liked and trusted.
Summing it all up
In summary, as we move into a world where more and more of our interactions are becoming digital and online, and where consumers are growing increasingly sceptical of product claims and deliberate misinformation, brand owners will need to refocus on being authentic and human as the key to how they work – receptive to the evolving desires, wants, and needs of the next generation of consumers, and driven by building relationships of trust with them, based on the truth.
So brands nowadays need to build relationships with their customers in part by becoming masters of multiple communications channels, so they not so much control the narrative as become co-creators of it, with their customers. And the most successful brands today will be those who are the most ﬂuid and responsive to change.
More importantly, we believe it’s important to think about the future of branding as one that is holistic, in the sense that it will not only be more of an integrated experience with no separation between “physical” and “digital”, but also that brands will be more relational and engaged with their customers, in multi-dimensional ways. Or as William Gibson would say, more “evenly distributed” compared to the uneven experience we see in the world today.