The power of the humble consumer has increased exponentially over the past decade, as digital natives spoilt for choice expect to receive the best possible experiences from brands large and small.
Along the way, however, the concept of brand building has taken a bit of a backseat to meeting and pleasing customers 24/7 across a plethora of digital and physical touch points. What’s still needed, according Keith Johnston, a Forrester vice president, is “some sort of emotional connection to the brand,” he said. “We’re in the experience economy.”
To wit, more than 50% of CMOs said they intend to bring brand back as their top priority this year, according to Forrester’s “2019 CMO Predictions,” which Johnston co-authored.
The digital marketplace, he said, has become oversaturated, so companies need to refocus on their branding—in conjunction with customer experience, of course—to be heard again above all of the white noise. It’s not an either/or proposition but both parts working in harmony.
Leisa Bacon, CMO of the ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster, said she’s not surprised by the Forrester report and the re-emphasis so many of her peers are placing on brand. “I’ve never thought of brand as not my top priority, especially in the digital age when you need to stand out from a vast array of offerings,” Bacon said.
For the ABC, this means using all the digital channels it has at its disposal to communicate comprehensively with its audience for actionable feedback, Bacon said. “People’s ability to interact with you in so many ways these days means you are constantly building brand advocacy through every communication, regardless of the medium,” she said.
Kim Yoon-kyung, CMO of Korean retail powerhouse BGF Retail, believes getting consumers to understand your aspirations is essential for good branding. “Consumers will inevitably develop a stronger emotional attachment to a brand that offers an outstanding experience,” Kim said. “In this context, digital and experience innovation processes lead to strong brand building.”
Customer experience will remain a cornerstone of brand building, she emphasized, citing Starbucks’s shrewd use of digital in that regard.
“In the entire consumption journey of ordering a coffee, making payment, and picking up your order at a store, Starbucks’s digital application provides an outstanding experience,” Kim said. “Such convenience enables customers to fully experience the Starbucks brand philosophy, which is to provide a third place between home and work where people can relax.”
According to Melina Cruickshank, CMO of Sydney-based real-estate advertising company REA Group, brand and experience must operate in harmony.
“A compelling customer experience has become by far the most sustainable way to build a brand,” Cruickshank said. “Brand strategy is growing perception and reinforcing a position in the market—ensuring the product is a ‘must-have’ for a target market. The skill is telling the right stories to grow perception. ... By providing amazing digital experiences, companies can ultimately build a brand that generates a strong emotional attachment with its consumers. Therefore, rather than draw a distinction or select one of these two, we should consider digital experience innovation as a prerequisite for brand building.”
Know The Core
Having said that, Kim said making a brand connection with consumers that is distinct from the so-called experience they have with the company also is important.
“The brand core represents the value that the brand ultimately seeks to deliver—I call this ‘business essence,’” she said. “Properly delivering consumers such value requires a process of designing a brand experience for customers to completely sense the value. Therefore, I believe a complete brand experience that excites consumers can be created only when the brand core is well-understood.”
Naturally, that can be communicated through content, but branding can come through in other ways, too. “For the ABC, sure, our content is vitally important, but there are things, such as colours, typography, and music, that are constantly reinforcing our branding as the trusted national broadcaster,” Bacon said.
A strong sense of brand also comes through regardless of the channel it’s delivered on, Cruickshank said.
“At the very core, it is incredibly important to have the right foundation of addressable customers or users,” she said. “That means a lot of experimenting to get the right acquisition, retention, and conversion programs working. ... The best marketers understand the channel mix required for sustainable brand building, and this requires a combination of time and discipline.”
Kim said she believes one of the reasons so many CMOs intend to prioritise brand this year is so they can map out a complete journey for the customer that inspires an appreciation of the company’s real value. However, as Johnston pointed out, the technology underlying the experience has become so inextricably linked to branding that companies ignore its implications at their peril.
“Consumers can choose the brands they allow into their lives through their own technology, and CMOs need to revise their approach to serve the customers’ needs,” Johnston said. “Savvy companies will always be keen on an invigorating customer experience, but the pendulum keeps swinging between technology-driven response marketing and branding. We’ll see where it lands for 2019.”