Brands Haven’t Kept Up with the Ways Customers Use Products

There’s a daily tug of war between long-term brand building and short-term sales goals – brands must be relevant, useful and entertaining.

Here’s a truth: Many in the marketing industry today don’t really understand brands. Today, when there’s more of everything – more channels, more choice, more speed, more confusion – it’s fair to ask: What is a brand?

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Consumers have quickly become accustomed to dictating media culture.

To answer this question, we have to think about what has changed during the last decade.

The emergence of the iPhone and smart technology completely altered the way consumers interact with media and brands. “Digital” and “social” have become inseparable from everyday life. People are consuming media and content as well as curating and creating it.

Consumers have quickly become accustomed to the opportunity to interact and dictate media culture.

Two-way street

The conversation now runs two ways. If companies can get their data-driven content and platforms right, you can turn people into media – willing to spontaneously spread your brand’s gospel far and wide.

Provide them with a platform to participate in your products and services, and then you have the chance to embed people directly into the narrative or fabric of your brand.

As a response to these shifting expectations and behaviors, brands had to hand over a certain amount of agency to consumers. Rather than the push of establishing symbolism and telling stories to consumers, brands have had to invite and pull consumers in to help craft their meaning.

In short, brands began evolving from stories to systems.

Playing equal roles

In a system, the brand and the consumer play equal roles in influencing the brand. Its definition encompasses the interdependent, reciprocal nature of the modern relationship between brands and people.

The currency of this reciprocal nature is data – flows of information between the brand and the user that aim to strengthen their relationship and deliver mutual benefits to both parties.

In today’s “system” era, a brand’s meaning stems not just from how a company positions the brand but also from how consumers experience it. In other words, the brand becomes the customer experience and the customer experience becomes the brand.

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The brand becomes the customer experience and the customer experience becomes the brand.

As customers demand more from businesses, brands must strive to be strategic and clear about what they stand for and why – their organizing principle. But at the same time, as platforms and consumer behaviors shift like sand in a windstorm, companies must be adaptive in how they achieve such aspirations.

Think like the driver

Marketers must think of themselves as the driver of a car. Head out with a destination in mind, but be ready to slow down in treacherous conditions, stop to fuel up or swerve to avoid an accident.

There’s a daily tug of war between long-term brand building and short-term sales goals. A systemic view of the brand means getting those goals to work together in harmony by keeping our eyes on the prize but being flexible in the short term.

Now that change has become the new normal, brands have to evolve from the power of symbolism and the power of narration to the power of reciprocity.

As brands morph from symbols and stories to systems, they need to find new ways to be relevant, useful and entertaining.

They need to create hospitable ecosystems and build upon ideas that welcome and nurture consumer relationships now and in the future.

This article originally appeared on Harvard Business Review and was republished with permission.

Antonis Kocheilas Managing Director of strategy at Ogilvy Worldwide.

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