Modern brands were invented to help consumers make decisions about what to buy and for marketers to make decisions about who to sell to. But in a world where targeting decisions are made by big data, where the “Internet of things” enables objects to talk to people directly, and where products and services are tailored to each of us as individuals…will brands still have a role to play?

It’s an interesting world we live in, where around 90% of recorded human knowledge has been created over the last two years. It’s predicted that by 2014, 3 billion people will be connected to the Internet.

So, last week, as part of our Conversation Society series we invited a group of business leaders and digital pioneers to join us in our London office to discuss two very important trends:

  1. Ubiquity: The fact that the Internet is everywhere, particularly true in mobile.
  2. Connectivity: If anything can be connected, it will be connected.

Over the course of the evening, Prophet’s Chief Digital Officer Chan Suh, Stephen Griffiths, Head of Mobile EMEA at Avis Budget Group and Andy Hobsbawm, Founder of EVRYTHNG discussed:

Does brand still matter?

Chan Suh: Yes, but in a different way. Brand is a promise. It is a symbol that stands for something, and the product or service has to eventually fulfil that promise in order for the brand to be authentic. So, what happens when the product itself is also communicating with people? Does the product have to keep broadcasting its brand message? What kind of a tedious world would that be? If you were to tailor the experience of driving a car and add a mobile dimension to it, you might end up with a situation where the company is in touch with the driver, who is in touch with the car, who is in touch with the company. Who is doing the branding and who is doing the product delivery?

Stephen Griffiths: It’s interesting from my perspective, because car rental is a pretty unsexy sector. When you are renting a car, the stress is associated around collection and drop off. Every other time the relationship is with the car itself, not with the rental company. So it’s about looking for new opportunities for engagement through digital services. Could you help someone find his or her route, find a parking space, find cheaper gas? It’s about improving and amplifying the customer experience.

Andy Hobsbawm: I think it is different when we start to talk about software. I would argue that if one product has a digital service built into it and it is personalized to you and your social network, then that software becomes indivisible from the product. At that point the product becomes different from anything else. The traditional, industrial way of building brands was about deciding what they stood for and building products and services based on that. Today, the way in which we engage with media is so different and diverse, that the idea of building brands through advertising is gone. You have to build brands through actions and behaviors.

In a digital system that is permanently in “beta,” in constant development, has the role of strategy diminished?

Chan Suh: They key to success is to take your strategy and put it into action smartly. The first mover advantage is key, but it’s also key to put as much of your strategy into action without compromising because of timing or capability constrains. That degree of action is the key to success. There are a million things you can do today in digital, but strategies are built from the ground up. What you don’t find often is a strategy that comes from the top, with a vision.

Stephen Griffiths: The hard part is in going from strategy to implementation and finding someone who is responsible for driving that within the company. In the case of the development of mobile and digital products and services, we use an agile process, where we work in sprints between design and development with a weekly review. Development teams can move rapidly. But what people need to realize is that from a financial and operational perspective, most businesses and organizations work in a waterfall. You can easily find yourself in a situation where digital is steaming ahead of the rest of the business. However, it is crucial to take the rest of the business with you.

Andy Hobsbawm: In many ways, having a strategy is more important than ever. You need to know what your purpose is, why you exist and what you exist to do. With that guiding principle, plenty of innovation, agile development and experimentation can happen.

A lot of the digital design strategy seems to be about ironing out pain points for the user. So how does brand personality and differentiation fit into the equation?  

Chan Suh: Brands need to understand how to best engage with people. Is it a dance? And if every product is different to every person, is there really a product there? Or is there only an intent?

Stephen Griffiths: For me, it’s about ironing out problems but it also about the service, about making those points of interaction meaningful.

Andy Hobsbawm: It depends on the brand and sector. A brand such as Amazon is about delivering the best customer service in the world, so you could say that their mission is to iron out every single issue. For instance Zappos, which now owned by Amazon, might surprise a customer with a present or a bouquet of flowers because they’re going through a hard time. But if you are a commoditized product, there is only so much you can do in terms of solving people’s problems to achieve differentiation. Then you have to go into a higher order territory, creating delightful moments or meaning around health or wellness or whichever story feels most relevant.

After 20 years of the consumer Internet, where are we now and where are we going? What are the key trends affecting the way brands interact?

Chan Suh: We are at the point where the Internet, for most people, is an accepted fact of life. It’s there all the time. That means we’re all connected, and an almost infinite amount of information and opinions are constantly available to us.

There is a much harder burden of proof for brands to make their claims. In the old days, brands could easily make promises to their customers without worrying about their customers talking to each other. Today, if there is anything that a brand does that can be found out, it will be found out on the Internet first.

Now, we can start to think about some of the bigger themes that are starting to emerge? Some are new, and some are a continuation of older themes that are becoming ever more important.

  1. Everything that can be connected will be connected. It’s not just people and computers; it’s going to be your table connected to your shoes. How that connection will happen it almost doesn’t matter. But why should it be connected?
  2. Everything will be everywhere. We will carry around communication centers either in our pockets, or on our bodies or, in fact, in our bodies.

So what does this mean for business and brands? Brands are no longer just names. They have become entities with personalities. They are what they do as much as what they say. This is not entirely new, but the impact of it will be amplified by new technologies. Digital has become more of a state of mind. It applies to your manufacturing and your supply chain as much as it affects your HR, your product and your marketing. It’s become an integral part of every company and every life.

Stephen Griffiths: Digital and mobile are constantly evolving spaces. Brands need to think multi-channel and consider their experience across all channels, from the call-center to the computer screen. They need to identify what kind of transactions and interactions their customers are trying to have with their brand, and what the right channels are for those interactions.

In terms of the future, mobile is becoming more and more pervasive. Not just in terms of connectivity, but in terms of device types – from mobile phones, to tablets, to wearables, to consumables. We are seeing more fragmentation and diversity, and it’s going to be more and more complex for brands to service and fulfil the needs of their customers. Brands needs to stay on the cutting edge to serve savvy early-adopter users while realizing that they are also serving consumers that need reassurance and simplicity. They need to cater to all.

Andy Hobsbawm: It’s incredibly early days. It took 50 years for the effect of electricity to be felt through the world economy and society. We are not yet seeing what this new innovation in technology is going to spawn in terms of changes.

However, within that context, the Internet of things is going to cause a huge, momentous change. Figuring out how to design the right services and experiences in a way that provides value for people without wearing them out will be a true challenge.

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  1. Ok, here’s the big thing … Today’s best brands are about people and their passions, rather than the old labelling devices of products and companies.

    Brands are about who I am, want to be, belong to, or become … Brands capture the ideas that I believe in … They give me confirmation, confidence and community. The last point really matters as a human, they connect me to others like me.

    Brands sit above products and categories, even companies themselves, with purpose and relevance – enabling me to achieve more – practically and emotionally. They think way beyond the point of sale. Nike helps me to perform to my best, inspired by Pre and all that, but also by the + experience that helps me measure, share and indulge my passion.

    Air Asia and Alibaba, Ashmei and Azuri … through to ZaoZao and Zidisha, Zipcars and Zespri … You can read about 100 brands like this a NextGenerationBrands.com

    Whilst brands work at a human level, the mountains of customer data, and the nanoscience of real-time marketing work at an atomical level, not in conflict but to underpin these bigger themes. With more knowledge and choice, customers become more empowered and intuitive. the data should be to help them, like the Fuelband, not to outwit them.

    Brands liberated from product labels have freedom to do more … More for customers, more for business … To help brand resonate more deeply with the customers that matter, to cross borders, category and geographically, digital and physical, TEB supported by new business models and richer experiences, to innovate and grow.

    Brands, with this approach, matter more than ever. They lie at the heart of businesses built around ideas and networks. They engage people in the things that matter most to them. They have more power than ever, to address the biggest issues, engage people more deeply, mobilise people together … the power to change the world