‘How Brands are Built in a Digital Age’: My submission…

Harsh, but fair.

Harsh, but fair.

Hello there.

So, I’ve just learned I didn’t get shortlisted for an Admap prize, on the topic of how brands are built in the digital age.

Which is a great shame, but no doubt there are some very fine papers competing for the final prize.

So, with that in mind, I’ve decided to pop my essay up here, in the hope it’s of interest to those who stumble across this blog from time to time.

It was good fun to write, and I think it might be useful for those trying to think about strategy more generally. So, here it is:

Brand Body Language: A New Model for Building Brands In The Digital Age


In this essay, I argue that though the digital age has radically altered how brands are marketed, fundamentally, the core principle of branding – that brands are devices that exist in order to provide customers with a marker of quality with which to compare to others – shouldn’t be forgotten. Having established this, I then move on to suggest that the changing digital landscape, powered by technology and radical transparency, has deepened the need for those ‘markers’ to shift beyond pure brand behaviour (what you say, the historic focus for marcoms) into a role that focuses more on ‘brand body language’ (what you do). This will help businesses insulate and capitalise upon an increasingly chaotic digital world. I propose that there are five clear steps to build a brand in a digital age.

Main Text:

I have a confession to make. I’m fond of fiction. Most of the time, I prefer it to fact.  What’s more, good stories have built brands for years; fiction is undoubtedly important in marketing. However, in today’s always on, wholly transparent world, you’d be forgiven for thinking that ‘brand fiction’ has been somewhat replaced by ‘brand fact’; led by the need for the brand to be continually present in consumers’ lives. Anyone who has had a banner ad chase them around the internet post purchase, or been involved in a painfully earnest exchange with a brand on social media will be familiar with this curious phenomenon.

It’s clear, given the increase in the number of new social channels (many with explosive user growth, all who’re gearing themselves towards marketers’ budgets) and the mounting numbers of brand social media/PR meltdowns, marketers are keen to gain first mover advantage in order to either capitalise or protect their brands. However, by being drawn into largely short-termist activity, they often run the risk of losing sight of two things.

Firstly, new channels cause many marketers to forget the original purpose of brands and branding – brand/s must act as a long-term badge of quality and a ‘marker’ of salesmanship[i] (simply put, will the activity help a salesman sell the product or service? Will it build the brand?)

Secondly, will the activity help reinforce or create implicit associations people have around the product or service? I refer to Jeremy Bullmore’s thoughts on Low-Involvement Processing from a lecture he gave in 2001[ii]: “The way our long-term memory works means that the more often something is processed alongside a brand, the more permanently it becomes associated with that brand. Thus, it is the perceptions and simple concepts, repeatedly and ‘implicitly’ reinforced at low levels of attention, which tend over time to define brands in our minds. And because implicit memory is more durable than explicit memory, these brand associations, once learned, are rarely forgotten.”

In short, does it seem like appropriate behaviour for your stock cube or toilet cleaner brand to display in the context it’s in? And, will these associations help you sell more? If the answer to either question is no, then it’s likely the activity won’t help build your brand in the digital age.

However, what if you have created a clear, established brand behaviour in the minds of your consumers, but continue flounder in certain channels?  It’s clear that what you communicate will only take you so far, and limited marketing budgets only allow for so much ‘failing fast’. What’s more, it’s evident a sales message alone won’t work, no matter how well-honed the brand idea; many brands stick out like a sore thumb in certain channels if they’re trying to peddle their latest campaign, as anyone who’s ever read an ill-advised Reddit thread can attest. The brand’s thoughts and feelings just don’t mesh with the audiences they’re trying to appeal to.

I believe that modern brands that’ve succeeded online have realised that body language or ‘phatic communication[iii]’ (communication that shares feelings/establishes a social mood – that isn’t driven by a central ‘message’ per se) is important, far more important than a sales message.

The OED defines body language as ‘the conscious and unconscious movements and postures by which attitudes and feelings are communicated’. In a digital age, where anyone can highlight and emphasise what a brand does, demonstrating what you do and how you feel is as or more important as any sales message.

I’d argue that the most successful, digitally relevant brands have realised this, and know that it’s as much how you say it as much as what you say. Paddy Power epitomise this, and one of their founders, Stewart Kenny has coined the term ‘brand body language’. In an interview with EatBigFish[iv], Kenny posits that ‘You can have all the words and ads, but it’s the body language of the brand; the energy levels, the risk levels…the connectedness’. It’s perhaps no coincidence that he’s also a qualified psychotherapist.

My contention is that by discovering their ‘brand body language’, marketers can ascertain which channels they should be in, and whether it makes more sense to listen, spend time with a community building up trust – or even just communicate fact/fiction.

There are 5 questions any brand or business should ask in order to build a strong digital brand. Each relate to uncovering out just what its ‘body language’ is. They should each make up a significant amount of your brand’s marketing budget.

The first and most important question:

1)    What’s your brand purpose?

Simply – why do you exist, right now? What’s your reason for being? The answer may evolve over time (depending on what happens to your market/s), but it should be reasonably fixed, yet broad enough to cover both your reason for being and why you behave in the way you do.

For example, if you’ve committed to a long term CSR programme that’s firmly a part of your brand purpose (for a modern example, think of Unilever’s commitment to halve its environmental footprint of its products by 2020, or Chipotle’s ‘Food with Integrity’ policy – one that rigorously examines its suppliers), then where your brand ‘lives’ digitally should amplify this brand purpose. Having a presence and continuously contributing to part of the sustainability debate makes sense. Setting up a Vine account to talk about your brand’s new advertising character doesn’t. A clear, active brand purpose should inform your use of digital channels, and clearly define the debates you participate in.

2)    What unites your customers?

Are there commonalities amongst those people who purchase you, and how do they connect to your brand purpose? In short, is what you say and who listens connected? It’s fine to trumpet about your latest sustainability initiative, but if it’s not inherent in how people relate to you, then it’s unlikely to help you build your brand digitally; there’s something within your brand that’s causing this issue. So, find out what the central factors are that unite your customers and build from there. Is it your pricing policy? Is it your brand perception? Be as specific as possible; is it a tailored demographic – do, for example, older customers buy you because of nostalgia?

Once you have discovered this central unifying force, through a combination of on and offline listening, you’ll have a sense as to where’s right for your brand to live online and where to build from. When the most checked into place on Foursquare is London’s arts hot spot the Hospital Club[v], and your customers are mostly pensioners, it’s unlikely that a Foursquare campaign will be necessary, no matter what your agency tells you. In fact, uncovering this unifying factor is so important, much of your research budget should be set aside for it.

3)    How has your brand/business behaviour been responded to over the past 5 years?

So you’ve established your brand purpose and discovered how it relates to what unites your customers. It’s time to look at your historic on and offline behaviour.

NB, I’m conscious that this timeframe will wholly alter depending on how your business is set up – but, in an ideal world, there will be a means of looking at sales figures and monitoring what happens to them when both paid for activity and PR/earned media is achieved.

It is critically important that internet ‘noise’ is stripped away to some degree. What people say online and what your sales do must be isolated to uncover what’s driving your sales. Are your digital fans propping up your brand, or is it more conventional TV campaigns?

However, that’s hard to do if you’re a new / small brand. In order to uncover your ‘brand body language’ without historic behaviour, you must help build in feedback loops to your activity, on and offline – whether that’s sampling, supply chain analysis or setting up an incentivised online panel. The aim of these must be to deduce what Jeremy Bullmore refers to as ‘transitive action’[vi]. Essentially, encouraging your current or future customers to deduce what you’re trying to do / what your character is. It should arise from what you explicitly say, but from what people observe is happening to your brand and business, whether that’s the latest journalist expose, your brand comms or just what it is they think you believe in. You must not lead your customers to the answer. If you do this, there’s little chance of being able to build your brand online, as they’ll respond with rational, ‘System two’ responses, and you won’t learn anything new.

Once feedback loops have been established, you’ll fully understand your customers; take IPSOS-MORI/Thinkbox’s excellent ‘TV Nation’ research[vii]  comparing advertising people with ‘normal’ people:

ad folk thinkbox

A similar exercise should happen with your customers – ideally, those who are vociferous online and those who regularly buy you. You will be able to discover where the on and offline gaps are, and how aligned people with your brand purpose, discovering which channels make the most sense for your brand to participate with.

4)    Are you a ‘social’ brand or not?

One of the greatest fallacies of the digital age is that brands must somehow be ‘social’. Not every brand needs to be. Most people just don’t care that much about a brand’s opinion – they simply want to know they can trust the brand’s quality; that its overall purpose marks it out as being both good at what it does, and may say something about them.

A means of doing this is by mapping the market’s behaviours over the long term. Is the market long or short tailed? Are there few brands with a big share of the market or vice-versa? Is there quick market share turnover, or slow? By doing this, you’ll be able to uncover patterns, as Mark Earls and Alex Bentley advise[viii].

You’ll also be able to answer if the brand/product/service is bought socially. If there are many competitors that rarely change market share (essentially, ‘directed copying’ – products bought influenced by experts, such as top end cameras or bank accounts) or if there are few brands whose shares change quickly (people copying each other’s choice – such as lower end TVs), your brand is social.

If so, then you need to engage with those tastemakers who inform the status quo, giving them relevant rewards and ‘Easter Eggs[ix]…but if you’re in a marketplace where there are many smaller brands whose share alters frequently or where there are top brands/things don’t alter quickly, then behaving ‘socially’ may not be the correct approach for you.

There’s a fairly involved means of discovering this (looking at years of purchase data and mapping), but if you’re a small/new brand without the ability to be able to do this, there’s a much simpler means; how many people came to you as the result of a recommendation vs making up their own minds? Implementing this feedback loop post purchase will provide a means of ascertaining your true social credentials, beyond how many twitter followers you have.  Simply put, do people engage and buy you and your category socially?

If social is a factor, then the way you build a brand in a digital age becomes straightforward; align your brand purpose and behaviour to their desires and wants, without explicitly telling them that you’re doing so.

If they don’t, however, then you need to uncover what has led to an inert market, or a rapidly changing one; you need to discover the cultural dynamics of the marketplace.

5)    What is happening in culture that affects you?

Ideally, this step should occur after the previous four; when you have a clear understanding of your brand purpose and you understand what it is that unites your customers, the market and what’s been responded to historically.

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a butter brand. You have a healthy market share. Your communications is well received; you’re a darling of the category. Then, imagine that there’s a groundswell against butter. It is the new, great Satan of the healthy living press. Your buyers get wind of this, and within a month, the category is suffering – and as the leader, you have more to lose than most.

However, previous understanding means you know the most effective channel of engaging with them and how to behave, beyond just putting out a press-release. In the short term, you go to great lengths to provide a clear, transparent overview of your company and its butter sourcing and production. Every element of the value chain can be looked at, beyond a vacuous corporate spokesperson.

In the long term, you work with that very same healthy living lobbying group, and don’t preach to them. Your ‘brand body language’ is open and honest.  You use a third of your budget to act as a ‘cultural response’ unit, to ensure that your hard work building a digital brand isn’t eroded, and, additionally, you can capitalise on those opportunities that culture presents to you to insulate your brand from future cultural shifts.

Over the course of this essay, I have demonstrated how best to build a brand in a digital age. By taking the time to answer the questions, brands will know their ‘body language’, and will be able to both capitalise upon and insulate themselves from elements of highly changeable digital landscape.

You’ll note that the answers to most of these questions are firmly founded in research. There’s a growing tendency for marketers to leap in feet first into new channels without realising just what they’re for, bothering to get to know the community – and, as a result, disrupting how their brand/s are perceived in the quest for the new. As the great Peter Drucker puts it, when asked about the digital future: “The greatest change will be in distribution channels, not in new methods of production or consumption[x]”.

By answering these five questions, you will be able to find out how your brand and business should be distributed online and what its body language is and should be. In turn, this will help you build a brand in the digital age, and prevent you wasting your time with channels that won’t help your cause.  

[i] Hopkins, Claude. ‘Scientific Advertising’, 1923.

[ii] Bullmore, Jeremy. ‘Posh Spice & Persil’, 2001 [http://www.wpp.com/wpp/marketing/branding/articles-poshspice/]

[iv] EatBigFish, ‘Paddy Power: ‘It’s the body language of the brand’, 2013.

[vi] Bullmore, Jeremy. ‘Posh Spice & Persil’, 2001 [http://www.wpp.com/wpp/marketing/branding/articles-poshspice/]

[vii] Thinkbox/IPSOS-Mori, ‘TV Nation’, November 2013.

[viii] Earls, Mark and Bentley, Alex. ‘I’ll have what she’s having’. 2011.

[ix] ‘Easter Egg’ – With a marketing context, a hidden reward for exhibiting appropriate behaviour.

[x] Drucker, Peter. ‘Distribution and channels: Kotler on marketing’, 1999.