Breakfast of champions

As new technology causes consumer expectations to rise (whether it’s text to voice, same day to instant, or one-click to anticipatory), staying relevant is the biggest challenge brands face.

This was the focus of our recent discussion with four leaders who have kept their brands in growth despite fierce competition from disruptive new entrants to their markets.

Ryan Kohn, Co-Founder, PROPERCORN

Gareth Turner, Marketing Director, Arla Foods

David Ward, Director of Marketing and Innovation, Yodel

Phillipa Williams, Director of Communications and Marketing, Arthritis Research UK

Over breakfast, our panellists shared what they’ve learned on staying relevant in a connected world, including:

● The evolving role of brands

● The limitations of big data

● The balance between human and machine

● The end of best practice in a fast-moving world

Here’s what we heard

The evolving role for brands

Technology is giving consumers easy access and the ability to share information more than ever before, forcing companies to become more transparent. Brand image is out, brand authenticity is in - both in communications and behaviours.

For PROPERCORN, this means building habits and making hirings that reinforce their ethos of ‘done properly’. At Arla, this dynamic means every choice must pass the ‘red face test’ - ensuring that nobody would feel embarrassed if the world knew the motivations behind their decisions. For Arthritis Research UK, transparency is especially significant in the charity sector, where there’s growing scrutiny around how aid, resources and assistance are deployed.

A strong brand is of increasing importance. It helps establish motivating consumer perceptions and associations. It builds mental availability and gives consumers necessary shorthand to aid decision- making in ever more cluttered categories. It serves as a bulwark against unwieldy complexity, bringing consistency and coherence to a growing number of consumer journeys and touchpoints.

A strong brand has a significant role to play internally too. It can articulate a company’s expectations of its colleagues in a clear and compelling way. And if it’s based on a truth about the organisation, rather than an invented fiction, it does this continually through culture rather than intermittently through training - an approach which is both more efficient and more effective.

The limitations of big data

Another opportunity to drive relevance is a better use of data and insight to develop products and services. Yodel receives over 7,000 customer reviews a day on their service, gaining constant feedback on how the company can improve its offering. Arthritis Research UK’s investment into insight into the needs of people with the condition has driven them to expand their remit from research and campaigning towards provision of advice and assistance.

These two approaches demonstrate the interplay between data and insight. Quantitative analysis helps an organisation understand consumer preferences, whilst qualitative fieldwork helps an organisation understand consumer motivations. Quant tends to be more useful for iteration and validation, whilst qual tends to be more useful for inspiration and creation - but both are required to successfully develop a new product or service.

As Benedict Evans of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz says: “You can iterate with data (that is, ‘surf your users’), and you can discover that something you have isn’t working, but you can’t always create with data - you can’t use algorithms to work out what to invent.” In keeping with this sentiment, to identify new growth opportunities, brands need to get out from behind their dashboard and into the world of the consumer.

The balance between human and machine

Many brands are partnering with third party platforms to help deliver their services, but this comes with significant risk.

For packaged goods producers like Arla, devices like Amazon’s Alexa can encourage consumers to defer to their digital assistant when it comes to choosing which brands to put in their online shopping basket - using category generic terms (“butter”) rather than brand names (“Anchor”) when they shop through voice, whilst any mistrust of platform providers (whether Google, Amazon or Facebook) can deter users from adopting even vital new services like those provided by Arthritis Research UK.

Of equal importance is for brands to better understand the appropriate blend of human-to-machine and human-to-human interactions. People might be comfortable using digital assistants for functional tasks with rational outcomes, but where their motivations are more nuanced and their needs are more emotional, human interaction is still more appropriate.

There remain important distinctions between comprehension, understanding and empathy. Whilst artificial intelligence has made great leaps in its ability to comprehend language, it has made little progress in its ability to empathise with feelings.

The limitations of best practice in a fast moving world

For large organisations, innovating to meet consumer expectations is a necessary but difficult challenge. There’s widespread recognition that continued investment in skills and capability programmes is needed if companies are successfully to implement their vision and make transformational change happen. It’s only by equipping people to face the ‘next’ that companies can let go of the ‘now’.

For brand leaders, driving consumer demand now means thinking beyond ‘promote and persuade’ tactics to grow their business. Instead, they must look across the entire consumer experience and its increasing array of digitally connected channels.

However, given the speed of disruption, organisations can’t wait for a case study or best practice to imitate. The market share that a ‘fast follower’ can steal is small and short-lived. The biggest gains now go to those brands who can spot and seize them first. If a company is aiming for parity with its rivals, then it’s probably not aiming high enough. This means that leaders have a greater appetite for experimentation and a greater willingness to write their own case studies than ever before - as Gareth from Arla remarked, “my stance is light lots of fires!”.

Rising to the relevance challenge

At Great State, our three core practices - Consulting, Experience, Engineering - are set up to help brands meet the relevance challenge. Our approach to driving demand starts by understanding the experience consumers currently have of a brand and then identifying where it falls short of their expectations. It's by spotting and closing these 'expectation gaps' that marketers can win over consumers and drive growth.

To find out more about how we can help keep your brand relevant please get in touch with Matt Boffey