, April 15, 2016

Adaptable Branding for the Digital Age?

📸  IBM

The answer is not blowing in the wind!

A recent article by Rebecca Coleman explains why brands in the digital age are forever in Beta mode. Rather than creating a rigid brand manual based on a fixed brand position you use the opportunities afforded by the digital age to allow consumer interactions to help constantly evolve and refine the brand. IBM, expanding on the concept of “design thinking”, talks of “restless reinvention” and “the loop” (illustrated here) that understands users’ needs and delivers outcomes continuously. Brand flexibility for the digital age: the consumer is in control – job done!

Hold on a minute, what about brand “management”? What about sticking to your brand values? What about having a vision that doesn’t get blown about by the fickle wind of social media and whimsical consumers?

Going back in time, to the pre-digital 1980’s, I used to be responsible for the marketing of Travelodge. We rebranded Little Chef Lodges as Travelodges and launched with a clear price-value-quality position. “The Travelodge Room is just £19.50” was the advertising line and within months we were building new units as fast as we could get planning permission. From day one we were bombarded by customer feedback (comment cards and letters in those days) making suggestions that we take this simple motel concept and turn it into a hotel concept.

All those customers who loved the room quality and price and had down-traded from the local Posthouse, thought it would be great if we could add room service, or a telephone, or a meeting room, or maybe some nice shampoo and conditioner in the bathroom. And there was real temptation for the management team, who recognised that upgrading service levels would provide opportunities for reducing the differential between our price and the hotel competition.

As brand manager, I constantly had to fight off the consumer feedback loop that would lead to what we termed “amenity creep” and the loss of core brand values. It helped that the board of Trusthouse Forte, the holding company, while loving the new profit stream, were concerned about cannibalisation from the core hotel brands. Nevertheless, it was a constant battle but one worth fighting as we took the Travelodge brand from a handful of units to eighty in a few short years.

Can you still fight battles to maintain brand integrity in a world full of online reviews and social media metrics that include “reactions by sentiment”? I’m all for using feedback loops to identify opportunities for growth, improvement and refinement. But should they actually be used to change brand position? And potentially change it on an ongoing evolutionary basis? And what happens if a rentamob campaign tries to change your brand on the back of an interesting hashtag that appeals outside your core target market base? There is the real potential for feedback noise to take the brand to interesting places more suitable for sub-brands or completely new brands.

So how does the 21st century brand manager take on board the dilemma of realising the opportunities of restless reinvention while maintaining core brand integrity? One answer is brand frameworks and brand regions. Historically we have always talked about brand positioning as if it is a single point on a perceptual map: fixed values for various attributes giving a clear and unique location distinct from competitors.

But these fixed values are usually based on mean points from consumer research, with individual consumers providing a host of different measures across a measurable standard deviation from the mean. Let’s use these variations to create brand regions, more flexible than positions but providing a broader guide as to what is acceptable to core consumers. Around these regions we can create sub-brand frameworks.

What aspects of the brand region are integral to any sub-brands and where can we show major flexibility? The sub-brand framework in its turn defines the new brand opportunities. As the brand interacts and looks to provide IBM’s continuous outcomes, the changes introduced can therefore fall within one of these key areas:

  • Acceptable brand evolution and refinement
  • Sub-brand opportunities with defined core brand values
  • New brand opportunities

So as the design thinking branding revolution works its way through to day-to-day brand management, let’s not throw our brand babies out with the digital bathwater. Restless reinvention does not mean blowing in the wind; instead it means a lot more flexibility combined with some very robust storm shelters.

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Image: Sam Beebe on Flickr

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