How disruptive technologies will shake, but not break, our enduring bond with brands
Brands have penetrated our culture like never before. But accelerating change is upon us. Will brands be able to keep their role in the face of the technological disruption about to sweep through the business landscape? At Lippincott, we believe that the brands we use to simplify and navigate will die, while the brands that we choose to believe in and belong to will be able to thrive. This presents brands with more opportunities than ever before – one where they can create new value – but this can only be achieved if they are carefully positioned.
Simplify, Believe and Belong
To make bold predictions about how brands will respond to the wave of disruptive technology, we need to look back at the relationship we have developed with brands in our culture. What makes people tattoo commercial brands on their bodies?
We have formed deep bonds with brands because they have learned to represent things in a way that meets three basic human needs: to simplify the frenetic world around us; to believe in something bigger than what is in front of us; and to belong to a group beyond our family.
We need these things, and always have, and used to turn to other sorts of ‘brands’ for them: cultural icons, political movements, sports teams, faith groups, nations, battalions. Today’s commercial brands have learned to respond directly to these needs, drawing on people’s allegiances as strongly as other cultural groups do. And we’ve responded by letting them into our homes, lives and selves.
Is this a phenomenon at its peak, about to be displaced by the rational digital world of radical transparency and customer reviews? Or is it the emotional constant that we will cling on to, as we ride the turmoil of digital disruption?
“Simplify” brands will become unseen commodities
Brands’ original role was as a stamp of quality and authenticity: reassurance that you were buying the real thing. They guarantee a performance that you can’t test for yourself before purchase: the engine will run better because it’s Castrol, the ink will last longer because it’s Epson.
But what happens when the car buys its own motor oil? When the printer picks its own ink? With the rise of artificial intelligence and connected devices, many of our things will act on our behalf, deciding based on a database of quantified performance. The robots won’t need brands, they’ll have metrics.
Even for the purchases still left to us, we won’t need brands to simplify our choices. We already see ourselves willing to buy an unfamiliar brand on Amazon if it comes with a five-star rating. Through the objective, crowd-sourced insight of thousands of users, now we can know what the performance will be before purchase, so we don’t need the same guarantee.
“Believe” and “Belong” brands will become essential, beloved tribes
The core human needs that have driven our bond with brands aren’t going away. When I can see outcomes, I don’t need to rely on promises, so I won’t have the same need for brands to simplify the world around me. But brands that fulfill my other needs – to believe, and to belong – will be more needed than ever.
Our digital existence brings connected transparency: we share more, companies monitor more, everyone sees more. When everyone sees the brands we interact with, brand becomes an even more important tool for self-expression. And as traditional communities of place decline in a globalised, connected society, we see more customers turning to companies to fulfill a sense of belonging. In a transparent, connected world, the brands you believe in and belong to are seen by all and matter even more.
This shift in how brands will be effective is more instructive than the debate about whether they still have a role. If you’re an energy company, bank, insurance company or telecom company that is frankly pretty undifferentiated, and whose brand works by simplifying my choice, providing just enough assurance to justify my avoiding the hassle of exploring alternatives, it’s true that your brand as it works today is under serious threat. But even such ‘utility’ brands can succeed if they create an emotional connection for us to want to stay with them, to seek them out, and to advocate for them. Even the five-star reviews depend not just on delivered performance, but on customers being motivated to voice their support.
Brands will thrive when they connect with their tribe. When technology puts me in control, co-creating what I want, I won’t need brands as I do today. But I still want to choose a way of doing things that suits who I am, among all the experiences that robots and intelligent devices will offer. I want to be excited by, or at home in, their new synthetic reality. I still want to believe, and I still want to belong. If brands help me to do that, I will still want them.