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.

ACT I. CRISISWhatever Happened To Customer-First?

ACT II. SOUL SEARCHING. Brand-First = Customer-First

The purpose of a business, wrote Peter Drucker, is to create a customer. And the profitability of that business is then contingent upon profitably retaining these customers. At the heart of that customer relationship and experience is one thing and one alone – the relationship with the brand. A brand-first commitment delivers a customer-first result. There are three components to Brand-First:

Forging a positive emotional connection.
Extensive research has shown that individual decision making is firmly rooted in a memory structure of past experiences and exposure, facilitated by emotional triggers. The best brands are firmly tethered to their customers through these emotional connections. Coca-Cola evokes nostalgia and togetherness, Nike inspires victory against all odds, and research has shown that people primed with the Apple logo perform better on creative tasks. Forrester research has shown that as much as half of a brand’s energy derives from emotional activation, and this energy translates directly into operating results and financial value. And in addition to value, brand provides insurance, which United and Wells Fargo could not bank on in avoiding their respective scandals, and which Lulu Lemon benefited from as it bounced back from the transparent yoga pant scandal.

Keeping it simple.
In times of great complexity, simplicity is compelling. Psychologists know that given a hyperabundance of choices and stimuli, we reel from cognitive overload, seeking out that which is simple and “easily processed.” Apple built what is now a $750 billion business from the kernel of a simple, intuitive Graphical User Interface that revolutionized personal computing. Today, the theme of a simple, clean, effortless experience transcends its devices, software, packaging, and retail storefront. Steve Jobs called it the Simple Stick. It not easy to keep it simple, but it pays off. Brand consulting firm Siegel and Gale rates brands on a Simplicity Index and has found that since 2009, a stock portfolio comprised of the publicly traded simplest brands in their global Top 10 has outperformed the Dow by 4-times. It pays to be simple.

Having empathy.
We seek to belong, and we are drawn to those who stand by us. Our tribal instincts and allegiances also apply to our brand relationships. For brands to live up to their end of the bargain, they must intimately know the customer. But in seeking knowledge of the customer, they have lost sense of the greater purpose, and now seek data to feed an ever-hungry analytics machine of their own making. The flagrant invasiveness of brands to hoard data has eroded trust and pushed away the very consumer they seek to build relationships with. The message to the CMOs is crystal clear: Do it for your customers, not for your brand. If you add value to the relationship, it will add value to the brand. At the MIT AgeLab, AGNES (Age Gain Now Empathy System) is a bodysuit that emulates what it is to be elderly. A grocery chain, for example, can use it to simulate what it is like for the elderly to shop the store and navigate aisles and shelves. American Express sent executives roaming New York streets conducting financial transactions with little identification and no access to traditional banking infrastructure to simulate what it was like for the unbanked.

There are three steps to becoming a brand-first organization. We’ll cover that next on August 21st: ACT III. Redemption.


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.