Branding in 2018

Traditional retail giant, Sears, is making itself obsolete at a spectacular pace. Before we dive in, let’s clarify a few things about branding:

Branding in 2018 is: a promise; what customers say behind a company’s back; the soul of a business; a personality applied to a company’s offer; the reason a business exists; influenced by everyone who sells/represents/uses a brand from inside and outside the company; formed in the minds of consumers; ever-changing.

Branding in 2018 is not: a logo; synonymous with marketing.

Developing a brand strategy is incredibly important for all businesses, as the process forces companies to articulate why they’re in business and for whom. The what, when, where, and how (strategy) comes later once the first two questions are answered. This makes up the soul of a brand.

There is no better example of branding in action than with a commoditized product like bottled water. With so many brands of bottled water available, how is a consumer to decide which one to buy? After all, water is virtually the same across all brands and it’s available without having to go to the store. This is where brand strategy shines. Although most consumers have an opinion about the type of bottled water they prefer, what they really have an opinion about is the packaging, advertising, celebrities that endorse the brand, distribution, and availability.

Furthermore, brands have evolved from simply being an indication of high quality to humanizing brands so consumers feel a greater connection to the inanimate objects they’re buying, to brands as status symbols (Levi’s and Volkswagen did the job), to brands providing more than just a product or service and instead an experience (Starbucks and Disney come to mind), to brands tapping into our most primal urges for connection and feeling safe, wanted, and heard (namely, Facebook). Each wave of brand evolution has brought with it new meaning and increased importance for consumers.

And we’re on the verge of another shift.

I’m here to propose that we’re at the tipping point of the next wave of brand evolution. Brands of all shapes and sizes are thriving in today’s global, interconnected world and they’re doing so because they’re not just connecting, but they’re connecting authentically. To succeed in today’s consumer space, successful companies are building trust by connecting authentically with a group of narrowly defined customers. Status, size, and past success can only take a business so far in today’s digital landscape that influences so much of the physical world. As mentioned earlier, the mighty are falling and more and more tiny businesses (made up of one or two individuals) are thriving. Large firms face the challenge of more nimble competitors with a strong sense of self who are forging more authentic connections with consumers across a variety of industries.

Authenticity: Defined

Not false.
True to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.
The quality of being genuine often considered a powerful brand attribute.

Branding in 2018
Establishing Authenticity, Building Trust
Authenticity is in the Eye of the Beholder

To say an organization should be more authentic is one thing, but putting it into action is challenging because ‘demonstrating authenticity’ is not a one-size-fits-all formula. What seems authentic to one person may not appear authentic to another. A survey by the Boston Consulting Group found that authenticity is a major driver of consumer engagement across all demographics, but most notably with Millennials, who will soon have the greatest buying power of any cohort on the planet. But it’s worth mentioning that authenticity was viewed differently depending on the cohort. Baby Boomers believed authentic brands to be long-standing brands, whereas Millennials viewed companies with personality and participation in social causes to be more authentic.

Therefore, aiming to demonstrate increased authenticity starts with articulating your company’s purpose or a reason for existing other than to make money. Yes, companies exist to turn a profit, but why else does the business exist? What are you trying to accomplish? And for whom? ‘Maximizing shareholder value’ is an important element to running a business, but it’s a terribly inauthentic purpose. The purpose is for your customers. Therefore, companies must understand who they are at the core of their business and what customers value about them most. Demonstrating authenticity is about playing to your strengths, versus changing who you are to fit a perfect industry or societal ideal. Your tagline, logo, and market may shift as the business evolves, but it’s your purpose that acts as both an anchor and a compass: it keeps your business grounded in what’s most important for your customers while providing you with direction.

Real People, Real Stories, Real Time

It’s been said that people hate to be sold, but they love to buy. And people love to buy ideas in the form of stories. The good news for marketers is that good storytelling does double duty: it’s a convincing sales tool and it’s a key component in authentic communication. The bad news for marketers is that good storytelling is damn hard. When done well, it moves a brand forward, conjuring up favourable thoughts in minds of consumers, connecting them to the soul of the business, and moving a transaction forward. When done poorly, it bores and confuses the reader, making them feel disconnected to the brand so that the action they take is to unfollow, unsubscribe, or delete the message. Storytelling has become an integral part of communicating authentically, which requires establishing a clear and consistent brand voice that cuts through the noise in order to humanize cold business speak. Customers want to buy from someone who sounds like them. The democratization of the Internet (both the tools we use to create content, as well as the self-publishing options) has enabled businesses of all sizes to become communication forces to be reckoned with.

Social media has changed the game too. It’s changed not only in the proliferation of brands in our lives (because our smartphones are in our hands at all times of the day and night), but also the brand voice spoken on these less formal platforms. We buy because of the connection, personality, and voice on the other side of the medium. An authentic offering on social media means offering high-quality social content that matches the platform (beautiful photography on Instagram and links to news or other content on Twitter, for example). Social media content is like a handshake you extend to consumers inviting them to interact with you.

Social media has also opened up the floodgates to allow ideas to flow both ways: from company to customer and customer to company. This two-way online dialogue is a powerful conversation in which companies should actively participate. Today’s consumers expect this two-way dialogue and through positive interactions on social platforms companies are building authentic relationships and turning customers into loyal brand evangelists.

Social media is an ideal platform on which to tell your brand story, but it’s also where your competitors are telling their stories. Photographer and social media business coach, Jenna Kutcher, said it best: “Social media can feel like this screaming match where everyone is competing and trying to make the most noise. But here’s the key: you don’t want to join in on the yelling. Instead, you want to whisper directly to your dream clients.”

Furthermore, product placement and social influencer sponsorship are becoming common across various social platforms. For example, large companies reach out to popular Instagram personalities and ask them to post content featuring their products. It’s an ingenious strategy that allows large companies access to niche followings while at the same time leveraging the influence of “real people” recommending products, increasing the perception of authenticity. But there’s also a growing movement (and perhaps even legislation in the near future) of using the hashtags ‘#sponsored’ and ‘#ad’ in the posts so that consumers are aware when an individual was compensated for the product placement. This move towards more transparent and authentic product placement in paid-for advertising is a novel shift which proves that advertisers are onboard to be more authentic in their advertising efforts.

Authenticity in Action

It’s clear that building a successful, authentic brand takes work. It requires companies to keep their promises and deliver reliable, respectful, and real experiences consistently. Creating an authentic brand is no easy feat, but it’s not rocket science either: creativity, honesty, and hard work increase emotional connection and brand loyalty. As an iconic brand, Jeep, suggests: “Whatever your destination, there are a million beautiful, ever-changing ways to get us there.” Whatever path you decide to take, let authenticity be your guide.

Article by Diana