Summer is a good time for reflection. At this time of the year, many take a week or two away from the crush of meetings and deadlines to spend time with friends, family, and to dwell in the clarity beyond the grind. I spent some of this time thinking about how the work I do in brand strategy has changed exponentially in the last few years. The whirlwind of technological change and consumer empowerment has thrown traditional brand building off-kilter. The old rules don’t always work and no one quite knows what the new rules are. In this pandemonium lies the opportunity for breakaway brands.

In normal times, we’d talk about 5-year brand plans; in these times such luxuries have been dispensed with. With Moore’s law cracking the whip, we have but a year or two to figure it out. I give you, in three acts over the month of August, a manifesto for Brand 2020: the crisis we find ourselves in, our soul-searching for an answer, and finally, redemption.

Whatever Happened To Customer-First?

We’ve reached a new low in customer relationships: passengers are dragged violently off overbooked planes, Smart TVs silently record us, chatbots hurl racial invective, our bankers fake accounts in our name, James Bond movies are ninety-minute-long commercials, and our go-to social media cannot separate fact from fiction. Brand is strong when it engages its audience in a human, emotional relationship – this relationship is the compass that guides its every interaction with the customer. Things go very wrong when brand takes a back seat. So what went wrong?

Business priorities are topsy-turvy and profit trumps customer.
The brand relationship cannot be a zero-sum game where one prospers at the cost of another. Winning with the customer is the long game, and the most profitable one – but the short-term profit exigency blinds us. Wells Fargo did incalculable damage to its brand by defrauding customers, then dragging its heels in owning up and taking action. United violently dragged a confirmed passenger off a flight overbooked by revenue-hungry yield management systems. If United had a strong brand to start with, it would buffer some of the fall-out, as JetBlue discovered after multiple incidents of their passengers being stranded for many hours on the tarmac. Consumers with positive brand perception will often overlook negative information that contradicts their belief to reduce cognitive dissonance.

Companies chose quantity over quality.
Branding has often fallen victim to the funnel mentality: create mass awareness, prospects pour in at one end, traverse each stage of the conversion funnel, and emerge at the other end as customers. The emergence of digital channels democratized marketing, letting loose an abundance of low-priced digital capacity, exacerbating this problem. Everybody could get on, and everybody did. And in vying for attention, they all shouted a little louder until a cacophony seized digital media. Rather than a focus on enriching brand relationship, we go for more, louder, bigger. Forrester has predicted that a radical change awaits us in the very near future when “the entire ecosystem will tackle the hard work of improving consumers’ experiences, which includes stomaching fewer ads delivered, especially for mass acquisition.” As the pendulum swings, brands have to work much harder to unlearn bad marketing habits.

Firms are enamored by data-guzzling Frankensteins.
The explosion of computing power and intelligence has let loose a mad scramble to tech-up and data gorge. Brands unleash technology for the sake of technology and because it is cool. To be clear, technology in service of the customer is a winning value proposition, but a smorgasbord of competing platforms cluttering rather than simplifying customers’ lives is not. Commoditization of the consumer, where firms reduce relationships to every bit and byte they can scrape from our 24/7 social lives, leaves consumers wondering what about them is being sold to whom and to what end. Trust, the very basis of any strong relationship, is eroded. For those who fear that advances in marketing intelligence will crash and burn without data, here’s a sobering fact: brand strategy firm Lippincott tells us that 0.5% of all data collected is ever analyzed and used.

With the customer relationship in crisis, how does a marketer build a brand that connects and endures? We’ll cover that next on August 14th–ACT II. SOUL-SEARCHING. Brand-First is Customer-First.


Forrester clients: If you are interested in having me brief your team on Brand 2020, please contact me (dchatterjee@forrester.com) or your Forrester account team.