How To Future Proof Your Brand

This article first appeared in Fast Company March 10th, 2011.

Google ‘why brands fail’ and you’ll be rewarded with upwards of 85 million matches.

Given this abundance of expertise on the subject, you’d think creating bulletproof brands would be as easy as tying your laces. And yet, brands are crashing and burning as much as they always have. Probably more so.

Why? Well, the  5 or 6 articles I read on the subject (I didn’t manage the full 85 million) certainly don’t help.

Almost all focused on predicting what had already happened – why brands had succumbed in the past. A bit like predicting someone’s death after they’d died.

Truth is, it’s much more difficult to point out predictors of future success. Especially in a world rocked by massive cultural migration, climate change, economic upheaval and revolutionary new forms of communication.

Having spent some time building brands at the intersection of sustainability, innovation, insight and design, I believe I’ve gathered some useful battle wisdom. I’d like to share it by describing five pillars I believe will help brands survive, and thrive in our brave new world.

Sustainability

I founded a green brand agency in the heady Al Gore days. At that time, I believed sustainability would become the brand megatrend of the 21st century.

I was right. And very wrong.

Sustainability does make business sense. In a world of diminishing resources, heightened environmental legislation and vigilant NGO’s, it is a smart brand insurance policy.

But sustainability is also a political wedge. Mention green, and 50% of Americans run away, while the other 50% cringe and wonder how much more it will cost.

Smart brands like Nike believe the solution is to incorporate sustainability into their brands, but not use sustainability as a selling feature. If brands were an onion, you’d have to peel back a few layers to discover the green technology in Nike shoes.

This is smart for two reasons.

First, it prevents sustainability from upstaging the brand’s key attributes. Nike’s are about technology that enable athletic performance. Period.

Second, sustainability becomes a hidden reward for brand mavens to discover. They can unearth the sustainability story with a few clicks, then spread the news themselves. On the other hand, those wanting to lambast Nike for environmental omissions will be pleasantly surprised to peel back layer after layer of sustainability initiatives, culminating in the company’s comprehensive Corporate Responsibility report.

Innovation

My green brand agency was acquired by one of North America’s premier innovation agencies, which allowed me to work in a field that defines progress for business.

What I learned was that far too many companies are ill-equipped to produce a steady stream of innovation. Most approached it haphazardly…there were a few pet projects in the pipeline, and little to no methodology for producing a steady stream of new products, services and business models.

Today, companies that methodically generate both evolutionary and revolutionary innovation are leading in their fields. Tomorrow, factors like reverse innovation and rapid idea realization through new technology will wipe out companies that aren’t passionate about innovation.

Perennial insights

I was greatly encouraged to hear about BMW’s new iProject. Not because it was set to deliver new electric BMW’s to the market, but because it had broadened the BMW brief from ‘ultimate driving machine’ to ‘mobility’.

Think about it. More than half the world’s population has moved to cities. Megacities are becoming the new norm. Gas prices are not going down. The ultimate driving machine insight may fast be approaching its best before date.

On the other hand, people will never stop moving. By adopting the broader ‘mobility’ insight, BMW is opening up an entirely new avenue for innovation. And guaranteeing brand relevance far into the future.

It pays to hold up your key insights to scrutiny, and brainstorm on their relevance in the future. At worst, this exercise might provide you with the alarming news that people won’t need your product in the future. At best, it will get you thinking with broader scope, and answering briefs that allow far greater innovation.

Design

More than ever before, cultures are mixing and ethnic groups intermingling.

The relatively homogeneous culture our parents knew is gone. In its place, we see a world where English is not a first language, America is not the sole generator of popular culture, and ideas do not flow in one direction from developed to developing markets.

In this cultural cacophony, what do all of us understand? Design.

Good design creates a visceral reaction in people. It conveys beauty while aiding function. It generates feelings of wonder and drives desire.

One need only look at the international passion for all things Apple to understand that people can instantly appreciate products that convey a strong design sense. Good design sells product, and helps new users make the most of that product.

Is your product well designed? Give it to a child or to someone who doesn’t speak your language, and see if they can understand how to use it. Even better, see if using it puts a smile on their face.

Sociability

I cut my teeth in an advertising world where brands were displayed in metaphoric show windows –  consumers were only allowed to see them in their best light, and there was no interaction allowed.

Today, brands are like fishbowls. Consumers can look at them from every angle, even stick their hand in and slosh around the water. There are no boundaries.

Established brands (and their agencies) have had a difficult time with the transition. There’s still a yearning for control, for proper presentation, for giving consumers only the good news. Complete transparency is a frightening thing.

But transparency and honesty is long overdue. If brands have been harming the planet or people, it’s time to come clean. Unsettling changes may be needed to make brands more virtuous. Is that a bad thing?

And Your Brand?

These five pillars are just a few of the keystones of resilient future brands. Spend some time with them, and doubtless you’ll discover other issues that are equally important.

The most important thing to do, however, is pay attention. Think about how your brand would fare under the lenses of sustainability, perennial insights, design, innovation and sociability. Or engage someone outside your company ‘jar’ to have an objective look.

The world is changing rapidly. Will your brand survive, or become fodder for the next google article on brands that crashed and burned?

 

Marc Stoiber is a creative strategist who helps clients across North America build resilient, futureproof brands. He also blogs extensively on futureproofing for publications like Huffington Post and Fast Company, and speaks on the subject from coast to coast.

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