The brand idea in a digital age

Digital technology has changed the nature of brand marketing. But it is only the idea of a brand that can resolve the tension between traditional brand-building imperatives and the opportunities unleashed by technology and widespread consumer empowerment.

Tom Doctoroff
Tom Doctoroff

Business is in flux. We suffer from disorientation wrought by technological change. Convention has been upended, and the digital world is all variables, no constants. The rise of search engines and e-commerce has changed the balance of power between marketers and consumers. Marketers, traditionally expert in product development and brand messaging, are now expected to decipher the meaning of statistics flowing from "machine-to-machine connectivity."

CEOs look to the beast itself for salvation, for new ways to maximize return on investment. A typical Business Insider headline: "Big Data Can Help Marketers Unlock up to $200 billion." Buzzwords abound: CRM, cookies, digital ecosystems, experience optimization and platformization.

Digital salvation?

Digital technology offers infinite ways for brands to engage consumers. Brand communications can be transformed into brand "journalism," with social network feeds providing consumers with relevant "news" throughout their day. Branded apps—from, General Mills’ online recipe portal, to Allergycast, Johnson & Johnson’s pollen index counter—transform passively received propositions into actual services.

Whether we sell cola or computers, digital channels present increased opportunities to connect and confuse. Unless marketers master the timeless rules of brand-building, they will get nowhere. In a hydra-headed digital world, the ultimate commandment of marketing still holds: consistency is golden. Without long-term ideas behind it, the latest data mining technique or augmented reality app will be lost in the background buzz.

Yes, the digital realm presents exciting challenges. But it’s too easy to forget about the consumers themselves—the desires that drive them and the role brands play in their lives. Remember, consumers are also drawn to brands with clear relevant propositions. Back in 1917 J. Walter Thompson uttered words that remain true today: "Somewhere in your product, or in your business, there is a ‘difference,’ an idea that can be developed into a story so big, so vital, and so compelling to your public as to isolate your product from its competitors, and make your public think of it as distinctly a different kind of product."

This new kaleidoscope of choice and the pressures of a hyper-connected, "always on" digital lifestyle have left many unsettled. In an effort to avoid being branded traditional or obsolete, marketing professionals fall prey to technological temptation. We deploy the latest digital innovation without fully considering the basics of brand strategy or message consistency, leaving consumers more confused—and less loyal.

In the midst of this disorientation, unity is needed. Only the brand idea can resolve the tension between traditional brand-building imperatives and the opportunities unleashed by technology and widespread consumer empowerment. Traditional brand building is top-down, articulated by the manufacturer and fueled by message clarity and deep understanding of consumers’ motivations. The new opportunities offered by technology are bottom-up, by, and for the people.

The essence of engagement

There’s no doubt that digital technology impacts lives and brands. From video games to social networks that provide new platforms for self-expression to the Uber app that connects passengers with drivers for hire at the tap of a button, the digital world has yielded an explosion of lifestyle opportunities and consumer empowerment. Viewers demand a voice. They expect to join in on the fun—with brands whose advertising is as involving as their other entertainment options. And consumers want to be rewarded for loyalty. They don’t want condescension.

This is the essence of today’s new engagement—consumers want more than a short-term affair. Engagement is now more like marriage: long-term, enriched by dialog between consumers and manufacturers, with concrete benefits for both parties.

Engagement needs to be both authentic and constructed. Marketers must pull off the trick of simultaneously permitting consumers to participate with brands while empowering marketers to manage the message.

Our mission must be to grab the holy grail of marketing: Harmony between the clarity of top-down positioning and the dynamism of bottom-up consumer engagement; long-term brand equity and short-term tactical messaging; and emotional relevance and data-driven technology.

Tom Doctoroff is CEO of JWT Asia, and author of Twitter Is Not a Strategy: Rediscovering the Art of Brand Marketing, his new book which aligns traditional and digital marketing by adhering to timeless brand-building fundamentals.

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