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  • Patrick Zimmermann

The future of brands is uncertain

Aktualisiert: 5. Aug 2019

Looking at brands in the digital age, I question myself why they still exist today. There are multiple trends and movements, which hinder brands to truly and meaningfully connect with consumers. These trends and movements range from technology all the way to a changing consumer behaviour and expectation. While being a threat, they are also an opportunity to refocus your energies to the aspects that really matter for the relationship with your consumers. I want to concentrate on the 4 most interesting aspects.



Brands underwent a series of evolution steps until today’s definition of capturing:

„how the organisation and its customers understand themselves and each other [...] which is meaningful and relevant to the organisation, its customers and its stakeholders” (Bont et al. 2013, p. 126).

The brand started of as a sign of ownership for the company, over time different layers were added such as a functional meaning, an emotional meaning and a representation of a lifestyle. In the nineties it also functioned as a façade for big companies such as Nike and Apple to hide their poor manufacturing conditions.


But what happens when consumers don’t visually see your company's brand anymore, when we are moving from visual to a voice-enabled interaction with brands?


The three biggest players in voice interfaces show the clear and strong direction we are taking, all driven by consumers desire for convenience. Alexa is present in over 4% of US households and changing the game on how consumers order products today. Siri handles over 2B commands every week and indicates how we might interact with our devices in the near future. Finally, 20% of Google search is input by voice, showing how a further simplification of the already easiest way to research anything online: just typing a search term into the Google search field (Galloway, 2017).


What all of these examples have in common is the absence of a brand. This started already with Google and every day fewer people use a prefix of a brand for Google search. L2 research has shown that non-branded search volume has increased in every CPG category in the past years. Alexa is going further by omitting competitor brands in their product suggestions and only suggesting the Amazon private label products. The question therefore becomes how can you as a brand make a difference under such difficult conditions? 


Voice interfaces is one of many new touchpoints which is fragmenting the brand experience driven by multi-device consumers. Brand websites aren’t the dominant protagonist anymore. Consumers, nowadays encounter brands, branded content and branded products through various and fragmented touchpoints. The goal is to design and create patterns of standalone content (so-called cards) or experiences that get distributed across these various brand touchpoints such as push notifications, emails, apps, smartwatches, chatbots, voice interfaces and traditional websites. These Cards can and should become the most important brand experience that a user needs at any given moment. They are meant to co-exist and complement each other (Ting, 2016).  


Taking this a step further requires not only to be present on any given and relevant touchpoint for the consumer, but to be present with the right amount of brand granularity. Depending on the consumer’s position on their journey, the brand content can be amplified, making sure to be relevant and create meaningful brand encounters. This requires a deep consumer understanding and gathering enough data signals to help dictate how these patterns are curated, aggregated and displayed to different users. Journey orchestration engines such as Thunderhead are the right tools for this. In an idealistic world consumers would encounter a very personal brand experience. A new consumer would receive a brand introduction whereas a new, but interested consumer would receive content highlighting the benefits of that branded product compared to competitors. On the opposite side of this fine line, an existing and highly loyal consumer would be spared with brand content and rather be greeted with fully personalised and relevant content and products.


While this requires a technologic setup, it also needs a comprehensive range of brand content. Similarly to atomic design in web design, the same thinking can be applied to brand, considering the atomization of brand experience as a way to go forward. This means creating a flexible pattern-based design allowing for the brand to live on various touchpoints and be adaptable and relevant to the individual consumer situation.


We looked at how new touchpoints are changing how consumer will interact with brands, yet technology is also changing consumer behaviour and expectation.

“In the past, companies have profited from the disparity between what the company knows and what the consumer knows” (Boswijk, Thijssen, and Peelen 2007, p. 11).

We have now entered the Age of Transparency due to the rise of technology and especially the Internet. Through the access to an abundance of information, consumers are more aware and critical about their decisions (Meyer and Kirby 2010). In the interaction with companies, they “are gaining unprecedented access to all sorts of information about corporate behavior, operations, and performance” (Tapscott and Ticoll 2012, p. Xi). In this era, socially responsible entrepreneurship, openness, ethics and transparency are requirements of modern business. Transparency and authenticity comes as a necessity and should be in the D.N.A of your brand. Any product/service has a downside, some even have a built in expiration date and most products have an environmental impact. Be open and transparent about these aspects of your offer, especially as today's inquisitory consumers, enabled through technology will gain access to these kind of information anyway. Being transparent and authentic requires to rethink the role of your brand and how you create it. Against the general consent this requires the brand to be established from an internal alignment rather than designed and polished as a positioning tool and a means to distinguish yourself from your competitors. This exercise is about creating a shared understanding of the companies believes and values in order to ensure that every action of the company, in the end performed by an employee, aligns with the company's “brand”. It is also a powerful tool to ensure the buy-in and commitment of everybody for a common cause (Windstorm, 2012; Zimmermann, 2016). 


Instead of brands, real people and real tones of voice will become the interface between consumers and products again. Either through assorted online or offline retailer or through the impact of social media characters. Digital natives, purchase products not solely because of the product brand but rather because the advocacy of social media people reflecting their personal standpoint.


Branding is, fundamentally just a form of communication, it will never disappear. Yet, it has to be refocused in a new age where technology is changing the way consumers interact with a company as well as what they expect from a brand whose products/services they are buying. This highly affects how brands should be created, shaped and designed. Moving away from what the company wants to stand for, thus making the brand a fake additional elements of your product / service. Rather, the brand should come from the alignment of the employees’ understanding of the company and therefore making the whole company with all its actors an active part of your offering. Letting the brand come from the inside of the organization instead of from the hands of an external agency ensures authentic, real and meaningful relationships with your consumers. Also transparency won’t be anything the organization should fear, but rather welcome as it is a consumer inquiry for a deeper bond with the organization.


Thanks for the graphics Rebecca Werres


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© 2019 by Patrick Zimmermann