Brands in the age of uncertainty
Change that matters is unpredictable. Through a triplet of circumstances: rarity, extreme impact and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability our existence is jolted forward in what has been termed Black Swan logic. This thinking is applicable to brands and ideas just the same as it is historical events such as 9/11 or the global financial crisis.
The most successful advertising campaign of last year was one in which an anthropomorphic Russian Meerkat bestowed the virtues of price comparison by directing strayed searchers away from his own website. In the process over 5 million people have compared Meerkats, over 700,000 Facebook fans have pledged their allegiance and there was even a 100% increase in insurance quotes through the clients’ main site.
Successful brand communications are full of such “surprises”. Take Volkswagen’s “Lemon”, Persil’s “Dirt is good”, Nike’s “Just do it” or Cadbury’s “Gorilla”. All made leaps in creativity that strongly resonated with audiences, they were of the moment and nobody saw them coming. Post rationalisation and retro fitting of planned marketing strategies help to assimilate these campaigns into a natural order of brand history.
Why were these campaigns so successful? Was it a planned success based on past learning or a swift forgetting of outdated information and ageing habits?
The key to the answer lies at the heart of my proposition – That in order to build more successful brands we must “react and create” rather than “strategize and plan” in a real time flow of communications.
As Fried and Heinemeier Hansson suggest;
“Writing a plan makes you feel in control of things you can’t actually control. Why don’t we just call plans what they really are: guesses.”
Planning takes us further away from brands. However, it is currently the best method to systematically use information that is presented and formulate ideas to deliver rationalised brand communications.
I wish to explore an alternative and viable solution to this problem.
From “solid” to “liquid” brands
We have moved from building “solid” brands to guiding “liquid” brands. This has been dictated by societal changes that are set to become more prevalent over the coming years.
We live in a world where social forms and institutions such as the church, the state, the media and brands themselves no longer have time to solidify and serve as useful references for human action and long term life plans.
Instead we splice together an unending series of short term projects that give the impression of adding up to a meaningful concept such as a “career”, “progress” or a “brand”.
Previous IPA candidates have argued that under these endemic conditions of uncertainty brands play a more important role than ever. As a means to build communities by replacing religion or to provide meaning though story telling. Others such as Mac Cato see brands “offering certainty in an increasingly uncertain world”
I will not contest that brands still have a fixed and permanent role to play in people’s lives (or at least the illusion of this). My argument is that brands and their custodians need to organise themselves in such a way that they are constantly willing and ready to embrace new ideas.
Brands must reflect their audiences by amending tactics and pursuing opportunities according to their current availability in order to build stronger and more relevant associations.
The real time data that is now available to brand custodians makes this approach achievable. We have the ability to monitor, interact, create and implement faster then ever before.
In liquid times, calculating the likely gains and losses for our brands in an unending series of real time decisions will be vital.
In this understanding of brands it makes what you don’t know far more relevant than what you do know.
This is fundamental to the concept of Brand Impermanence.
The importance of being impermanent
Not permanent, or enduring, transitory
Nothing remains the same for two consecutive moments. Heraclitus said we can never bathe twice in the same river. Confucius, while looking at a stream, said, “It is always flowing, day and night.” The Buddha implored people not just to talk about impermanence, but to use it as an instrument to help us penetrate deeply into reality and obtain liberating insight.
Everything we can experience through our senses is made up of parts, and its existence is dependent on external conditions. Everything is in constant flux, and so conditions and the thing itself is constantly changing. Things are always coming into being, and ceasing to be. Nothing lasts.
Let’s consider this philosophy for the understanding of brands.
A brand does not remain the same during its entire lifetime. It changes every moment. Understood this way, a brand is a representation of the context in time in which it exists. Even from a scientific point of view this is true. The atoms and molecules in a product, service or piece of communication are always changing. Psychologically in the minds of consumers no two people “hold precisely the same view of the same brand” at any given moment.
So if brands are always changing, why do they appear so permanent?
They are formed from a successive series of different moments, joining together to give the impression of one continuous flow. They move from cause to cause, effect to effect, one state of existence to another, giving an outward impression they are an evolution of their past, whereas in reality they are not. The brand of yesterday is not the same as the brand of today.
This may seem a little too philosophical, and is of course an extreme representation to explain a concept. In reality the structure of a brand is both transitory and fixed. Figure 1 below is a representation of the Brand Impermanence scale.
Visualised in this way, the numerous components that make up a brand lie around a permanent core – namely the brand name and logo. The further away from the core the more pronounced the agents of change become. These orbital outliers have always played a decisive role in how brands are built.
Consider the history of the Coca-Cola brand in the representation of figure 2.
Quite clearly, the brand name has remained and the logo has changed very little. The brand became a global phenomena on the back of clear communications although these values/identity and personality have changed with the times. The product itself has adapted, although to near fatal consequences with New Coke. All the while advertising and Coca-Cola drinkers respond to the latest trends and societal changes.
However, acknowledging levels of Brand Impermanence doesn’t tell the whole story. There is a deeper fallacy at the heart of today’s brand communication.
The brand Nirvana illusion
a place or state characterized by freedom from or oblivion to pain, worry, and the external world.
Even in the stark reality of change there is a gravitational pull of our industry’s focus back to brand permanence. A mythical haven of brand fulfilment, of global fame, where 3 year strategies rule and change is the enemy.
This is the Brand Nirvana Illusion.
Successful brands have a certain immortality. There is a complete focus on the destination at the expense of the journey. The notion of strategy as the key to potent marketing and planning has become well accepted and now passes without question. The big idea and grand plan provide comfort in a blueprint for success. Figure 3 shows the contrast between the two approaches.
However, uncertainty does not have to mean fear. We dream of a brand utopia detached from the realities of day to day life. It is no coincidence that the term “utopia” was first penned by Sir Thomas More as the apparently timeless routines fell around him in the 16th century. He looked for a world free from unpredictable threats, experimentation and improvisation.
Marketers of today face similar fates. We are living in the age of the organized consumer. The seller centric narcissism represented by me – the seller – promoting my attributes in the best possible way to you – the “consumer” has been challenged by the information age. Indeed markets can be seen as conversations where the flow of ideas, information and trade now occurs at such a pace and with such freedom that a new way of thinking is vital.
Brands remain but our approach to them must change. How can we create more effective brand communications in real time?
Without impermanence, nothing would be possible. With impermanence, every door is open for change. Impermanence is therefore an instrument for brand liberation.
Next we’ll consider this understanding in relation to how it affects 3 separate areas of communications: Brands, agencies and clients.
About the author
GregFuller is a comms planner working for Starcom MediaVest, a global media agency (although the concept of a pure media agency is long gone). I’ve worked in communications planning for 8 years across a range of clients including the likes of American Express, COI, Royal Mail, Associated Newspapers and most importantly Jobsite! Having recently completed the IPA excellence diploma here are some thoughts/ideas on the future of brand communications.