Once upon a time, whenever you filled up your car at the Shell, bought shoes at Thom McAn, shopped for appliances at Sears or booked a flight with American Airlines, you talked to a person. You had to. People were key to every aspect of commerce.
That person was your walking, talking brand experience. Brands were built on those interactions, and they defined the brand relationship. Though humans can be messy, unpredictable and even moody, successful marketers knew that the integrity, character and personality created through those human experiences made brands what they were. They were instrumental to increased or reduced brand affinity.
Now fast-forward to today — the middle of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Exponential advances in technology have led to efficient digital buying experiences that simultaneously enhance personal control yet strip away all human aspects of how brands build relationships with their customers.
As painful as that is for marketers, it gets worse. They’re also losing control of their brand’s narrative due to the rapid decline of traditional media. Brands are now just as likely to be defined through news, critics, politics, social feeds or user reviews as through marketing campaigns.
While all that’s been happening, the rise of social channels has created a huge shift in transparency, allowing unprecedented access to what’s happening inside companies. Employees are now media channels. Internal company messages — no matter how confidential — are routinely heard outside company walls. Brand opinion has escaped the control of the marketing department and is now being generated by the entire company.
This technological revolution in how opinions are formed, information is gathered, and purchases are made is the three-front storm that’s pummeling brands, eroding their power. And consumers are feeling it. Their experiences are increasingly undefined, inconsistent and impersonal. It’s no wonder that surveys show nearly three out of four brands no longer matter to most people. Very little can be done to directly counter these disruptive forces. But even now there is a way for brands to stay relevant and to create meaning, affinity and impact.
Salesforce, a company that thoroughly embraces the Fourth Industrial Revolution, understands how brands must act if they’re going to survive in the new paradigm. Marc Benioff, chairman and CEO, sums it up this way: "Only organizations driven by purpose and values will be fully able to shape and benefit from the seismic technological, social and economic transformations underway."
On the other side of the world, Paul Polman, CEO of CPG giant Unilever, recently said that businesses would be "stupid" not to lead on purpose-driven products and campaigns and that those who don’t "won’t make it."
Why would two such diverse luminaries in wildly unrelated businesses have such identical opinions? Because there are no other options. For brands, regaining the ability to reconnect with people requires connecting with the brand’s human foundations. Purpose and values have become just as essential to customer engagement as they are for employees. Brands must look inward first, then act from the inside out. Everything needs to be viewed through the same lens because now there is only one lens.
For most companies, however, that lens remains a problem. Companies have historically crafted their purpose and value statements for employees and shareholders, not as guidance for brands. They’re full of vague, optimistic words like "excellence," "integrity" or "honesty" that fail to differentiate or guide brand actions beyond the most basic level. To be universal, the values need to be distinctive, applicable and transportable. Identifying these values requires drilling deeply down to the core of a company. Why was it born? Why does it exist? What would the world be missing if the company disappeared tomorrow?
The next step is to distill and define that core into unique, precise expressions. Write the brand purpose so short and clear it could go on T-shirts, and so relevant that employees and customers would want to wear them. Being actionable is key. Will employees know what to do in any circumstance? Would the brand? Would customers? None of this is remotely easy, but brands that do it can find their heart. They embrace the realization that they are more than what they sell—and know what they stand for. They thrive, grow and become defined, consistent, personal, human and trusted.
Back in 2012, adman Alex Bogusky famously said, "Being a great company is the new brand." 2018 technology proves he couldn’t have been more correct. Human values deeply embedded into the brand are the path to success for whatever disruption the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or even the fifth, brings.
Brent Wilson is executive creative director of AHA.