Brands of the future

James Mok, Chief Creative Officer at Proximity NZ shares his insights on what future-focused brands are doing to win the hearts and minds of customers.

While brands may not be dead, traditional tools for branding may be dying. This as new technologies and channels allow marketers to reach mass audiences in dynamic ways – is this a fair assessment?

“Principles remain, practices change”, as the great John Hegarty said. If there’s any industry that’s adaptable, it’s advertising and marketing. We’ve always been about finding new ways to engage audiences and give brands an edge over competitors. A salient and meaningful brand continues to help influence choice for customers, and the rapid evolution of technologies and channels creates new ways to reach and connect. 

But it’s not binary – out with the old, in with the new. There’s plenty of life left in traditional tools. Like creative agencies, traditional channels continue to evolve. It’s how we use them. Linear TV is also on-demand. Out of home has gone programmatic. Direct goes straight into your inbox. Activations are enhanced through interactivity and social sharing. Shopper interacts with your smartphone. 

How we reach audiences is constantly evolving. But building a brand still demands an audience to be excited by what it stands for and what’s in it for them. With all this change, our challenge is to create a distinctive and memorable impression at scale.

What does a fragmented media landscape mean for brands trying to make the most of their media spend? How do brands best navigate this?

Marketers are weighing up their long- and short-term goals and investing accordingly. Brands need investment and there’s been much said about the value of Binet and Field’s ‘Long and Short Of It’. And while I believe we’ve seen a rebalancing of budget allocations, we live in volatile times. At any moment marcomms plans can, and do, change depending on business performance. We’re still in the middle of the disruption caused by Covid-19 so we’ll be in a reactive market for the medium future. Maybe that’s simply the new normal.

The fundamentals of media strategy remain – to reach as many of a desired audience as possible, as often as possible; to use data and media insights to efficiently target people who fit a profile or when their behaviour suggests they are in the market. But as someone much smarter than me said recently, “might it be better to give the audience something wonderful that has real impact rather than a hundred small executions that are skipped or ignored?” If brands are to get the most out of their budgets, the quality of connection must be as important as the quality of the reach. So the question shouldn’t be just how to navigate media spend, but also how to create messages and experiences worthy of your audience’s time and attention.

What does the next five years hold for the future of brand marketing?

While technology and media change rapidly around us, we know the motivations of humans don’t. So it stands to reason that the principles of trust, familiarity, value and accessibility remain essential. It’s how we build these credentials that we need to be constantly exploring.

What a brand does is as important as what a brand says, so the customer experience will have to be in-sync with the promise. Broadcast alone won’t cut it but sequenced messages across channels will build meaning and convert action. It’s about dialogue over monologue, so social communities are as essential as first-party data. Word of mouth will continue to be critical, so fans and advocates become an essential channel. Product innovation keeps curious consumers interested. Unexpected partnerships amplify everyone’s budgets. Test and learn will continue to be a practical way forward. Technologies will make lives simpler so convenience and delight can enable trial or purchase in ways comms can’t. But while it’s tempting to explore new technologies and channels, few will have the budget to go all-in at the bleeding edge. 

What should continue, regardless of platform and channel mix, is the need for brands to be bold and exciting; to be fresh and interesting. Because we’re humans and we’re attracted to dynamic things. Over the millennia we really haven’t changed that much. 

James Mok.

What of brand loyalty? Are increasingly market savvy consumers still bothered with this sentiment?

Few brands garner the level of passionate loyalty as Apple or Air New Zealand. Does that mean brands shouldn’t try? Invariably people have a repertoire of brands. It’s staying in the repertoire that counts. And given it generally costs less to retain a customer than it does to acquire one, why wouldn’t a marketer want to invest in a retention strategy? If a business is addicted to acquisition, it risks seeing any gains slip out the back door.

Even market-savvy consumers respond to being treated well. The loyalty bar is a high one; people have more choices, that are more readily available, and with little risk. There are so many components to loyalty – trust, value (tangible and intangible), transparency – and these are experienced through every interaction a consumer has with a brand. Loyalty is made up of micro-moments that can either deposit or withdraw from a person’s loyalty ‘bank account’. The key is maintaining enough of a balance that when things do go wrong (and they invariably will) you’re not plunged into overdraft.

Brand loyalty is more than a metric, it’s a principle that should guide every decision a business makes – will this product/service/experience/communication strengthen or erode the relationship? 

How important will brand values become as consumers are increasingly wary of issues like privacy, the environment and sustainability?

For every consumer who chooses brands with high ethics, there are still plenty of people who either don’t care or are driven by pragmatic choices such as what they can afford. But the future belongs to Gen Z who are more vocal and demanding for businesses to behave ethically and sustainably. Media loves a juicy story so brand reputations are at the mercy of a critical and dissatisfied public. Greenwashing and data breaches are called out and the voice of critics have an amplified platform in social media. It’s harder to hide.

Brands who take a stand become poster children for positive change. They gain an unfair share of media coverage and become the go-to examples of progress. They become the Zeitgeist. As these brands take the initiative, with ethical and sustainable practices that build positive public sentiment and convert customer preference, the risk for competitors isn’t whether they can afford to follow, but whether they afford not to.

Personalisation is something that customers are increasingly demanding of, how can brands best respond to this?

Personalisation is more than just using data attributes in communications, it’s a perspective that should be applied across the entire customer journey, across all touchpoints. When done right, the end result should be absolute ease for the customer because you’ve made them feel like they’ve been dealing with a responsive human being the whole time.

There’s a tension between being more personalised and being creepy or annoying. Get it wrong and it’s “delete”, “unsubscribe” or “unfollow”. Get it right and it’s a boost in click-throughs and open rates.

Like anything advertising related, it’s about the value-exchange: is it worth my time and attention? Is it relevant and useful? Is it respectful and does it offer me value? So being timely with the message or offer is appreciated. Looking good and connecting with the right tone creates affinity. Keeping it simple, with an intuitive experience, avoids wasting people’s time. And avoiding banner stalking or inbox spamming goes without saying. 

Charles Eames said, “The role of the designer is that of a very good, thoughtful host anticipating the needs of his guests.” It’s equally true of brands wanting to build a successful relationship with their customers.

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