What’s in a brand?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet

So Shakespeare said tongue, I suspect, in cheek.

 The advent of Brandless, however has made me wonder, what’s in a brand?

Launched in July this year, Brandless is a range of grocery and healthcare products, exclusively available online. All foods are non GMO, and a majority of products are organic. Every item, from honey to handsoap, costs just $3. The company can offer these savings, it argues, by eliminating “Brand Tax”: “the hidden costs you pay for a national brand”.

Commentators were quick to announce the death of the brand (again).  Yet Brandless, ironically, has the hallmarks of a powerful 21st century brand.

A simple and compelling sense of purpose: Everyone deserves better.

A purpose enabled by the power of technology to disrupt supply chains, distribution models and customer relationships.

An elegant and distinctive brand identity; it’s easy to imagine these products becoming minimalist status symbols.

So how do we define a brand in 2017 and beyond? In some ways, little has changed. In broadest terms, a brand is a set of associations, imprinted through emotion and triggered though recognition. Clear purpose, compelling communication, clear identity.

In other ways everything has changed and will change again. New interfaces and new algorithms are fundamentally changing the way we interact with brands.

Algorithms are building more dynamic and contextual understanding of the user, with the ultimate aim of automating more and more of our purchases. In parallel, interfaces are shifting away from screen based interactions and towards a scenario where lightweight wearables, voice, and AR will be the primary ways we interface with all kinds of content and commerce experiences. Interactions will be more fleeting, more physical and more sensory.

The challenge going forward will be twofold: how to infuse these new interactions with emotion and how to brand them. Amazon’s move to trademark the glowing blue ring of its Echo devices may be the first attempt of many.

Too many digital experiences embrace the rational fallacy. We live, we are told, in the age of perfect information and perfect competition. This is undoubtedly true but time and again we have seen the power of emotion to override data. The solution in the past has been TV for the emotional stuff, digital or direct channels for rational, conversion driving messages. Yet as the boundaries between on and offline experiences blur we will need to infuse every touchpoint with emotion.

I think of it as Emotional Experience Design: moving beyond the obsession with function and friction and towards feeling.

There are four dimensions to Emotional Experience Design as I see it: Cause, Context, Community and Craft.

Cause: Purpose is an overused term (and doesn’t alliterate), often confused with a social mission. At its simplest however, it asks: what does this brand exist to do in the world? Why are we here?

This is where Brandless excels. A mission to democratise excellence, enabled by technology. Digital disruption has been slower to impact FMCG brands but with direct to consumer propositions entering the market, it is time for the incumbents to ask: What do we exist to do? And how can technology help?

Context: There is nothing more human and emotionally powerful than feeling understood. While the challenges around today’s programmatic platforms are well documented, used correctly adtech should enable us to better understand how users are feeling and to serve up the most personally relevant experience in that moment. As interfaces become more intimate, that sensitivity to context will become an imperative.

Community: The sheer ubiquity of social media means we sometimes underestimate its power. Yet research shows that weight of social proof (likes, followers, shares) has a significant impact on brand perception. A challenge will be how to reinterpret these expressions of social proof for a new wave of interfaces.

Which brings us to Craft. Emotional Experience Design demands the evolution of very new craft skills. It prompts us to think not just about tone of voice or look and feel, but about an entirely new language for brands. How do our brands pulse, swipe and move? Developing new brand cues for new kinds of interface will require us to draw learnings from a host of new sectors from sound design to choreography. Just as the smallest interaction in the offline world-the sound of a car door closing for example- provides an infinite number of brand cues so too will the smallest interactions in the online world.

So what’s in a brand? Brands with a clear purpose-or cause-will endure. Those that can combine that cause with a new approach to craft will thrive.

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