Breaking Through: Branding In the Conversational Era.

As Charles Dickens posited, we seem to be living in the best and worst of times. Technology is revolutionizing how we do things, empowering consumers and enterprises with turnkey efficiencies and innovations, with dynamic platforms for discovery and self-expression. Technology, however, is also bringing us anxiety in the form of media saturation, digital addictions, security fears and overall skepticism around what is real and fake. Add to this a fervent anti-establishment sentiment and political divisiveness, and we are left feeling a bit overwhelmed and stranded. 

We are looking for a pragmatic and uplifting way out of this craziness. Instead, time poor and experience hungry, we want our lives back. To do this we are looking for ways to pare down whenever possible and we are going back to the core. We are seeing this shift towards the center across the board: from the smaller number of apps we engage with, to the rise of more private social networks and cleaner UX designs. This shift towards the core is also inspiring brands to be more nimbly human. This higher, more personalized form of engagement begins by fostering a relationship, which in turn begins with a better conversation. 

A Conversational Shift

Despite all the digital noise, I see a strong hunger and shift towards a simpler conversational approach as a means for centeredness and focus. I see it in the growing popularity of audio formats such as the podcasts and in voice assistants like Alexa and Siri. I also see this hunger for conversation in the disruptive play of Netflix and its focus on quality, immersive, character and plot-heavy fiction. It’s part of a collective want to be lost in a deeper, more meaningful story. There is something magical about a conversational narrative that taps into our childhood memories of stories and lullabies, a perfect antidote for modern living. This shift towards personal connection will have a deep technology and data input, allowing both consumers and brands to calibrate a relationship that feels right. 

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Focus on The Human Factor

A good conversation is powerfully simple in its design, involving listening, empathy, sharing stories, connectivity and suggestions. Brands should take this simple design approach to map out relationships with consumers, inspiring a brand experience that provides ample room for discovery, feedback, customization and community sharing. The novelty of this approach today is the ability to carry a human lens but have it increasingly powered by technology and AI. Think of all the powerful inputs we have from consumers today, from product reviews to shopping history, and new inputs like voice and visual search. Near is the day when your car will adjust to your mood, with highly sensitive privacy options, of course. 

Purpose Play

One of the most powerful ways of sparking a conversation and a relationship is by letting your consumers know what you stand for. Think of what e-retailer Everlane has done around radical transparency as a response to fashion’s infamous human and environmental problem. Purpose can be the icebreaker and the conversation starter while you open up the brand experience for engagement. Purpose should also be your core foundation for a content strategy. Think of what IBM has done around the idea of building a “Smarter Planet,” and how that lens informs the entire brand experience, resulting in innovative ideas, fun infographics and inquisitive copy enticing the disruptor in all of us. 

Storydoing

Today’s consumers want to be the part of the conversation and the creative process. They want to inspire your products and campaigns. Explore ways of letting them into your creative thinking, involve them in ways both formal and informal. Allow your most ardent followers, for instance, to beta test a product or service and build on that feedback. And then have the actual campaigns be as interactive as possible. Think of what Nike has done with its apps by having its sneaker heads unlock exclusive content and product drops. 

A New AI Era

New tools and processes are helping brands pinpoint the sociocultural conversations taking place and the role they play in them. Push new consumer queries: how are they consuming media, what are they discussing now, why are they dropping off in your journey? You can find ways of reaching them through a people-centered approach that prizes their behavior over the medium they consume. This new AI era will help address one for the biggest issues impacting consumer-facing brands, and that is mediocre customer service. Smarter bots and other emotional AI solutions with natural language processing will do a better job at tapping into consumer journey prompts such as search entries, questions, visual search history, etc. They will arm e-commerce capabilities and traditional customer service with functional and emotional intelligence. 

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Amplifying the High-Touch

Outsourcing what humans don’t do well will only leave room for those things we are good at where we can inspire customers. I’m confident this new conversational era will prize a better brand experience that includes lifestyle experts, personal selling and customization. Think of what Apple has done with its “Today at Apple,” and “Genius Bar” concepts, making a resolutely high-tech, design-driven brand a very human, conversation-centered experience centered around creativity. This human factor should be one of the ways you spark engagement. 

Listen & Keep Your Finger on The Pulse

A good conversationalist is one who listens. Keep your brand grounded in shifts impacting the consumer and your brand and business. For instance, find ways of addressing America’s current societal division by exploring brand-right unifiers. What can you do around common values and other unifiers including music, sports, the power of local, etc. Think of emerging trends such as the rise of play to make your brand voice more visionary, playful and interactive. Explore how you tap into the shift towards agility and customization to speak to an entrepreneurial base through language that is to the point and through engagements that tickle their builder mindset. 

Alternatively, a sharp ear will also set a framework for diligent brand protection. Put in place security systems to protect your brand, including social media policies, strong data protection systems, processes to constantly canvass your traffic and infrastructure to determine weak spots. From a conversational perspective, use social listening tools to gauge emergent voices hostile to your brand to find ways of neutralizing or addressing these exposure areas. 

We are witnessing unprecedented developments fueled by technology and a plethora of brand and individual voices. Behind it all is the design for great business and creative opportunities. All it takes is a curious mind and a knack for listening and a corporate and brand culture that champions this. Welcome to the conversational era: what’s your story? 

The Next Big Thing: Z’s Threadbare Effect On Innovation

We are a product of our times. Each generation has its markers, those shared moments that shape how we see the world and guide our actions. For instance, boomers ushered counter-culture as a response to social and political uncertainties while millenials, the first digitally native generation, today challenges all forms of clunky intermediaries. These societal milestones are the tipping points for change. And speaking of change, a big one is brewing.

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Z is For Huge

While editors have fawned over millenials, it is Generation Z, the over 70 million Americans born mostly in the 90s and early aughts, which will rock many an industry and company.  Raised amidst the big recession while witnessing the increasingly isolating power of technology, Generation Z embodies a skeptical and pragmatic take on the world.  They’ve witnessed first hand what the power structures and shifts of the 90s did to their generation X parents (unemployment, debt levels, dissatisfaction) and have chosen a different route.

 New business and engagement models such as Everlane deliver the smart transparency Gen Z wants.

New business and engagement models such as Everlane deliver the smart transparency Gen Z wants.

The Pragmatic Economy

As generation Z bubbles up to be the biggest consumer segment, their sense of pragmatism will have powerful impact on creative, business and engagement models. I predict their need to make more with less, will further challenge the concept of ownership, fuel the sharing economy, and put greater pressures on brands to deliver relevant, multi-faceted experiences while serving up trust and loyalty to a greater degree.

Ways in which we’re seeing Gen Z pragmatism rise:

-      More so than millennials, generation Z is keen on savings. This will put greater pressure for brands and companies to pack more value around the goods and services they provide. This also presents and opportunity for financial services companies to speak to this consumer earlier. Other opportunities include: next gen loyalty programs, innovations in payment models, as well as continued novelties in business models such as subscription services.

 Players like Grailed are driven a barter/resell economy that puts novelty-seeking and entrepreneurship at the core of a new form of community commerce.

Players like Grailed are driven a barter/resell economy that puts novelty-seeking and entrepreneurship at the core of a new form of community commerce.

-      Around the premise of value, they will demand more depth of meaning and functionality from the products and brands they endorse. Think of multi-use products that incorporate elements such as sustainability, weather adaptive uses, genderless offerings, among other qualities that will allow reuse, sharing, barter, etc.

-      Afraid of uncertainty, generation z is more openly loyal to companies and brands they perceive as authentically caring and relevant. In return for this loyalty, they will demand transparency, flexibility and a total life form of experience.

 This generation grew up with new form of influencers such as James Charles pushing boundaries in terms of teen self expression, identity, politics and more. Gen Z prizes this form of direct narrative and dialogue.

This generation grew up with new form of influencers such as James Charles pushing boundaries in terms of teen self expression, identity, politics and more. Gen Z prizes this form of direct narrative and dialogue.

-      This is the generation that grew up with YouTube stars and other influencers. They do not subscribe to the traditional Hollywood model and as such they will further force companies to build a more authentic network of influencers to spread the word about their brands and services. This generation also takes its cue from micro-influencers to craft their own versions of DIY expressions, taking full advantage of a new spate of digital creative tools.

 Business models around barter, upcyle along with requisite core values such as transparency, sustainability and personalization will continue to thrive.

Business models around barter, upcyle along with requisite core values such as transparency, sustainability and personalization will continue to thrive.

-      Barter and cash-me will be a way of life. The search for authenticity, uniqueness and collaboration coupled with the need to save will continue to drive business models such as Poshmark, Grailed and its reselling of sneakers, and other direct to consumer exchanges, not to mention, informal peer-to-peer, community driven barter

-      Afraid of the uncertainties their parents faced, they will put a greater premium on smaller, more meaningful and trustworthy circles of friends and colleagues. Shared values, causes and collaborations will fuel this sense of agency and community. Opportunities: passion tribes and circles, next generation loyalty programs; dialing up security; transparency and engagement around block-chain.

Across the board generation Z presents a need realness test for brands. This will mean a scrappier, creatively intuitive approach that reflects the harder times they grew up. This could be a new boon for creativity, as the saying beckons, necessity is the mother of invention. 

 

Artisans as The New Innovators

People who make things are poised to benefit from the continued rise of big data. As algorithms and the data scientists that bring them to life become more abundant, we will crave and value more physical goods and experiences from new creative minds that can deliver them.

I expect a return of craftsmanship at all levels and a stronger pivot towards all things creative. Think of more storytelling, powerful visual narratives, artistry in design and craft. This creates new opportunities for brands to build a premium experience around how things get made.

 Brunello Cucinelli's new form of luxury built around timeless craftsmanship.

Brunello Cucinelli's new form of luxury built around timeless craftsmanship.

 

Innovation's New Challenge : It Won't Work If You Can't Show By Hand 

A powerful example is Detroit’s home-grown luxury brand Shinola, which takes inspiration from the city’s storied manufacturing past and makes it new with its rustic, grown-up hipster friendly aesthetic.

Italian comfort luxury icon Brunello Cucinelli, fully cognizant of the premium power of craftsmanship, along with the limited supply of artisans, has opened a school of craftsmanship, to nurture and usher the next generation of makers for this lifestyle brand.

 Shinola building a new iconic brand around all-American manufacturing.

Shinola building a new iconic brand around all-American manufacturing.

Making things is the future. We see nutritional innovation and creative fodder in tickling the brain through the hands. Expect more activities at both the amateur (a la current coloring book fad, painting, pottery) and professional level around the arts, crafts and design.

Stemming from this craving of physicality, I also expect a smarter and happier deployment of a physical lens to address multiple types of challenges and opportunities, from product design to experiences that elevate key life spaces such as education, work, play, etc. Physically shaping prototypes for products and experiences will bring forth a higher level of empathy and connectivity, key ingredients to build ultimate product relevancy.

The rise of craftsmanship should also refresh our educational cannon, hopefully bringing a bit of old school crafts to the classroom as well as truly committed investment in the arts.

I'm convinced that our world would be a much better, inspiring and productive place if we all could do more with our hands than just text.

Here's to building things.