The big brand shift

The one certainty brands have in this post-pandemic world is that nothing is certain yet anything is possible, says Sharon Henderson. After a year of enormous disruption and great acceleration, companies around the globe have made years of change in a matter of months, but in a TikTok era in which disposable entertainment has become the currency du jour, she ponders how brands can evolve to have their biggest impact yet.

There was a time not long ago, when every corporate had its 10-year plan as an iron-clad, concreted roadmap for the entire organisation. Today, in a world of intermittent lockdowns and generational change that occurred in the space of a year, even a five-year plan feels presumptuous. Instead, this is a time for the rise of living, breathing organisational plans with a pulse, that are more a statement of intent and innovation with the agility to evolve on the move and change at speed.

So too it goes for brands in this new epoch. The streets of marketing are littered with brands that struggled to change, steering themselves into trouble as recently as 2020. They’re brands caught in a vicious circle, instead of shapeshifting and jumping into a future-forward position, one that’s a virtuous circle of consumer resonance. Brands that didn’t navigate into this new world fast enough include some of the most memorable and iconic names of the past few decades: Topshop, Speedcast, Vine, Borders, JCPenney, J. Crew, Toys R Us. In the world of brand archetypes, they’ve been some of the most indomitable ruler brands of their category. Now history tells a different story.

The one certainty brands have in the new post-pandemic world is that nothing is certain yet anything is possible, including a step-change transformation for their organisation’s brand or the products and services they offer. 

If ever there was a year of the great acceleration, 2020 was it. We’ve proved we can implement years of change in a matter of months. Yet too often, marketing practitioners are relying on the same tried and trusted methods used decades ago. The Brand Key, the Onion, the Brand Pyramid, the Brand Funnel. And post-2020, you have to ask why, and are these tools match-fit for the opportunities ahead?

I believe we’ve entered a new era, in which the three Ps of marketing have really become the four Ps, with the inclusion of Purpose. And arguably they’re actually the five Ps because we need to be thinking about where the Planet fits into the greater plan for the brands we’re marketing. The CSR [corporate social responsibility] purpose of a brand can’t be a plug-in or add-on anymore. And no way should sustainability of the planet
be anything other than a commitment embedded deep within every organisation’s mission. Those two new Ps are critical to aligning our brand stories for a more positive impact on the world. 

Strategy Consultant at AGLX Simon Lendrum is a proponent of Complexity Theory, which emphasises the role that interactions and accompanying feedback loops have on constantly changing systems. He says, “Too many organisations have a linear strategy that can’t adapt when they’re forced to go off-piste. If your organisation and brand have defined a shared understanding of what success looks like and they work to a looser set of guiding principles, you can make decisions that don’t send you blindly down the track of a pre-determined strategy. Instead, you can steer your brand away from rabbit holes and failure, giving it more resilience for the future.”

That looser set of guiding principles is in my view essential. We’re seeing entire categories changing and today’s brands are always in motion – whether they know it or not. For instance, the rise of digital banks and financial services brands have given many traditional banks and lenders pause for thought, even a real headache. The whole category’s going through a time of enormous change. Traditional brand footprints and audiences are being re-evaluated, widened, down-aged and even completely reset. Why would a brand settle for a TV ad as their public statement of change? Is this really the most authentic response they can have to their customers
and the challenge ahead in the year 2021? 

We should be after seismic shifts, not needle moves. Financial services customers in 2021 are arguably less focused on a particular brand and more interested in the experience, the people, the features and services that work for them. It’s why banking customers are more open to switching banks than ever before.

Look at innovation brands like Humm. They’re bringing new customer-centric products to market in record time, not just in New Zealand, but around the world. And at the same time, they’re connecting emotionally with audiences by tapping into customer need for genuinely useful products and brand interactions.

These new-generation financial services brands and banks are building intuitive customer experiences at the front end with non-traditional branding, media strategies and technologies. Meanwhile, legacy system dependent banks are still repositioning their brands with a TVC and tying the back end of disparate customer management systems together with number 8 wire. 

But it’s not just banks. We’re living in a time of accelerated change with new entrants in many categories, and they’re differentiating themselves with the new Ps, insight, knowledge and experience. For instance, customer-centric service brands are leading the way via modern tech stacks that use data analytics from big data sets, giving themselves the upfront advantage of a comprehensive understanding of their customers, supported by digital technologies that capture and lengthen lifetime value. The difference between a customer banking with a brand for 10 years or their entire adult life could be worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Claire Bonham Holden is one of New Zealand’s most well-known customer data analytics leaders, and former CEO of Data Insight. She says “data has changed the game for brands that want to have a bigger impact, faster. Your customer is a huge and valuable source of data that you should be paying the utmost attention to.

Companies are using data to learn their customers’ behavioural patterns, to help point them toward a sale or conversion in a way that genuinely delights them. Data’s helping brands to become intelligent in how they place their consumers on a high pedestal and listen to their opinions, and in how they adapt their marketing approach to leverage data that can incorporate behavioural science methodologies to achieve change faster. We’re in a time when we’re seeing companies and brands change their definition of valuable customers towards a lifetime value model.”

Ultimately, whether we like it or not, a brand is whatever your customers say it is, so the emotional relationship has to be a three-way one between consumer, product and brand. It stands to reason that brands need a new model for understanding and engaging people, one that leverages advances in neuroscience and goes deeper into the psychology of the consumer. And never more so than today, where we need to uncover what unites, rather than what separates people. I’m a great believer in a more agile plan that acts as a guiding statement of intent and innovation for planning future history.

In the end, creativity is one of the most powerful, game-changing parts of this new world and Chief Creative Officer at Federation Tony Clewett has a clear view. Tony’s indelibly carved into the global creative hall of fame, having won multiple international and local awards, as well as a New Zealand’s double first Grand Axis and Grand Effie for the relaunch of Mercury Energy’s brand with ‘Energy Made Wonderful’. 

His view is that “the role for creativity has evolved with an enormous leap and there’s now an element of inventor and scientist required today, which I love. There’s a desire and opportunity for rapid transformation that’s the perfect segue into accelerated disruption, or what I like to think of as shapeshifting. It’s the white space I look for, for an entire organisation to pick itself up and shift ahead into, for a brand to find new audiences in, for social changemakers to positively shape new behaviours and a better world from.”

This is without a doubt the best time in the world to be shaping the brands of the future.

This article was originally published in the September/October 2021 issue of NZ MarketingClick here to subscribe.

About Sharon Henderson

Sharon Henderson is founder and CEO of Federation.

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