This year presented new challenges and unexpected surprises for brands. After 2020, companies were pushed to become more innovative to meet raised consumer expectations and behaviors around digital experiences. In 2021, consumers began to travel again, brick and mortar retailers, restaurants, entertainment venues and in-person businesses “opened up” with new rules and regulations, and employers sought creative ways to keep their employees happy amidst the “Great Resignation.” Some brands have navigated this tumultuous time better than others. Over the past year, I’ve observed three accelerating branding trends that are affecting nearly every business. The brand leaders of tomorrow are going to be riding these waves rather than swimming against them.

To make a splash in 2022, you’ll need to know these three branding trends:

1) Subcategory Competition

There is a growing trend of organizations realizing that real growth will almost always have to involve disruptive innovation, the creation of a set of “must-haves” that will define a new subcategory competition for which competitors will struggle to be relevant. It’s hard to find examples of growth surges that were not driven by subcategory creations. Consider the Prius, Tesla, Dollar Shave Club, Airbnb, Amazon Alexa, and so many more that created and leveraged new subcategories.

This trend has been put on steroids by the digital world. The emergence of IoT and AI provides new avenues for subcategory creation. The presence of social media, websites and digital communication means that the introduction of a new subcategory no longer needs expensive advertising with a long lead time. And e-commerce options avoid the need for getting a retail presence or creating or accessing a salesforce. As a result, new subcategories are now more frequent, scale faster and have a higher impact than ever before.

Implications for brands:

  • Shift some investments from incremental innovation to “big” innovations
  • Enhance your organization’s ability to recognize what is a “must-have” in the marketplace, what is not and then to act when disruptive opportunities arise
  • Understand the role of branding and build strategies to be the exemplar for the subcategory, using that brand to position, scale and build barriers to competitors

2) Higher Purpose

More and more organizations are elevating higher purposes driven by environmental and social programs, now often labeled ESG programs (social, environmental and governance). Examples are everywhere. Starbucks’ quest to inspire and nurture the human spirit “one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time” provides a way to connect that means something to customers. Patagonia, known for having environmental considerations in their heritage, in their products and in their programs, attracts customer loyalty among those that share their values.

The visibility of society problems such as global warming, inequality, unhealthy eating and living, unequal education opportunities and more have made this trend turn social efforts from “nice to haves” to strategic imperatives.

There is increased pressure from stakeholders for leaders to think beyond financials and instead prioritize creating meaningful help and shaping society. Employees, especially the younger set, have shown that they are reluctant to join or stay with organizations that lack an inspiring higher purpose. Segments of customers are looking for a relationship with brands they respect and admire for their higher purpose. Even a significant part of the investor class has “changed sides” and now evaluates the higher purpose programs as part of their investment choices.

Implications for brands:

  • Revisit your organization’s mission, purpose, values, and priorities and modify or supplement them so ESG programs can thrive
  • Develop impactful and implementable ESG programs that resonate with your organizational culture. A higher purpose cannot be empty words. To impact internally and externally, it needs to be and feel genuine with substance behind it
  • Become an active rather than passive partner in the development, implementation and measurement of the strategic communication plan
  • Facilitate the ability of the ESG program to enhance the business brand to support a long-term commitment to the social program

3) New Communication Programs

There is a growing shift from communicating facts about a brand’s offerings or programs using conventional media to finding other ways to communicate and, more generally, connect with stakeholders. Among the forces driving this trend is the reality of information overload, media clutter, disinterested audiences, and the growth of social and digital communication.

The tragic reality is that people are not interested in brand facts. They are just not. An alternative is to use research to discover what they are interested in, what activities occupy them, what they talk about and what their passions are. I call the attitudinal data the customer “sweet spot.” Find or develop content or programs around this data on interest areas with the brand as an involved partner.

Implications for brands:

Create brand communities: groups that share values, interests and activities with each other and a brand. This becomes a way to engage customers and others with the brand in a context in which the brand is not in a “selling” role. One example is the activities and social experiences of the Peloton community.

Develop a content strategy that prioritizes compelling storytelling. Stories gain attention, are remembered and avoid counterarguing. As a result, they break through the clutter and communicate in an age of major information overload.

Final Thoughts

The future of your brand hinges on the decisions you make today. The world is evolving and changing rapidly, including how people interact with the brands around them. By prioritizing subcategory competition marketing strategies, integrating higher purpose programs into business objectives, and creating powerful stories and brand communities that communicate these efforts can help you stay ahead of the curve as we move into 2022.

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