Can brands regain their golden age? Yes, they can. However, to do so they need to reinvent themselves to fit the information age.
Assumptions have a habit of hanging around long after the conditions that created them have disappeared. The core assumptions in marketing - that value is what comes out of our operations (the product or service we sell to the customer) and that the job of communications is to make customers aware of this value - are no exception. They are passed their sell-by date.
To reinvent brands successfully for our era, we need to think again. We need to build brands as information services, providing customers with information worth searching for, paying attention to, and using; where the information we offer is as much a part of our overall value proposition as the outputs of our operations.
Let us begin with an absolute fundamental: the product. To bring a product to market you need knowledge about supply - about raw materials and supply chains, production processes, distribution, finance, and so on. You also need knowledge about demand: who your customers are, what they want, how to reach them, and all of that.
Value happens when these two forms of knowledge - about supply and about demand - are brought together in alignment, so that the one informs and feeds the other. Looking at things from this perspective, you could say that every product and every service is just a piece of crystallised knowledge - just one sub-set of the universe of possible information services. So what other forms could information services take?
The more we investigate this question, the more answers we discover. Here are a few. One type of information service is helping people make better decisions. Looking back, this is one of the reasons brands were successful in the first place.
They helped buyers buy: making us aware of value opportunities, reducing the risks of making a wrong decision, making it easy to understand what was being offered and to find and buy the product.
Decision-support is now being extended in many ways. One small example: look at the way independent user reviews from Reevoo.com have started appearing on the websites of electronics companies such as Sony and Samsung. It works, because it helps buyers buy and builds trust along the way.
Why restrict decision-support to the product itself? If we stand back a bit, there is a huge range of decisions that brands can credibly help consumers address. Pampers.com is a classic example. A website flagging up the merits of Pampers nappies versus those of its competitors wouldn't attract much traffic or trust, but Pampers.com doesn't talk about nappies. It talks about parenting and all the decisions, dilemmas and doubts parents face as they try to nurture their baby.
The traffic is massive. The trust-building effects are powerful. The service creates opportunities for direct relationships with customers (such as via newsletter sign-ups), and it's all done through a property directly owned by the brand, not some expensive third-party media intermediary. P&G is now extending this experiment with launches such as Supersavvyme.com. It's one of the ways 21st-century brand communication is evolving.
How else could brands act as information services? In the course of their business, organisations gather huge amounts of data, which they use for operational and other purposes. Why not release it - make it public - so that other people can use it in new ways you'd never thought of?
The trend is already well under way in public services, with the Ordnance Survey releasing its data for location-based 'mash-ups', for example. The idea is ripe for the private sector too. One twist: for marketers to hand back the data they have collected about their customers, so that customers can use it for their own purposes.
Online 'My Account' functions, which let you see your own transaction history, are a small step in this direction. How long before Tesco makes its Clubcard data available to customers along with software to analyse it in various ways: category spending trends, calories, carbon footprint, etc?
Information enrichment needn't stop there. Forward-looking brands are already helping their customers collect, analyse and use fresh information to fit their goals.
Nike+ is a good example. It connects to an iPod to create an information service telling you how far you have run and at what speed. It also creates a record of different runs so you can track your progress. All this extra informational value enriches the core product.
Personal informatics - individuals gathering data about aspects of their own lives and using this information to pursue their own goals - will grow to be a huge industry over the next few decades. Brands can ride this wave to create information-gathering and information-sharing partnerships with their customers.
Still, we are only scratching the surface. Brands can (of course) entertain and amuse customers with their own content. They can send updates and alerts to customers - 'your plane is delayed', 'your account is about to go overdrawn' - so that customers can organise their affairs better.
They can store and use information to streamline customer processes and admin (eg Amazon's one-click buying process). They open up their activities to external audits and generate trust through transparency (eg environmental and ethical performance).
They can educate the public about their areas of expertise (P&G's scienceinthebox.com for example). They can inspire customers with fresh ideas connected to their products (say, food companies offering recipes). They can facilitate the formation of communities to share notes and provide mutual support and advice. Just look at how much traffic football club chat sites generate.
They can involve customers in all sorts of co-creation activities. They can help customers specify their ideal product and create customised services and products in response. They can reveal their inner workings to customers who want to know what's going on: allowing the customer to track the progress of their order, for example. When Domino's Pizza launched its online pizza-tracking service in the US, it generated more than 1m users in its first month.
Successful information service strategies require three things.
- A deep understanding of the customer's information needs (in their broadest sense: admin, organisation, co-ordination, decision-making, planning, entertainment and so on) as of their consumption needs.
- A realisation that the medium is the message. You want to communicate value? Then make sure every touchpoint adds so much value that the customer actively seeks it out. If you fail to do this, somebody else will, and customers will take their attention and trust elsewhere.
- Coherence. You could create a million different information services, but which ones really matter to your particular customers? How can you bring them together so that the sum is greater than the parts?
The traditional industrial-age view of branding - as persuasive messaging about products - is now an intellectual ball and chain for marketers. This is blinkered and myopic. Yes, brands can have a golden age again, but first we have to rethink what brands really do, and how they do it.