"Everyone feels like they can’t keep up." Alan VanderMolen, International President at WE Communications, opened a panel in front of a room of brand marketers.
The session – called ‘Why motion means stability in this disrupted world’ – set out to change the way marketers operate in an accelerating environment, challenging both the idea of brand positioning in favour of brand motion and the fear of disruption.
WE conducted a global study called ‘Brands in Motion’. The study explored these ideas and uncovered new ways in which consumers think about and interact with brands.
VanderMolen explained that because of technology-inspired innovation, brands are on a "constantly swinging pendulum" between disruption and dislocation. So rather than being afraid of falling behind, brands must start to embrace being in motion and learn to harness momentum.
He explained that new technology creates exponential expectations from consumers. Customers expect brands to innovate – and will migrate to more innovative products. "To stay ahead brands must anticipate where the markets are going and where customer and consumer demand is taking them."
But how does Brands in Motion work in practice? PRWeek and WE invited Richard Blake, consumer marketing director at Oath (new parent company of AOL and Yahoo!) and Andrew Garrihy, CMO of Western Europe at Chinese mobile phone brand Huawei, to explore.
Be cutting edge to cut through
"Huawei’s core ideology is ‘the power of collective wisdom’ – connecting people, ideologies and expertise to drive innovation," he explained. They constantly look to disrupt categories by partnering with the leading players regardless of whether they are in mobile tech or not.
This ideology manifests itself in products, Garrihy said: "We decided we would try to move the [smartphone camera] category forward. We sought out who we considered to manufacture the best cameras in the industry – Leica – and we brought the first Leica lenses to a smartphone… to create a whole new way of taking photos."
Finding partnerships outside their industry, from different walks, "helps progress the conversation in a way that we can’t" Garrihy explained. This not only directly impacts the product, but also the brand image. Garrihy revealed that "there is an absolute direct correlation between being seen as a tech thought leader and innovator and all the emotional attributes from consumers".
It’s for this reason that Huawei dedicates 80,000 employees in research and development – being seen as cutting edge directly affects how consumers feel about the brand. Garrihy said: "PR is at the centre of our strategy – it’s our mechanism to tell our leadership story around invention and future vision."
Richard Blake from Oath, which owns leading digital media brands like HuffPost, Engadget, Yahoo! and AOL, also revealed how innovation is at the centre of the brand strategy – he said: "It’s exciting for me as a marketer as there is a lot more momentum and energy around our brands than there has been for a while… There is too much wallpaper paste on the internet and we can do a huge amount to drive strong brand stories."
He particularly admired The Economist: "Its form is perfect for what they are trying to do," he said. "As a new media brand we need to have the same kind of thinking – thinking about the context: how people are consuming things, where they are and adapting as we go."
WE’s research reveals that people are far more likely to love a brand that is perceived to be doing good in the world. Blake stressed the importance of transparency – particularly for his industry in the age of fake news. With a brand straddling both media and tech, he’s in a fast-moving space: "Context is definitely back," he said. "It’s as much about distribution as destination, making sure we are in all the right places telling stories people want to know about. Our media brands have to understand the context for the consumer in whatever platform we’re reaching them on. HuffPost is the most shared site on Facebook because it has a really authentic voice." He stressed that there’s a lot of goodwill in the industry; brands want to be able to create transparent, honest stories.
Consumers have discovered their voice
The panel stressed the importance of understanding the way consumers connect with brands, as they become more and more fickle. WE’s research revealed that 98% of people have no problem publicly shaming brands that do something they perceive as wrong, even if they love that brand. Loyalty may be a thing of the past. How can brands overcome this?
"Emotions are becoming more and more important," said Garrihy. "As organisations, we need to get more sophisticated in inviting consumers in and not only giving them a voice but giving them influence… we need to get better at maintaining the conversation."
VanderMolen agreed that this was a critical step. "What we see in our data is that consumers look to brands for a certain level of stability during times of uncertainty or change.
"Consumers have discovered their voice – they have the ability to shame something that annoys them." He stressed that it’s more important than ever for brands to manage the ups and downs of their consumer relationships, and react quickly when things go wrong.
Brands are promising consumers more than ever when it comes to delivering relevance and purpose – people want high quality products and services, and they want to know that the brand they have chosen has a higher purpose by doing some good in the world.
VanderMolen pointed out that promising more makes brands more prone to issues over transparency. "Transparency is not optional any more… anyone who thinks their customers don’t know what they’re doing is in for a very rude surprise."
So knowing not only where to engage with consumers, but also why, is a key to operating in this constantly changing world. As Garrihy said: "It all comes back to purpose".
"The danger comes when you’re so scared of disruption that you’re not running towards innovation, reinvention, and staying relevant," VanderMolen warned. Instead, brands should embrace the new reality of constant motion that characterises the world we live in. "Without disruption, dislocation and innovation we don’t have space for commercialisation."