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?