Branding in the network world: the five keys to success


Digital is not just a brand platform, it is the brand platform, and brands need to mean more and seem less, argues executive creative director at syzygy Victor Sahate.

The mass adoption of new participatory media platforms – particularly video games and social media – has had a profound impact on the way that people perceive themselves and their relationship with media. Large and important demographics are no longer passive consumers of media, but networked participants and producers who mediate many aspects of their own experience using digital platforms. This is a profound cultural change, and one that’s having a consequently significant impact on our relationships with products, services and brands.

This isn’t a particularly new observation, after all it’s over ten years since the publication of Cluetrain, however, there’s still very little consensus about what these impacts are and how brands should react.

Perhaps the biggest impact of the rise of participatory media is that suddenly almost everything published about your brand is completely off-brand. The kid who posts a picture of himself being sick on his trainers to his Facebook wall, that’s off brand. The YouTube mashup of your TV commercial, that’s off-brand. The logo parodies that appear on every website in the world, they’re off-brand. And there’s nothing that you can do about it. The command and control era of media and branding are over.

Unfortunately, the temptation for many brands has been to retreat to the certainties of the old world where brand identity – logos, visual assets and end-lines – ruled, asserting more and more control over the bits that they can influence, rather than embracing new media as a participatory brand platform.

Less semiotics, more user experience
I’m not saying that brand management is no longer important. In fact, just the opposite: brand values and brand strategy matter more than ever, it’s their creative expression that matters less. For brands to succeed in the networked world they need to adopt fundamentally new approaches to communication and engagement. And not just because the channel mechanics have changed, but because the cultural values that now matter to participants in the networked media environment are often completely different to those that many brands were built around.

Fundamentally, I believe that brands need to be less obsessed with their visual identity, and more strategic in their approach. A networked brand identity is less about semiotics and more about user experience.

I believe there are five key components to brand management and strategy in the networked world:

People and communities
Social media is about people. Brands need to become more human, and while it’s possible to do this with tone of voice, in a networked world the most successful brands will be those that make the most meaningful connections with people and then build those connections into meaningful communities of fans and advocates.

Brand storytelling is nothing new. However, in a networked world it’s now about users’ stories as much as brand stories. And while brands still need to give people stories to identify with and pass on, they also need to afford them opportunities to add their own experiences and stories.

User Experiences
User experiences are key. Be they online or offline, every part of the customer experience is part of brand communication. And increasingly all user experiences, good or bad, are amplified using social media. Get your user experiences right and people will tell your brand stories for you.

Participation is key. Across the whole product life cycle, from new product development to recycle and reuse, brands need to open up their processes so that users can participate. Harnessing the insight of users will help you build a truly customer-centric brand.

Delivering against the brand promise is more important than it’s ever been. Recommendation engines, price comparison sites and word of mouth are making brands more accountable. Spend more time making your product better, rather than trying to convince people it’s any good.

To do this agencies and clients need to work more closely than they perhaps have. We believe that strategy and collaboration are more important than creative execution. We’d argue that you can’t solve your brand problem with a great TVC anymore.

Digital is not just a brand platform, it is the brand platform. I believe that the brands that understand and respond to these recent and profound cultural shifts are the ones that are going to resonate in our networked world. Fundamentally, brands need to mean more, and seem less.

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