Branding has come a long way since people thought of attaching their name to their product. Modern branding began sometime in the 50s, during the prosperous post-war baby Boomer years. As more and more products came into the market, the discipline of brand management (or marketing), was developed by FMCG companies. Their job was to distinguish their products from all the other nearly indistinguishable competitors in the market.
This role has evolved over the past few decades. Different eras placed different emphasis in branding – moving from brand recognition and recall, to brand preference, to brand affinity, to the latest trend of providing brand experiences to engage target audiences and build brand loyalty.
I think we are already heading into the next step in branding’s evolution.
So where is it going?
I believe that in the near future, audiences will expect brand messaging to provide validation of their personal values. We can already see this trend happening today, driven by digital and social media. There are 2 reasons why I think so.
First, social media has done a lot to change how people interact – for better or for worse – over the last 10 years. Social media has certainly helped create a sense of hyper-individualism because platforms are inherently designed to reinforce users’ personal filter bubbles. Our social media news feeds are highly curated — either by our own acceptance and rejection of content, or through algorithms’ decisions about what we want to see – so we only get to see what we prefer to see. Also, within this bubble, it’s easy to conflate “likes” as a sign of true validation. With social media, anyone can find validation for any kind of opinion they may have. So being encased in this bubble, users can easily fall into the expecting the world to think, feel and behave in exactly the same way as them.
The second big reason is that digital and social media marketing is moving towards hyper-relevance, micro-targeting, and hyper-personalisation, with Big Data and AI enabling this in a big way. With the typical consumer being exposed to anything between 4,000 to 10,000 marketing messages a day, that’s a lot of messaging feeding into social media users’ increasing sense of hyper-individualism. This messaging environment is rapidly conditioning consumers’ minds to expect only to receive messages that conform to their individual preferences.
So mass communication is dead. Audience targeting is heading out the door. The age of individualized messaging is upon us.
Why validation though?
Consumers expect a brand’s promise to be consistently experienced at every touchpoint - not just in stores, customer service channels, or events, but also in the tone of advertising and even the causes that the company supports. That’s not new anymore, consumers take it as a given.
Given the convergence of social media, hyper-relevant marketing and hyper-individualism, brand messaging will very likely have to be individualized even further to gain attention. In this environment, consumers will expect nothing less than personalized brand experiences the near future.
I also see a fundamental shift happening in the branding relationship because of this. Before, brands strived to attract audiences and consumers to be part of their ‘tribe’. But it seems to me that society’s expectations of brands are changing significantly. The centre of gravity is shifting away from the brand and towards the consumer. Consumers are becoming less attracted to any brand’s values, and more interested to see if a brand’s values conform to their own.
Case in point: D&G cancelled its first fashion show in Shanghai after its advertising campaign drew fierce backlash from audiences, mainly from outside of China, who saw them as racist. Another case in point is the criticism Chick-Fil-A drew when company leaders affirmed their belief in traditional marriage in 2012. A massive boycott was called for by LGBT supporters. Activists and politicians even called for the restaurant to be banned. This forced the company to commit to never mention it in public again, saying that they would “leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.”
This shift in consumer expectation towards brands is less of an evolution of branding and more of a revolution.
Admittedly, I don’t have any data on this, so I may be shooting blanks here. But looking at how the many cases where social media-fuelled activism has forced brands to apologise for perceived faults or express support for activists’ values, I think this is the trend moving forward.
It would be really interesting to see how brand managers navigate this shifting landscape over the next few years.