Hourglass brands and blurred reality: The top 5 trends for marketers in 2017

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Fjord's chief client officer identifies the most important shifts marketers should make to stay competitive this year.

Digital dictates so much of our everyday lives: how we communicate and how we create; how we work and how we play; how we shop and how we service. To conduct business in this digitally dominated universe, it’s critical to stay in touch with emerging technologies and practices, and to devise a flexible digital strategy to effectively and creatively reach, engage and captivate.

Every year, we take a careful look at the influence that emergent technology will have on marketing, customers, organizations and society. This year, in our "Fjord Trends 2017" report, we identified three predominant undercurrents influencing the direction the industry is moving and determining how brand-consumer relationships are evolving.

Designing for environment: While the smartphone will continue to be a mainstay, its designated place as the total command center of our lives is under threat. There will be a new focus on how technology can be used to enhance the environments in which we spend most of our time—your home, your car or your office. Marketers will need to think beyond the smartphone to consider the opportunities these environments offer, each with their own new paradigms and challenges.

How we interact with business: Consumers want a new way to communicate with the brands they interact with on a daily basis. It’s no longer about perfected and polished campaigns, but rather live, raw content and direct connection. The brand experience will morph once again into a tangible, social and interactive element, further helping to personalize the consumer’s relationship. Some, like Citibank, are using that personalized relationship through social media, in this case Snapchat’s Snap Spectacles, to connect with and recruit young talent.

The swinging of the trust pendulum: People are being bombarded with information—real and tainted-from every direction, on every communications platform. The recent US presidential election is a case in point. Brands will need to demonstrate integrity by building trusting, emotionally-driven relationships with their audience, and invest in an honest and transparent social experience within these new, interactive approaches in communicating with their customers.

Within these meta themes, there are five trends that marketers must capitalize on to remain competitive in 2017 and beyond.

Ephemeral storytelling: We’ve all heard "content is king," but we’re now seeing a shift from storytelling to storydoing. In other words, it’s now about creating stories based on what brands do, rather than what they say. How a customer experiences a brand trumps the messages the brand may try to portray. This means backing up and giving consumers a space, a voice and the opportunity to shape their own stories. We’ve seen this in the past year with the emergence of Facebook Live and Snapchat Stories.

This year, we’ll see an evolution involving diverse voices and more collaborative interactions, making for content that’s more personal, instant and visual than ever.

Hourglass brands: A polarized brand landscape has led to two extremes: huge-platform brands that have permission to do anything (and try to) and specialized brands with a clear focus, dedicated to a specific niche. However, there are still some brands sitting, undecided, in the middle, but customers today crave a clear identity and purpose. Brands that waffle or sit idly by will lose the attention and faith of their customer base.

In 2017, these "stuck-in-the middle," hourglass brands will be forced to pick a side in order to remain relevant in this market. Whether it’s expanding their brand permission space or putting the attention on craft and purpose, they will have to refocus and optimize their strategies and determine-once and for all-where they sit or risk being forgotten completely.

Blurred reality: This was the year for AR and VR, as the two technologies became more accessible, affordable and familiar to households across the globe. But now it’s time for a reality check.

Mixed reality (MR) is quickly becoming more mainstream, thanks in part to experiences such as "Pokémon Go," which brought MR to the masses. In the coming year, companies will capitalize on this and develop an MR mindset. They will steer clear of specific and siloed enhanced-reality experiences and instead embrace a combination of all types of reality. This again is an example of brands finding opportunities to interact with their customers on platforms and through channels that are increasingly more prevalent in the day-to-day.

World on wheels: You may have seen the Google cars cruising your neighborhood, you’ve certainly read reports about the pilot testing of Uber autonomous vehicles (AVs). AVs are making the move from fantasy to reality, and it won’t be long until they become a part of everyday life.

This development is on track to transform the automotive industry, forever changing business models and expectations. As we move towards this amazing new normal, companies will start seeing the car as a connected mobile environment powered by multiple devices. It will no longer just be a vehicle for getting you from Point A to Point B. As our relationship with our vehicles adapts, the most ambitious marketing leaders will also experiment with integrating experiences beyond the car, into our home and work, redefining the way we experience our environments. The car may well become the new "comfort space."

Me, myself and AI: Artificial intelligence (AI) has evolved exponentially in recent years, and in 2016 it reached a new level of notoriety as AI-enabled chatbots went mainstream. Despite the amazing aspects of AI and its quick maturation, it’s still lacking a human touch and a distinct personality. Conversing with a chatbot feels like, well, conversing with a chatbot.

In 2017, the development of AI will accelerate as it becomes a definitive part of all organizations’ strategies and a bigger part of all of our lives. Emotional intelligence, the ability to understand and empathize, will become more important than ever and will serve as the true AI differentiator.

Over the past year, one thing is clear: digital technologies and hyper-connectivity are bringing user-led innovation to market faster than ever. Successful organizations of the future will be those that best adapt and respond to unceasing change. The most successful marketing leaders and organizations will adopt the New Year’s resolution to flex their organizations to embrace these trends and form new types of relationships with their customers in the process. Are you ready?

—Mark Curtis is the chief client officer at Fjord, design and innovation from Accenture Interactive.