The brands they are a changin’ – well, ones who want success are, and Keith Smith, inspired by a bit of Bryan Ferry talks to branding expert Rob Bloxham about how marketers need to deal in change..
What complex animals we are. We’re full of contradictions and ironies. It’s what makes us human, after all.
One week, we’re heading helter-skelter towards new technological frontiers and the very next day, we’re moaning because our online bank has changed the login process and we’re suddenly greeted with the unfamiliar when it should be the familiar.
“Why do they keep changing things?” we ask. Only yesterday, we were pushing the envelope but today, we literally wish we still used envelopes.
We wake up every day to an increasingly unfamiliar world.
So why do we feel so torn between what we know and what we want? When we get what we want it’s often like trying to take a drink from a fire hose and we’re presented with multiple changes to multiple areas of our lives.
So many changes, sometimes, that we begin to feel overwhelmed.
If you’ve ever read the 1970 book Future Shock by futurist Alvin Toffler , you’ll see a pattern so familiar that it’s as relevant today as it was when your mother was hot stuff.
Change is accelerating. Changes bombard our nervous systems, requiring quick decisions. New values and new technologies flood into our lives. The pressure of fast change forces us to question all we’ve been taught.
And if products and services, people and their lifestyles, employers and working life change so rapidly, how do the experts slow that roll to a manageable rate that doesn’t shock our system?
There is a maxim in the world of Futurism:
To sell something familiar, you have to make it surprising; to sell something surprising, you have to make it familiar.
It speaks for itself and it implies that too much change, too quickly can lose consumers. Change needs to mature like wine and it needs references that consumers can identify with.
I was chatting recently with leading UK brand expert Rob Bloxham, who runs the recently enlarged Orb brand design agency. He offered some insight into this increasingly rapid rate of evolution in our lives – specifically, the question of how to future-proof a brand and whether the experts build redundancy into a brand’s lifespan.
“I think we need to look at disposability through two lenses,” he said. “There is one lens where we are looking at an actual product or service that customers use and there is another that goes beyond the tangible and into the emotional connection that brands have with users.
Rob continued: “When we are building a brand for an organization, we’re looking to create something that doesn’t have a shelf life. We’re aiming at a clear set of values and purpose that serves as the basis for inspiration for all the products and services to come. You future-proof this through thorough research – you can build a brand after one session then it’s probably not going to be something that sticks around for long.
“You have to do immersive internal and external research to match what inspires the team with what inspires customers. When it comes to products or services, that’s a conversation we need to have with the client up front, e.g. how long do you think this will last in the current market? You want and need to be savvy with your investment. If it’s a trendy product then we can build a brand that fades along with the trend. If it’s a company with ambition to last a hundred years then we need to think as far forward as we can.”
There is a unique difference between B2C brands and B2B brands. B2C brands usually require a lot more research and evaluation before launching onto the market.
Rob explains: “The process is the same, it’s just the methodology that slightly changes. We start with internal research and then challenge those insights with external research. Therefore, with B2B we might facilitate one-to-one client interviews to gauge the audience needs, whereas with B2C we might need to look at focus groups, surveys or a new innovative way of capturing insight.”
With B2B brands, there tends to be a greater degree of permanence, not affected by quickly evolving generations of users, whereas consumer brands need agility. Rob cites the case of British Home Stores, which was a great brand that ultimately failed to adapt to the modern British shopper.
And it’s not just products, but entire organizations that evolve, morph and rebuild more rapidly than ever. At the time of writing Future Shock , Toffler reported that McKinsey & Company proposed internal restructuring for the Top 100 companies every two years. These days, says Bloxham it needs to be prioritized a lot more regularly: “Strong brands will make brand an item on every management meeting agenda – monthly, half-yearly, annually, whatever your organization’s timings look like. If you wait two years to figure out whether or not you’ve upheld your brand promises you’ll turn off both staff and customers.
“You’ve got to create proof every day that your brand is more than words and pretty pictures. Your brand spells out your purpose as an organization – outside of the nuts and bolts. If you’re not using that purpose to motivate your staff and inspire better customer experiences then you’re wasting your investment.”
Future Shock also highlights the speed of decision making as a contributor to this illness of progress. In days of old, hierarchical structures meant that decisions made on the front line needed approving and referring up the food chain to the Directors. Then actions to be taken were bounced back down the chain, causing a natural lag between cause and effect. These days, with more flat, open company structures and delegation skills in play, decisions can be made and acted upon in real time. This means that brands and products can evolve at a quicker pace for some and not so for others. So how does this impact on the branding process?
“Flat structures tend to be much quicker,” says Bloxham “[but] even hierarchical structures can make quick decisions if they prioritize the project and put the right people in the room when new information is presented and recommendations are suggested.”
Bloxham is adamant that focus is the key to executing a quick, relatively painless brand evolution. “Projects slow down when businesses get their heads stuck back into the day-to-day and stop paying attention. Every phone call, meeting, report, and presentation could change the future of your business. Make those touch points matter and you’ll be in for a smooth ride.”
This brings us back to the fear of change: the scary view of all the things to be considered during a rebrand. What started out as a neat idea in the boardroom suddenly seems too big a project to complete. Professionals like Bloxham usually undertake research insights, which gives the branding group an accurate portrayal of where the business is, “warts and all,” says Bloxham.
Some changes impact a company right across its business. Clients can sometimes find this too daunting to undertake but, like all of us wishing we still operated with hand-written letters, we need to realize that growth means change and companies like Orb are geared up to help guide a company through those changes.
As Bloxham says, his clients often don’t realize how connected they are to the old brand and they forget to think about all of the things they liked – probably like Jerry Hall felt about leaving Bryan Ferry – especially when we compare him with old Ebenezer Murdoch.
It’s a big decision, not to be taken lightly but necessary all the same. Fear of change can be alleviated by preparing yourself for change: “If you wanted the same design just slightly tweaked you wouldn’t have come to a brand agency,” says Bloxham.
Assemble your team, choose only the key people that need to be involved and make it clear who has the final decision.
Your brand’s Avalon can be reached if you apply more haste and less speed, which is, I think, the key to avoiding Future Shock.
Always be prepared to accept change in all areas of your life – especially in business but embrace it with due diligence, focus, and attention to detail.
Rushing into Mick Jagger’s arms from the Ferry man’s warm caress could well end in Sticky Fingers and leave you Stranded.
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