Are brands as relevant in the new digital age?

If I can tap my phone and have access to peer and expert product reviews in an instant. And if I can pose the question, ‘have you used it, whats it like?’ on Twitter and with the right hashtag or two get a multitude of opinions and conversations going in social space in seconds, how can todays brand manager lay claim to the significance of branding in my purchase decision?

If we can agree that the primary role of a brand is to make a product or service as distinctive, personal and relevant to a consumer as possible and thereby easier for that consumer to choose our brand over others; then logically speaking anything that diffuses this activity dilutes the role and significance of the ‘brand’ itself as an opinion former.

Or put another way, do marketers need to rethink the idea that brands are so important in a consumer’s purchasing decision when they can assess product quality using their own easily sourced information on your products through reviews from other users, expert opinion, or information from people they know on social media?

The fact is that we are no longer able to control every aspect of our brand message

The modern consumer lives in a splintered world of compare and contrast shopping. A brand is not so much a definition of what we say it is but what everyone else says it is when turn off our computers. Why? Technology has driven a change not only in how a brand is perceived but in how it becomes shaped by the very customers its trying to effect; and social media as an adjunct to the advancement in new technologies, now provides consumers with so much more control over how, what and where they buy and so much power to self publish.

As brand managers, directors, consultants, we always talk about the role brands play in driving choice, commanding a premium and building loyalty. And, as immutable as these truths are, a fourth can be added, that digital innovations and social media are significantly affecting all three of these basic brand functions. 

So, that’s the set up. But is it true? 

There is a contention that I happen to agree with, which states that as social pervades more channels and digital disrupts more markets, brands will become even more important and more valuable than they ever were in the past. Put another way, in a world where consumers are often subsumed by the morass of noise emanating from their own personal digital windows, the role a brand plays in people’s lives has become all the more important.

The World Intellectual Property Organisation’s second ‘Intellectual Property Report’ entitled “Brands: Reputation and Image in the Global Marketplace” provides us with an insight into how companies use brands to differentiate their products and what the growing use of brands means for consumers, market competition, and innovation.

According to the report, companies invested over $1 trillion globally on branding in 2019, the latest year for which there are reliable data. This figure would be even higher if spending on strategic marketing, corporate communications were also considered. The report also states that rapidly growing middle-income economies such as China and India today invest more in branding than high-income economies did when they were at a comparable development stage.

So on initial inspection, the brand consultants of this world can still sleep relatively peacefully in their beds.

Digging a little deeper, and looking at specific businesses from one survey, the Forbes rankings of the world’s top brands, Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Intel are all firmly placed in the top 10. This is not because the likes of Coke and McDonalds have become less valuable but that the big digital brands have moved ahead of them. If brands are truly unimportant in a digital world, why is so much still being spent on brand development and why is big business still so brand dominated? 

And why has Amazon become the most valuable company in the world selling without ever having its own products to sell? Because brands still matter, and they matter a lot. 

Brands retain value where the brand association is integral to the experience of a product

Amazon does a bit of advertising but not really. It just goes about its business, and what a business, very very well. Google hardly invests at all in traditional advertising. Apple’s marketing relies on very clean, almost sterile environments showcasing albeit well crafted product photography, but without any great conceptual positioning at play. The issue for brands isn’t how to control and deliver on their communication plans in this new digital age but how to deliver authentic brand experiences in a landscape where social media and its incumbent technology are merging all the old interfaces between a brand and its consumers.

The role of a brand was never just about solving an information problem. It’s about providing meaning and satisfying emotional needs. These fundamental human needs have not changed. The opposite is in fact true, as consumers experience information overload, there might be a tendency to gravitate toward what is familiar. Innovations in digital communication services may disrupt the traditional brand landscape but to go from being a popular service like Pinterest and Whatsapp to a brand that commands a proper price premium is still a long and complex journey.

So instead of discussing “brand versus not brand” marketers and executives should ask themselves: How can we strengthen our brand when the traditional tools such as advertising, corporate identity programs, and PR are becoming increasingly less relevant?

Part of the answer is in making the brand more—not less—central. In a hyper-transparent digital world, consumers instantly know the difference between what a company says and what it does. Organisations can no longer draw clear lines between marketing and product development, between communications and services. Brand builders must embed themselves across the customer value chain. Products and services must be able to tell a story and communicate value without an extra advertising layer on top. As information is more and more available and the importance of brands increases, the ability to tell a meaningful story through actions and products, not words, is the only way to win.

In conclusion

Brands are and have always been about engaging with people, understanding their behavior and answering very human needs. In an ever-more complex world they enable us to build systems within our businesses that enable consumers to understand and simplify the markets they move in. Brands represent the meeting of person and organisation in every sense, from expectation and interpretation, to evaluation and ultimately satisfaction.

A strong, iconic brand provides a sense of collective leadership, involvement, identity and values to people inside and outside the organisation and at its very best are invariably stronger and stretch further than the categories they came from. Nike & Apple’s cultural status are obvious examples of where brand has become much more than ‘sophisticated’ product marketing and the Google and Amazon’s of this world are not thought of as just consumer services anymore, they are products of life. Updating your Facebook status on the train to work or the routine but integral commute stop off at Starbucks for that morning shot, far from becoming less relevant to our daily lives, many of us now dance to the rhythm of the brands we embrace.

At its heart, the digital revolution and the post-digital world that we now inhabit has always been about people and behavior. Understand people, understand their behavior, and the business and brand opportunities quickly present themselves. And if properly managed, a brand creates identification, differentiation and value and ultimately a brand that’s  does this positive creates the positive connections that bind organisations and consumers together.