The Future of Branding and its Agencies (2015)

As the brand lies at the heart of advertising, commercial artists are at the heart of branding agencies. These modern day poets and iconographers are notorious for constantly redefining their own context, creating exotic job titles along the way. At the heart of the matter though, advertising has remained largely unchanged since the golden days of Madison Avenue. As always, the quintessential purpose of branding agencies is to bridge the gap between a technocratic organizational environment and the human emotional experience (let’s call it B2H) in order to drive marketing and sales.

However, the way these agencies operate needs to be fundamentally rethought to meet the needs of a changing society and to ensure the industry’s relevancy.

Some of these changes are obvious ones. Like the need to engage a new generation of consumers by co-creating a new, digital language. Or the urgency to embrace the possibilities of big data, enabling marketeers to laser guide their calls to action. Profound as these changes may be; they are but contextual changes to the rules of a game. What branding agencies need to understand is that it is not the rules, but the game itself that is changing.

 

Life’s a Niche

A new generation is quietly getting grumpy about the way things go around here. They dismiss the values of their parents, reject money and status as sources of meaning  and lack identification with society as a whole. An unfulfilled search for meaning and purpose is the driving motive of their actions. Disillusioned by a synthetic world of big business and advertising which treat them as part of a mass culture; these GenY- and Zers are constructing their own values and sharing them in small but strong social niches.

These niches are constantly looking to connect to others that share the same values to create a richer context of meaning. It is through these shared values that companies can establish meaningful, lasting relationships. However, value driven relationships -strong as they are- will not survive transgressions of those values. In other words: if you claim to be value driven, then you had better be value driven. Any brand or person that is perceived to be inauthentic or ‘made’ is recognized as a fraud and consequently ignored or even counteracted.


The Age of Authenticity

While the trend towards authenticity is not new, modern consumers are far from done with it. They are freelancing or starting their own small businesses in the need to define their identity and shape their own destiny. They are walking away from Facebook and their hundreds of superficial digital friends. They define themselves as ‘spiritual, but not religious.’.

They are ignoring the brands that derive their meaning from signifying a social hierarchy. In short: they are renouncing status, and embracing authenticity. It is based on authenticity that they are willing to buy; it is the genuineness of ideology that inspires them.

One only has to look at the 2015 US preliminary elections to see two sides of the same platform: Trump and Sanders both exceed their political expectations on the perception of authenticity while Clinton struggles under a smear of dishonesty.

The same anti-establishment trend can be seen in the war on talent. Well-paying but anonymous companies are losing to small underpaying startups due to the purpose-over-money attitude of young people and their need to identify with their career. Anywhere you look, 20- and 30-somethings are ushering in a paradigm shift. Exit the top down establishment, enter the age of non-hierarchical authenticity.

Enter the movement of trust.

 

Uncomfortable Truths

There are some uncomfortable truths to be found for agencies (and their clients) that are willing to look at the first hints of a new reality.

First of all, advertising is largely held accountable for the disconnect between the real and the construed  to which their client’s customers are now turning their backs. And not without reason. The loyalties of Big Advertising have always been towards their paying clients and not so much to the customers of those clients.  

The overpromise- based brand of advertising which we have come to expect has led to a loss of credibility, a general distrust of advertising and ultimately a dulling effect of the tools of the trade.This perception of the disingenuity of marketing is rapidly becoming a PR threat towards those that are heavily invested into advertising.

Second, yesterday’s masses could be fooled, but you can’t fool the crowd. Calling them ‘digital natives’ is an understatement to describe the next generation of customers. The end of information asymmetry through means of digitization and the breakdown of hierarchy is rapidly closing the company-customer gap. The space in between is the middle man’s dying ground.

Lastly, it is becoming increasingly difficult to create value on the industry’s infamous foam boards. Marketeers can’t create value out of nothing anymore. The effect of promotion relies on the creation of value earlier in the chain of organizational innovation. Anyone involved in sustainable brand development will need to be involved much earlier than the marketing process.  

This begs the question on whether a move away from the hyper-capitalism of the 00’s has also led to the increase of a demand for the one product that traditional branding agencies aren’t equipped to deliver: authenticity. Not as a concept to be sold, not as a brand, not as a strategy. As a service to both clients and their customers.‘In between the closing company-customer gap lies the the middle man’s dying ground’

 

 

Trust the Establishment vs The Establishment of Trust

In reaction to this social shift, branding needs to evolve from being sales driven towards being value driven. Branding agencies should start by redefining their role as intermediaries of trust between client and customer. Creating and nurturing conditions in which relationships can thrive should be the main goal of any agency. The term ‘branding agency’ will have to be disposed of, since such an agency would have to reach far beyond the traditionally picketed areas of marketing and communication.

 

To be held accountable for the quality of these relationships, a new agency would integrate all facets that affect the customer journey in one integrated approach. Human relations, manufacturing, shipping, customer service and long term strategy -for example- are all domains that are part of the holistic brand. Alignment between an organization’s ideology, its promises and its actions is crucial to becoming and remaining trustworthy. These domains must therefore be subject to evaluation by the agency formerly known to just ‘brand’ their clients products and services. Unfettered access to information at all levels would be a prime condition to once again bridge the gap between the interests of business and society.

 

If anything, branding and alignment will become more relevant to modern business; just not in the way our predecessors practiced it.

Networking Strategy

The many areas of expertise necessary for quality control should be efficiently organized through contemporary network strategies, forming teams based on demand instead of supply to minimize waste. It is conceivable that the next years will see pilots and then launches of these kinds of co-operative companies. Likely candidates to take the first step will be progressive branding agencies and business consultancies looking to meet the need for innovation in a careful marriage. Agencies that are too large to change quickly would do well to launch small nextgen agencies of their own.

 

The Commoditization of Creativity

So what about the branding agencies that carry on business as usual? Their battle will continue to shift towards a buyer’s market, pressing on both price and total revenue. Unpaid pitches will once again become the norm until traditional branding eventually becomes a commodity.

Also, the changes in the way in which organizations relate to their (social) environment will not go unnoticed on the client side. Recognizing the opportunities and risks and either not willing or able to employ the services of these holistic agencies, companies will downsize their external expenses and start a trend toward internalizing the crucial roles of branding like strategy, art direction and brand consultancy. Brand agencies that are willing to cope with this trend will transform into efficient production houses.

They will become interchangeable with their competitors.

Re:Think

It is time for a fundamental rethinking of what branding is and could be; continuing its evolution since it was born out of hot pokers, cows and communicating ownership. The change from one-dimensional, sales-based operations towards integrated trust brokeragewill not happen overnight. It will start slowly but surely as the shifting tidal forces of society dictate supply and demand. Although it is tempting to make this plea about ethics; it is not. It is about relevance and survival.

Why is it that no business analyst doubts the greater return of long-term relationships while marketing departments are still prone to inflating the promise? It’s time to take the relationships with stakeholders seriously. As Plato said almost two thousand years ago: true love can only exist between equals.

Fortunately, Plato’s words have also been shown to have merit by more recent heralds of a new age of business. Sinek, Laloux, Žižek and Semler have all given us previews of times to come. I believe that the corporate poets and iconographers mentioned earlier are ideal candidates to shape this value based future, if only they use their powers to further the movement of trust instead of glorifying sales as a discipline.

It is time to start innovating the way we think about branding.

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