The future of branding is influenced
I wrote a piece on the future of branding in 2017, and hoped that my fortune telling skills will stand the test of time (at least for some time). You can read the 2017 piece here:
As I re-read the piece, I thought that its fundamental premise of how consumers make choices needed a refresh. Consequently, my fortune telling skills are no good. But there is no harm in making a second attempt. The fundamental premise has evolved from "how we make choices" to "how our choices are influenced".
Influence is a very controversial word in the world of branding (and marketing as they are intertwined). We have the whole conspiratorial domain of "influencer marketing", which gets murkier and funnier by the day. Then we have the challenge of brands trying to peddle influence for short-term gains. No one seems to be asking consumers what influence means for them, while a billion dollar industry tries to find every conceivable or inconceivable way to create it.
Coming back to how our choices are influenced. At the end of the day, the definition of a consumer choice hasn't changed - it is the product or service (aka brand) chosen at a particular moment in time. But the definition of influence has. Previously, let's say 10 years back, influence was a slower beast and came in different shapes - Word of Mouth (WoM), TV / Outdoor / Print advertising, some forms of static internet advertising etc. Now influence is a faster beast and metamorphoses into multiple shapes - online product reviews, social media chatter, programmatic digital advertising placement, advanced cookie tracking, recommendation engines, shoppable ads on social media, location-based marketing, packaging innovations, interactive advertising, ads that you can smell, mixture of traditional and immersive experiences to name a few.
What defines influence and how has it changed? Let's take an extreme example - one or two generations back, an individual's tenure in a particular organisation was long and many people would spend their whole working lives in a single organisation. The definition and level of influence required to change a job was significant. Nowadays when the average tenure of a CMO is 2 years and the gig economy growing by leaps and bounds - the level of influence required to change a job (or a gig) is minuscule and includes triggers like 'higher hourly rates', 'higher day rates', 'flexible working', '2 days work from home', 'no deadlines', 'work at your own pace', 'free beer on Fridays' etc.
Are we influenced quite easily now? The answer is a yes and no. We are influenced easily but for priorities that are different, and which don't require long-term thinking to establish.
What does this mean for branding? The biggest challenge for any marketer today is embarking on a long-term brand building programme, when the primary driver of consumer choice, influence, keeps on rapidly evolving.
The end result is a confused mix of branding choices - a long established brand piloting influencer marketing, a functional brand trying to define purpose (mistaking it as an influence peddler), shunning TV advertising for digital marketing gimmicks or embarking on a repositioning exercise that has shaky legs.
The future of branding is not running around influence, but taking the battle to it.
But how can brands shape influence, when it has evolved into some kind of a mystical beast, with ever changing forms? The idea is to transform it into something that has more longevity, is resistant to small changes in the external environment and has a deep emotional relationship with consumers. How can brands go about doing this?
The traditional, English language definition of influence is to have some kind of impact on the character, behaviour or development of someone or something. All these three dimensions have one thing in common - they take time to change.
But just like everything else, we brand builders have adopted a lazy definition of influence. Consequently, whenever someone clicks on an online ad to buy something, we consider that we have influenced the consumer. The same is true for a promotion driving a short-term sales spike or an Amazon recommendation leading to a book purchase. These are decisions driven by convenience (or laziness) and hardly by influence. The sad part is that if one brand defines this as influence, then every other brand will define it as influence too.
To take the battle to influence, brands need to go back and re-learn some of the basics of brand building. Building strong brands that have a strong legacy, requires consistency in positioning and its communication. This is one surefire way of creating influence - the one that is old fashioned and having a dictionary definition.
Take the example of global music icons - a legendary musician (or a brand) displays consistency in the quality of his or her music, the performance and the modes of fan engagement. Bruce Springsteen still plays to packed concert halls, and he created his long-term brand before the likes of Spotify made music more accessible. Whether it is a gramophone record, a cassette tape, a CD, a DVD or streaming, these are all mediums. They are not the brand and don't create influence. Springsteen's music is the brand and the consistency of its excellence is the real influence.
Consider the performance of a brand post-purchase. The branding world is full of pre-purchase hype, but the post-purchase world is still an unknown entity. Everyone tries to make sense of consumer behaviour post-purchase, but remain reliant on claimed survey data, retail data, brand perceptions, customer experience feedback etc. Brands maybe able to shape influence 'pre-purchase' but it is reinforced 'post-purchase'. So if a brand wants to take the battle to influence, it needs to dominate the post-purchase environment. The key to domination is being proactive, and not reactive.
Influence is a mind muscle that takes significant amount of time to develop. But when it has developed, it exerts its impact rapidly. When a brand loses a long time consumer, there is strong influence at play. Even if the long time consumer may have had bad experiences with his brand, the decision to switch is also driven by another brand's level and quality of influence. Ask anyone how difficult it is to change your primary healthcare centre, even when it is substandard, badly staffed or inefficiently managed. On the other hand, it takes seconds to switch between UberEats, Deliveroo and Just Eat. This switching between food delivery apps is not because of any influence, but to expand the range of our choices. Consequently, brands should rejoice less on competitor acquisition metrics, unless they are absolutely sure about three things:
Is churn a one-off phenomenon or does it characterise the segment?
How long have competition acquired customers stayed with me?
If I am in a market segment characterised by repertoires, has the repertoire size grown over time?
Creating or shaping influence is a time-consuming exercise. If you foolishly claim that you have influenced the consumer to think and take decisions differently in a short timeframe, you have essentially created a convenience-driven outlet for decision-making. For that matter, any market segment that has lost out to online retail, was sitting on a shaky platform of 'no other alternatives' for a long time. When the alternative came in the form of an easily accessible, highly convenient, low energy expenditure outlet, the shaky platform broke instantly.