Chris Human, Co-Founder and Brand Strategist at Engage Brandcraft

By: Chris Human

There seems to be a growing assumption, certainly in some circles, that focusing on traditional (top-down) brandcrafting is becoming less important in the digital age.

As companies move into the online space, questions are being raised as to whether money allocated to carefully defining and developing a single minded (and often static) identity is money well spent or whether it wouldn’t be better spent on listening to consumers, engaging in conversations on social media or pulling prices down in an online store. 

To be sure, this perspective comes in many guises and variations of differing intensity but the central idea is the same: the brand of the future will be driven from ‘the bottom up’ – its direction guided by consumers and not from the corporate ivory tower.

I’d like to take a moment to refute that idea, at least in part.

Consumers decide

There is of course some serious truth in the notion that the consuming public (if there is such a homogenous thing) is not there to soak up and accept brand-building messages wholesale and without question, to be cajoled and controlled by the media chequebooks of the mighty top 100.

Brand communities consisting of lovers, haters and the vast in-betweens have a growing role in deciding whether your brand is cool or not, what it stands for, whether it can be considered authentic, and whether it’s worthy of their suspicion, disinterest, trust, or passion. 

The prophetic Cluetrain Manifesto foretold, some 16 years ago, of the internet driven marketing shifts ahead: “Your tired notions of ‘the market’ make our eyes glaze over. We don’t recognise ourselves in your projections-perhaps because we know we’re already elsewhere. We like this new marketplace much better. In fact, we are creating it.” 

But like many things in the world of branding (and life), what sometimes appears to be a gradual sea change is more of a correction – a shift towards a more reasonable balance allowed, in this case, by the many unseen forces of the WWW. Like a healthy political landscape, a good brandscape consists of leaders, active participants and followers – each dependent on the other.

Leaders are there to set the tone, to inspire, to stand for something and, where necessary to make tough decisions. Followers are there to vote (in this case with their credit cards) and the participators are there to share, to converse, to get involved and to keep those leaders in check. 

Engaging with the market

Even then, it’s hard to imagine brand participants dictating the difference between the tone or positioning of one Unilever shampoo vs. another. True, they will collectively steer decisions, feedback and make demands from time to time: “no parabens please“. But here we are talking, respecting, listening and engaging with the market not handing over the reins of the brand.

At least, not like Australia’s mighty Vegemite which famously crowd sourced their sub-branding efforts a few years back with a near fatal result: “Vegemite iSnack 2.0“. Publicity stunt or not, the same audience that had dictated the name from below turned out to hate it – no despise it – as any search for the brand on Google will instantly reveal.

A future of consumer led brands is the polar opposite of the supposed dictatorial, quasi-monopolistic past. It’s the other ugly side – the commercial equivalent of political populism with a race to the bottom driven by the lowest common denominator. Imagine the once mighty Apple reinvented from the bottom up… Some would argue that it should be, but then they’d probably own a Galaxy already.

It was the vision of a strong top-down brand leader that kept Apple together for years and, now that that leader has dearly departed, the cracks are widening a little quicker. 

On the one hand, take a look at the recent knocks taken by the Abercrombie brand – the one time perfect (albeit elitist) all American kid that everyone wanted to be. 

It’s widely accepted that much of that brand’s downturn follows on the back of a very disgruntled/disillusioned youth – the same youth the brand itself once aspired to represent.

The brand failed to take into account growing criticism online of its elitist attitude and exclusionary politics – choosing to paint backlash with a PR brush and ignoring a changing youth landscape peppered with a return to values and a softer kind of cool. And so the once mighty Abercrombie brand gets beaten into line by its own once-consuming public to the extent that this elitist brand is now, literally, handing out clothing to the homeless in a (hopefully permanent) period of self-imposed correctional service.

Brands that listen to their public

In between these two examples you’ll find some radical brands that listen and participate online – open themselves up to criticism (and praise) but at the same time stand for something. 

Examples are companies like the US clothing retailer Patagonia – a business with a strong brand in the traditional sense, consistent, well-crafted, and unchanging in their principles and value propositions as well as their healthy, friendly guy next door positioning.

Closer to home brands like First National Bank have been walking an outstanding middle ground – building incredibly strong and clearly positioned brands with integrity and massive attention to detail while also listening, engaging and largely living online. 

While they are setting an excellent example, smaller brands can rest assured. It’s possible to achieve a more niche version of the same strategy without airport billboards and cooling tower livery.

At Engage Brandcraft, we believe there are ultimately forces pushing both from the bottom and top – and the result? A better middle is coming – one driven largely by online dynamics. To be sure, there’s still more ground to be gained by the consumer, especially in South Africa.

But the middle we are heading towards has space for visionary brands, as well as the customers and communities around those brands to put input into, feedback on and share in those brands’ development. It’s an exciting middle and we’re pretty confident it’s going to be anything but boring.

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