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The Beta Brand: The 4 principles of Brand Impermanence – by Greg Fuller

This post is part of Greg Fuller’s guest series on Brand Impermanence. The first post explains the background and concept of Brand Impermanence: The search for nirvana is over.

1) Exist in permanent beta

This is a particularly important principle for today’s brand and product guardians. It’s the idea that a looping continual dialogue will be formed between brands and people. By giving them access to imperfect goods and services, nothing is certain or finished and this uncertainty engages the mind.

A brand that says “Here’s what we’ve got now, but something better is on the way,” forms a relationship of mutual self-interest with the customer. The developer who says, “This product is final. We won’t be doing anything more with it. This is as good as it gets,” gives the buyer no incentive to participate in a continuing relationship. Beta empowers the customer to decide what’s good enough. Nothing’s set in stone. Nothing is absolute[1]

This is not the exclusive domain of web 2.0 and software giants. It says we are always improving and what’s good enough for other companies isn’t good enough for us. I believe other brands in sectors such as FMCG, retail and finance should take this approach on board.

People already have the ability to make instant decisions on the brands they choose. See the Shopsavvy app[2] for an example of real time price comparison. Beta brands are open to this transparency while still remaining an expert and differentiating voice

The beta brand is a reaction to new methods of marketing where recommendations by personal acquaintances and opinions posted by online consumers are the most trusted form of advertising globally[3].

There needs to be a decision over how much of the brand you are willing to open up. Changing the brand name or logo every week plainly wouldn’t work. However, flexibility and agility of brand identity or tone of voice could be very effective, particularly if there was a constant flow of consumer feedback.

It could be as simple as crowd sourcing ad campaigns[4] to harness the creative department of 500 people or perhaps a drinks brand that produces a beta range of soft drink flavours? This could work with pack design and be specific to regions or countries. It is an adaptable, proactive and relevant approach.

Beta is made for the digital age and reflects Brand Impermanence in its purist form, but it should also be a mindset for brands to succeed in the age of uncertainty.

2) Embrace Foreverism

This is an idea that encompasses the many ways in which people and businesses are embracing conversations, relationships and products that are never done[5]. Driven by technology we are forever present, forever findable and forever conversing. The popularity of social networking sites, the vast information storage capacity of the internet and dawn of a new mobile age means brands are exposed as never before.

There are successful examples of brands finally joining the conversation. The Coca Cola Facebook fanpage[6] and the Innocent blog[7] are well used and have been great for PR. Twitter is another channel where a constant dialogue is being created, helping foster a more balanced relationship between brands and people where honesty, cooperation and transparency thrive. See wholefoods[8] and starbucks[9] for some good examples.

Once you have accepted your brand must be constantly open to the now, the past and future will take care of themselves

Foreverism conversely creates more change in the world not less. It is a product of profound movements to our society that have been made possible by the internet but created by people. Accepting Brand Impermanence will allow us to navigate this future in a dynamic and unrestricted way.

3) Be Modular

Brands should always be customer made. They should never be designed to completion. The brand experience is never fixed so the physical product or service should not be either. Component parts should be chosen, shared and personalised. Fewer products will need replacing; more sustainability, reduced environmental damage and a grateful and loyal following can be achieved.

Modularity could and does exist in the form of hardware that endures while software is improved and updated. Think iphone or ipad models as their hardware is constantly updated with the latest software; easily transferable and immeasurably improving the product. Brands like Sony or Samsung creating TVs that allow for ad on features and image enhancements such as 3D[10]. These principles are being used to personalise trainer design[11] or streetwear[12] and also in furniture or jewellery design.

This thinking can be applied to brands themselves. There might be an over arching brand proposition. For example Nike “Just do it”. However under that could lie several more relevant brand positions. For streetware , for competitive racing, for football. People who buy into Nike can take as much or as little as they like. This approach, akin to “lighting brand fires”[13] allows for a malleable brand development.

The more involved customers can be with a brand the better, but there must also be a balance between delivering basic product functions and meeting needs. To be Modular is to accept that both products and people are always changing and it gives us a template to provide a richer more meaningful brand experiences.

4) Behave Transiently

This is the understanding that people are driven by experiences of the here and now instead of the fixed and permanent nature of our consumerist past.

Fixed brands run the risk of becoming tired, out of date, hard to maintain and time consuming. We are all now transumers in a constant state of change. Always on the move, always searching, whimsically bowing to the latest fashions and trends. After all, in the experience economy of brands, the temporary and the transient are increasingly becoming worshipped.

We must look to offer multiple experiences and access to the brand. Maybe through a “leasing lifestyle” of transport or communal ownership of brands[14]. Some brands are already behaving transiently with great success, the likes of Inditex[15] (owner of H&M and Zara) have organised themselves to provide super quick production of the latest fashions and therefore always appear “in touch” with their audience.

People want to be surprised and brands will start to appear in places where people want to see them. How about your favourite coffee brand opening a site in your work reception? These so called “being spaces” will increasingly become important while we are in transition. The fleeting moments in airport waiting lounges, train platforms or cinema foyers are opportunities for brands to meet the immediate needs of their audiences and become stronger and more relevant “just in time” brands[16].

This notion of behaving Transiently provides some very exciting opportunities in our new understanding of Brand Impermanence. It creates more relevant touchpoints and will help bring brands and people closer together.

Google – A vision of impermanence

We know what permanent brands look like. They are all around us and are tied to their consumerist past. A glance at interbrand’s top global brands[17] over the last 20 years is all you need. Although some attempts to adapt brand behaviour are occurring, the best way to visualize Brand Impermanence is to use an example of a brand that has always been guided by it and will lead the way in the future.

Google embodies impermanence. Take this recent quote from their UK CEO Matt Brittin regarding the launch of Google Buzz,

“In retrospect we could have done Buzz better, but we want to be there innovating at pace, the price you pay is adapting fast. There were things we could do to make Buzz significantly better and we did in a matter of days”[18].

“We don’t have a plan” CEO, Eric Schmidt proudly boasts. Instead there is a broad and deliberately ambiguous mission of organising the world’s information (or doing no evil). “If doesn’t bother us if something doesn’t work because we understand something else will work”[19].

Believe him or not but this is the mantra of Brand Impermanence. Google reflects this through actions as well as words. By constantly amending their homepage logo, through the vast wealth of new beta products in Google labs, by their commitment to open source technology for their browser Chrome and by adapting search functionality in real time. Figure 4 is a representation of this.

Figure 4

Of course, dig deeper and there a numerous contradictions; their various litigation and court proceedings against competitors, the top down approach to recruitment and secrecy surround their page rank algorithms for example.

However, Google show what is possible for brands in the age of uncertainty and they seem to be doing a pretty good job, for now…..

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.


[1] Source: An article on beta branding and a new approach for brands and products

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[3] Source: Neilsen Global online consumer survey

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[13] Earls,M. (2007) Herd

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[16] Source: Andrew Walmsley in Marketing April 2010

[17] Clifton, W, Maughan E (2000) Interbrand he Future of Brands

[18] Wired Magazine 05.10 Poll of top 100 digital movers in the UK

[19] Wired Magazine 07.09 An interview with Eric Schmidt

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