Brand matters… now more than ever

In the face of rapidly shifting customer expectations, it can be hard for brands to maintain relevance. Charles Trevail, CEO of C Space and Interbrand, delves into the recent changes in consumer behavior, and why, because of these changes, brands have more room to play than ever before.

Charles Trevail

CEO at C Space

Charles Trevail is the Global CEO of C Space and Interbrand as well as the host of Outside In, a customer centricity podcast. A leader in the consulting world for more than 20 years, Charles has a successful track record of reinventing companies, brands, and experiences through co-creation and collaboration with customers. Fascinated by politics, he has advised on strategy for New Labour in the UK during the 2005 election, and Al Gore and his team on launching and positioning a leading sustainable asset management firm. Despite all this, Charles still finds time to serve as a board member for FINCA International, play soccer, enjoy the theatre, and add to his growing list of countries visited (70+ and counting!).

There’s no doubt that we are at an inflection point. Every week, at every conference, on every industry news site, in every boardroom – there’s talk of change: new competitors, new market shifts, new channels, new audiences, new data – and so it goes on.

In the face of rapidly shifting customer expectations, exponential competition (and with the “noise” around the “new” and the “death” of what proceeded it) it can be hard to know what to focus on.

The data from C Space’s Customer, Experienced study and Interbrand’s Best Global Brands report both show that, in the Age of You, the most valuable brands are those that deliver emotional relevance. The challenge is that relevance can only ever be a moment in time. In a world where customers determine and control what’s relevant, where everyone is unique, the paths to reaching cult (mass market) status are increasingly complex. Maintaining it, even more so.

Brands have always said something about us and who we aspire to be. But today, what we want to say about ourselves is more complex than ever before and we feel more entitled to say it. The risk: In a world where everyone is concerned about constructing their own personal identities, brands that stand still lose relevance – fast. In this always-on world, the pertinent questions remain the same:

  1. What do your customers want now, and what will they want next?
  2. How do you use this understanding to size the risks and rewards of your next move?

Getting to what matters

Understanding customers, really understanding customers, is hard. Because everyone is a little bit different. Put simply, customers (the humans who buy stuff) think and feel in different ways to the companies who make stuff.

Companies want to know how to sell more, build more, engage more, list more or position more. The process of running a corporate company is functional – on an industrial scale. Customers, on the other hand, want to know how they’ll look, how they’ll feel, what they’ll get and what others will think of them. Being a customer is emotional. Think about it a different way. When your best friend tells you, “You look fab in those jeans,” it’s as true as true gets. And the real truth is, how customers feel matters significantly more than how a product was shipped, how clean the store was or how long the lines were.

The functional brand assets and elements are easy enough for companies to measure – easy to fix and manage. But the truth is these functional elements are the things that every business can measure and manage. In isolation, measuring and managing functional operations doesn’t offer any competitive advantage. They don’t make any one business stand out. They aren’t really your brand. Your brand is made in the moments when you meet your customer’s desires and expectations, even as they evolve. To get to relevance of this kind, you need to step right into the life of your customer, so that you can understand her, speak her language, share her values, solve for her desires and meet her expectations, even as they shift. And they certainly are shifting.

As we hear from Tina Sharkey, Co-founder of Brandless, “I’ve watched the rejection of government. People are losing trust in industry … The numbers speak for themselves: most Millennials are saying, ‘Wait a second. I don’t want to buy the stuff that my parents bought.’ And most of this country says they want to do business with brands that reflect their values.

At C Space, we have explored the ways in which customers across the world are changing. The new ways they’re eating, watching, driving, buying, working and transacting. The hopes, fears, values and beliefs that drive their wider behavior. What we’ve observed is that the tenets of consumerism are shifting – as are our individual and societal values and belief systems, as customers and consumers of everything – from washing up liquid to avocados, to environmentalism and politics too.

And this shift has very real commercial implications.

In the U.S. last year, brand tracking agency, Catalina, reported that 90 of the top 100 CPG brands lost market share and that combined dollar sales volume was also down — despite sales growth in every major category in which they compete. Consumers are rejecting the big brand narrative. But this doesn’t mean brands are being rejected – far from it. What we’re seeing is a shift away from mass market principles (and mass market brands) as we have traditionally interpreted and built them.

There are two key factors driving this change:

1) Everybody’s different

These days, whatever you’re into, however niche or obscure that might be, you can find your tribe online. Historically, we’ve compared ourselves to our families, our friends and our neighbors – then our broader communities, often based on where we live and what’s available for us to buy, at any given time. Our social inputs and expectations around how to be were limited by what we could see, hear, touch, feel and experience. Our values were shaped by our surroundings.

All of that has changed. The Internet is an incubator for ideas – and the ideas that once sat on the peripheries of society now have a multitude of channels through which they can scale into receptive audiences.

These days, it matters less if your ways of being are rejected by your physical community – because you can find fraternity and acceptance with a different (often more emotionally meaningful) community online. There’s more permission to be different. We have a whole world of ideas to embrace and adapt – and in turn, we have new audiences to help us make sense of and find our place in the world.

This shift isn’t just about extremes. As customers, we’re just more aware – more informed and more open to new ideas – that goat’s milk might be better than cow’s milk; that men might benefit from using concealer; or that we can customize our IKEA furniture once we’ve got it home. There’s more permission for us to be ourselves. Our secret selves have a home … TVoD services know this better than (almost) anyone. As one consumer tells us:

“More recently, my wife and I watched Game of Thrones, on the down-low, as it had strong nudity, language and sexuality, which would be out of the social norms of our backgrounds and community (very conservative community).”

1) The Joneses are everywhere

Keeping Up with the Joneses has always been all about what we’ve got and what we know (before anyone else knows it). These things give us social status and social currency. Brands have been leveraging “NEW” since the dawn of time – but now, “brand new” feels a bit, well, old. As Lauren Greenfield, director of the record-breaking Always advertising campaign, Like a Girl suggests, first broadcast media, and now the Internet, have turbo-charged this construct. The nature of our influences and communities is changing – and thus the nature of the people we aspire to impress and the extents we’ll go to have changed too.

Keeping Up with the Joneses is a relatively simple construct. We use semiotic clues to make sense of our place in the world. Online, we lose this ability. We don’t have the full picture. In this world, of carefully curated content, we’re no longer keeping up with our peers. We’re keeping up with the controlled personas of semi-real people. We’re Keeping Up with the Kardashians. And in a world where we’re managing our own brands to keep up with the Kardashians, mommy bloggers, Reddit trolls, keto dieters, political commentators, Hornby train enthusiasts (or whichever tribe you belong to), the brands we buy into, take on a greater emotional currency than ever before.

In all our listening, we hear that consumers are feeling this pressure like never before:

“I think people are pressured more than ever to spend money and outdo one another. With social media, I am constantly seeing people post pictures from what their ‘sweetie’ bought for them for a special occasion.”

So what does mass one-to-one look like?

The pursuit of a mass-market brand is to cater to the masses. But how do you do that in a world where everyone wants to be seen and heard; where everyone wants to be different? There’s never been a “one size fits all” solution. The intersection of your brand and your customer is totally unique. However, what we do know is that the new rules of engagement require us to re-think operational models to unlock new ways of designing brand into people’s lives.

In the old world, we operated in an indirect brand economy. Competitive advantage was won through efficiencies in manufacturing, logistics, supply chains and distribution. Brands were defined in an ivory tower, brought to life in ad shops and broadcast through publishers. If this is still your model, you need to be worried.

The most successful modern brands operate as a magnet – that draws and connects customers to the business. To thrive and to survive, brands need to have a more forensic understanding of how and why they create, obtain and continue to develop relevance – in a world where the only certainty is that customer expectation will change at speed. There’s a need to move beyond brand purpose and deliver meaning, authentically and organically over time. Competitive advantage exists in thick customer data that helps create relevance to optimize attention. It helps identify the relevant niches, locate leading indicators of customer change, test new ways to engage, new propositions and products and connect with them deeply enough to drive action.

The old principles still matter – but in this new world they have evolved to offer more dynamism and a deeper connection. What we traditionally have thought of as attributes is better articulated as personality; promise becomes relationship, mass becomes personalized and awareness becomes meaning. In this world, your brand enables a business trajectory in lockstep with what your customer believes you can deliver.

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