2013-11-13

The Future Of Branding Is Creating Real Connections Between Consumers And Products

It's not about selling, it's about giving control to the people.

The future of branding belongs to storytellers who understand the hero’s journey in the context of modern, mobile life. The hero’s journey is a storytelling structure pervasive across cultures. It starts with a call to adventure, requires that the hero be connected to others, including a mentor. The hero will face extremely difficult challenges along the way. The hero ultimately wins and returns home, armed with new knowledge about herself, other people and the world.

Does your brand inspire people to respond to the call for adventure, whether through providing information, tools or a catalyst? Does it help them overcome the obstacles they will face on the path, either by making sure they have nourishment, transportation, tools, information or access to other people? Does it provide guidance, support, or a framework in which the story of the process, with all its ups and downs, can be documented and shared in real time? If your brand doesn’t serve any of the segments in the hero’s journey, you’re right to be concerned about the future.

Not the future of branding. Image: Flickr user Sarah Gilbert

Cecelia Wogan-Silva, the director of creative agency development at Google is tasked with growing brand advertising through Google’s platform. She accomplishes this, in large part, by inspiring thoughtful collaboration with intriguing insights and co-ideating with creative agencies at the beginning of the process instead of jumping in when distribution is the last bit of conversation left.

"We’d rather work on a cool idea together," she said. "We try not to be product focused. Instead, we’re problem-focused. Working up a solution that’s only inclusive of what we do at Google is like dropping feta cheese off at the door of someone who doesn’t know they’re sitting on an entire Greek salad. We help them manifest the big idea that brings the salad together. We are in the business of sales but we don't start with a pitch. we start with a conversation. We try to develop story engines. We ask: What story are you trying to tell? We want to launch a thousand ships together."

The perceived need to master emerging technologies and engineer a viral video dominates much of the conversation in the world of branding. Clients want measurable proof of eyeballs on the screen, and creatives struggle with the expectation that they’ll be able to engineer a hit. But what is a hit? The trend toward the mean-spirited shock video filled with actors faking real-time reactions to disgusting pranks is the result of the mistaken belief that eyeballs equal success. This mentality is largely a relic of the measurement of success in television advertising, which isn’t surprising. The history of the advertising industry, Wogan-Silva said, is a string of attempts to reincarnate what came before in a new medium.

"The poster in the window got smaller as a print ad," she said. "But it was just like the poster in the window. Then print ads got read on the radio. Then the concept transported itself to TV in the beginning with still pictures added to what were essentially radio spots. In each instance, advertisers didn’t take advantage to the fullest of the new medium. Our habit is to stick to legacy. Radio was a new technology. So was TV. The exponential release of new technology doesn’t change the need for percolation in the creative process."

"There’s this automatic inclination to believe that new technology is creativity's silver bullet. But invention of technology is different than innovative use of existing things. Great TV wasn't born from the new platform from the get go. But the stories got better, the use of bookends in commercial buying was a new variation that came from careful, deeper consideration for what could be done with this amazing medium.

"The same is true for using digital platforms. Brand marketers waiting for the latest product to be the first to use it might miss the chance to do something extraordinary with what we already have before us. Something extraordinary is usually something that touches consumers and tells a story, it's not just technology alone that builds a brand."

Wogan-Silva believes that the concept of being a slave to the latest technology fad or ad unit will become a thing of the past.

"Instead, there’s value exchange brought to you by a brand," she said. "What does that look like? Uber." Google is an investor in Uber, an "app that connects you with a driver at the touch of a button." Transportation is a natural part of your life experience, Wogan-Silva said. Brands that are focused on getting us places and connecting us to others, essentially offering sustenance, transportation and intelligence, are the brands of the future. Uber is welcomed, rather than invasive. "My sense of what a brand can do for me doesn’t come in the form of what it promises, but what it delivers to me. Uber sits on my body, on my mobile phone. Location speaks the language of intimacy."

Intimacy will come in many forms in the future. Not only will objects be connected to each other, but they will be connected to you. Businesses will know more about you, your habits, the bits of data that together compose the very shape and texture of your life. All of this will be connected through objects on us and even in us, as well as in the cloud, that nebulous concept that is becoming more tangible all the time.

Drew Ormrod, Ogilvy’s Worldwide Account Director for IBM Midmarket, which serves small and mid-sized companies. Science House, where I’m the EVP for Business Development, is collaborating with IBM on a project that Ormrod manages from the Ogilvy side. In recent years, he has seen the evolution of consumer values head toward a greater need for trust and transparency.

"Customers want to buy what they need and not a bit more," Ormrod said. "Also, they want to understand what they’re buying. As consumers develop a taste for the new from freshly-hatched web companies without excess baggage, established brands are turning toward a new model for innovation, often called Labs. Smaller, more agile and often beyond the usual rules of a company, Labs are expected to drive innovation to market from within a traditional company to allow them to compete with new brands. The new consumer is better connected, forms opinions faster and has a better understanding of how systems work." This new knowledge can come paired with distrust toward traditional brands in favor of those born on the web.

"It’s a matter of putting the customer in control," Ormrod said. "The future is built on more intelligent connections. Mobile is going to play a huge role. It adds value by connecting our virtual experience to our real experience."

What does that mean, exactly? It means that brands like Zappos and Seamless, Airbnb, Kickstarter, and others are enabling the digital, mobile realm to serve as a portal into increased real-life access to goods, services, and new experiences. It also means that data is enabling companies to tailor those experiences to customers in real time, right where they are in the physical world.

The brand isn’t the hero, it is an enabler of the journey the customer is on. That requires a lot of listening, in order to understand the challenges each customer faces, and customization, in order to meet those needs. Ultimately, it requires the delivery of simplicity in an increasingly complex world. When the hero does get home after battling the forces of nature and humanity, she might want Uber to get her there and Seamless to deliver tacos right away. Adventure is hard work.

[Image via Shutterstock]