The future of brands: as technology proliferates, humanity prevails

Marketing columnist Tracey Follows reviews this weeks' Google Brand Reimagined conference, finding that as much as technology unearths new behaviours, brands still need to stick to fundamental human truths.

Google's Eileen Naughton says behaviour is now currency
Google's Eileen Naughton says behaviour is now currency
Think for a moment about how much your lives have changed over the last 10-15 years, think how much technology has radically changed how we communicate

"Think for a moment about how much your lives have changed over the last 10-15 years, think how much technology has radically changed how we communicate". That was Eileen Naughton opening Google’s Brand Reimagined conference and setting the tone for the rest of the day.  

It’s hard to comprehend just how much technology has radically changed our lives, but Eileen went on to draw out some of society’s new behaviours. She talked about the fundamental human need to search and gave us the staggering statistic that the world checks its mobile phones more than 100 billion times every single day!  We have become a generation of screen-checkers, screen-watchers, screen-users and screen-agers. Nevertheless, Eileen was keen to impress upon the audience that mobile is not just another screen. She said: ‘mobile isn’t just a technology, mobile is a human behaviour’. That sentiment then echoed through the rest of her keynote; that idea that Google seeks to understand and interpret human behaviours like no other brand on earth.

What is love?

She talked about how search is something, as humans, we’ve always done, from searching for basic needs like food, to searching for the intangible like the meaning of life. Would any of the audience have guessed correctly ‘what was the most searched question in Google last year?’ It was in fact ‘What is Love?’

So, Google seeks to understand people, through understanding what it is people do: what they search for, what they watch; what they browse, where they are. I loved the idea that Eileen expressed as ‘understanding what people do is the best way to understand who people really are’. In other words, identity is expressed not through our words, but through our actions.  

Grayson Perry then took up that exact theme asserting that: ‘Identity is a performance’, and he concluded by advising the audience  "for global appeal, you need to be authentically bland". The irony was not lost on those in the crowd who manage global brands, and who were effectively being asked to apply ‘the Coldplay test’ to themselves.

Authentically bland

Avinash, Google’s Brand Evangelist, then did a tour de force on brand experience, reminding the brand managers in the room that they should always see their communications through the eyes of their consumers.

If you don’t find it worth sharing, neither will anyone else

Eileen had pointed out that in a world where behaviour is the currency, we have moved ‘from the attention economy to the intention economy’. Avinash then made this practical by sharing his ‘See |Think |Do |Care’ framework for marketing, which contains four buckets which he refers to as ‘audience clusters defined by intent’. It is their intent that matters and that will help you find your largest addressable audience, not just those who are in the market to ‘buy now’.  He was replacing social-demographics with the signals that come from intent and his main idea was that you should ‘pivot’ on intent.

Having a pop at several brands for bad brand experiences, it was a refreshing to shine a light on exactly which popular brands are, and which brands aren’t, reimagining how they communicate with people in 2015. I particularly liked the simple but effective test you can apply to what you are doing right now: "You either suck or you rock!"

You either suck or you rock

Eileen had earlier referred to YouTube as the world’s entertainment platform, and shared the fact that over 1 billion people visit YouTube every month. Stop and think about that. It is incredible to think that something that only came into being ten years ago this month now attracts the attention of one in every eight people on the planet.

Ukonwa Ojo talked passionately about how her brand, Durex, used YouTube to great effect. She took us through the case study that demonstrated how you can create a disproportionately large effect from trying something different; in this case, not choosing a traditional media route.  Her team had identified that technology was getting in the way of sex. In fact they found that people are now having 20% less sex than in 2000, and our mobile phones are to blame! But they turned this insight on its head: if technology was the cause, they could make technology part of the solution. Durex made a film alerting people to the fact that there was now a way their mobile phone could improve their sex lives. How? By turning it off.   

The more complex and technological everyday life becomes, the more human your brand needs to be

One of the points Ukonwa made was that Durex went back to trying to understand human behaviour and she encouraged us to replace ‘consumer insights’ with ‘human insights’. Echoing a point made earlier by Avinash, she talked about the virality of content and reminded us to judge work from a human perspective not just a marketing perspective.  ‘If you don’t find it worth sharing, neither will anyone else’. True.

Human insights, not consumer insights

In between all this, Tracy deGroose of DentsuAegis and Mike Glaser of Google’s Art, Copy & Code demonstrated the exciting opportunities that data fuelled creativity offers. And once again picking up the theme of human behaviour, Mike showed examples of work for EA, Hunger Games and Target that sought to first understand what engaged us as people, and then turn those human insights into creative ideas, making them more powerful, engaging and sticky as a result.

The point of the whole day seemed to be to challenge brands to reimagine what they do and how they do it, now that we are live in a post-digital world; a world in which context is everything, where the new value resides in behaviours and the new currency is intention.

But the idea of what we actually need to ‘reimagine’ that I took away from the day was something much more counter-intuitive. And it’s this: the more complex and technological everyday life becomes, the more human your brand needs to be.

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