These silent brand deals are happening right now...
A view from Gracie Page

These silent brand deals are happening right now...

...and they're shaping the future of British life.

On a trip to Unruly’s Future Home three weeks ago, I saw the future of British home life. And it looks like my coffee machine reordering its own beans.

As its inspiring resident futurist Elena Corchero showed me round, past magic mirrors and voice-controlled everything, the reality I had read about for so long finally felt tangible. It flew off the pages of Wired and into my eyeballs.

Peppered with connected devices all with the goal of making life easier for humans, the next step in our convenience economy is the "smart home". PwC predicts that Britons will spend £10.8bn on them this year alone and it isn’t hard to see why. The data captured by these devices can help manufacturers create better products, make maintenance a doddle and understand our habits so that they can better predict and fulfil consumers' every need.

That last bit is what’s important to us as marketers. Picture this: my dishwasher knows how many tablets came with it and how many washes it has completed. It can detect when salt is running low and humidity levels at the end of a cycle that might indicate rinse aid is needed (that’s how dishwashers work, right?). It can use all of this data and its connectivity to reorder products for me. It’s so convenient – I don’t have to remember, think about, choose or buy rinse aid, detergent or salt any more. They just show up!

There are three actors in this tableau: appliance manufacturers, FMCG brands and the technological glue that helps everyone get along (and quite literally deliver the goods). And while the world is obsessing (rightly so) over the regulation of big tech these days, manufacturer/brand deals are being made without a mention that spell lock-in for millions of Britons over the next 10 years.

To be clear, this isn’t a question of operability like the Nescafé debacle of yesteryear. There’s nothing stopping me from popping to Tesco for some dishwasher tablets; they would work just fine. But I’ll have to remember to think about it and do it. In a world where I can speak to a GP over FaceTime within the hour, order a curry while in an on-demand car and rewatch Gary Hustwit’s brilliant Rams documentary in minutes if I fork out a tenner to Vimeo, I most definitely don’t want to remember my dishwasher tablets. Not if I’ve paid a premium for a self-ordering dishwasher.

These deals are based on exclusivity, meaning that if we want to profit from the convenience we were attracted to when we bought the appliance, we have to accept whatever tech/brand contract is in place. This can be bad for consumers and for brands. I don’t always want the same coffee. I’m a Yorkie brew gal, but I also love a deal and would rather my dishwasher order whatever tablets strike the best balance of price and quality.

Because it's convenience, rather than the use of the appliance itself (à la Nescafé), that is at risk, these tie-ins seem a lot less dramatic. We’re not hearing about them. But deals are being made and by the time we realise their importance, they’ll have been done by a handful of forward-facing brands that realise them ahead of the curve.

Get on the bandwagon, because it can spell seriously good news for your FMCG clients’ bottom line.

If you want to help your clients face the future first, you should have the smart-home conversation with technological enablers and appliance manufacturers alike. Here are three things you must keep in mind when navigating this area:

  1. Brand associations are incredibly powerful. The Nike Run Club on Apple Watch and that infamous Louis Vuitton and Supreme tie-up of 2017 are both testament to that. Pick your partnership carefully, because it can have long-lasting effects on your brand.
  2. Think about how you’ll fulfil smart-home contracts. If you usually retail through distributors, what third-party logistics partners will you rely on and how might you manage without them?
  3. The flip side of being a brand of convenience is that you’re no longer consciously being chosen week on week. Although this results in more assured revenue in the short to medium term, it may result in erosion of brand equity while overleveraging yourself on the appliance partner. It is key to build out other consumer/brand interactions in order to reinforce the emotional connection between your brand and your customers throughout the entire journey, resulting in people actually feeling good about your product showing up at their door.

There’s also a reality where FMCG brands, whose products are used in conjunction with appliances, could do well to completely rethink their business model. If a washing machine can order its own detergent, why not go one step further and negotiate plumbed-in non-bio with Ballymore as it designs its new homes?

Even if this feels too futuristic for most, smart homes are on their way. And they come with their own refills.

Gracie Page is innovation lead at VMLY&R London