Where art thou, my brand?

Brands went from an acquaintance to a life partner. Changes in technology, consumer behavior, and consciousness are to blame.

by Davide Bartolucci

Media 12 April 2019

I got into communication at an early age and was lucky enough to enter this world through one of its key elements: brand identity. As a young and hungry designer, I got to experience very exciting and innovative moments in the industry,in which brands such as Benetton and Aprilia went global thanks to entrepreneurial and communication intuitions that were as simple as being able to access information in a completely new way. In the previous decade, it was all about making the message as brief as one could: back then, it all depended on the 30 seconds, or the few centimeters, limit of an ad. In the ‘90s, instead, it was about conceiving and designing signs and systems meant to last for decades, if not for a company’s whole lifecycle.

The number one lesson you learn from the multifaceted branding process is how crucial time is: the time needed to define the message that is to be conveyed, the time that is necessary to shape that message in a way that is both tangible and digestible, but more than anything, the time and durability of the brand. Designing and following the evolution of a corporate identity implies being knowledgeable, having patience and following set rules – all elements that seem to be put at risk by the fast pace of today’s media industry. Just like in any revolution, change can disorient, reshuffle hierarchies, introduce new leaders and players – but there’s one thing we can be sure of: its rhythm is set only by those able to decipher its founding elements.

Twenty years later, after the new economy, social media and the various innovation trends that followed disrupted our lives, what role do contemporary brands play? What was unaffected by their growth process and who is most capable of reading this new scenario? In an attempt to understand this evolution we must consider two main facets: on one side, what changed, and, on the other, what is the meaning of ‘brand’, today.

From Logo to Asset

The digital revolution has given the concept of ‘brand’ a crucial position in the current business market. Today, virtual and immaterial aspects are more important than ever, while the competition field has become highly fragmented and catching the consumer’s attention is increasingly more a matter of recognition. That is why a brand today is the main asset of business: in all its different facets, it is the most tangible presence of a company in a consumer’s life. It’s not just a distinctive mark, nor just the quality guarantee of a product or service: it’s an actual, perceived entry point, a determining factor for a company to be credible in the eyes of the client and to guide choices which are taken in an increasingly short time-span and are often guided not by objective assessments but rather by emotions and feelings.

From Mission to Promise

Given that brands have become industrial assets, the revolution we’re witnessing offers a broader opportunity for companies to hold greater importance in people’s lives. Smart services, Internet of Things and the data-driven market give brands the unique chance to take on the role of enablers, problem solvers and life partners in the daily quest of the consumer for a satisfactory personal dimension. That’s why it would be an understatement to talk about a “mission”: in this scenario, a brand becomes a declaration of intent, because it affects our lives as never before, both as individuals and as communities. Contemporary branding has become, in this way, more than simply visual identity, it’s about the complex designing of a role that is, indeed, made up of signs, but also of styles, content and interaction, all enclosed within a promise: that of going somewhere together.

From Product to Playground

The typical boundaries that used to define the moments of interaction between a brand and its clients are now leaving more space to ongoing experiences, where what matters is just how strong the connection between the brand and its followers is. That’s why experiences, which make the brand-consumer connection deeper and memorable, whilst also helping to forge a community, are so crucial. An approach where both physical and virtual spaces host moments of entertainment and of utility concurrently, where products and services are access keys to exclusive memberships and where brand loyalty implies recognition and gratification.

That said, developing a relevant identity in today’s market is a highly complex process that requires a multidisciplinary approach, but is essentially ascribable to two macro-elements: brand as a platform, and brand as a screenplay. The concept of brand as a platform is linked to a brand’s own anatomy and to the necessary harmonization of the different touchpoints that make up the modern, complex ecosystem of relations between a company and its consumers, but also to the very notion of corporate identity. Today, the platform is the paradigm to follow. Tech-wise, this implies building an infrastructure capable of distributing content, activating iteration points and managing the relationship with the audience, from totality through to the most niched, representative clusters, and even to one-to-one relations. Today, brand communication can be conveyed anywhere, from traditional mainstream channels to new global platforms such as Netflix or Amazon, from pop testimonials to micro-influencers, from esports sponsorships to new crypto. It’s essential that such dynamics keep the same efficiency no matter the place, time and device: the more effective they are, the more the fragmentation challenge will be won against the so-called “one audience”.

Strategically speaking, the idea of brands as platforms means being in control of all the wires that connect different players and touchpoints, content and timings of consumption. This makes it possible to have a deep understanding and real-time monitoring of commercial mechanisms. But, most of all, of how the needs and interests of those who are not just consumers anymore, but members of a community, are evolving.

Brand as a Screenplay

A second, huge revolution in the contemporary conception of brands is that of providing this ecosystem with consistent, relevant and in-depth storytelling. It’s true that the communication business and advertising have always had this approach and big companies indelibly entered our lives thanks to effective operations made of metaphors, heroes, and seriality – but the digital transformation has, in the last 20 years, deeply transformed the rules of the game, and, along with them, the strategies to put in place to stay on top of the very game.

Today’s communication process is much more similar to that of the television and film industry, where subject and script are the backbones of any storytelling you put atop, no matter what special effects it will be enriched with. From a practical point of view, what does this mean? If until the ‘90s corporate identity was formally synthesized (shapes, colors, application rules and all) into a “Brand Manual”, today its shaping is regulated by a multilayered approach. Visual and verbal communication are now deeply affected by the technicalities of the different channels they are transmitted over, integrating editorial guidelines and software parameters in the definition of a recognizable aesthetics. But the real narrative twist that transforms a brand and its platform in a powerful ecosystem is the presence of a script (both vertical and horizontal) that reflects the story of an organization and evolves with it, able to represent the industrial goal in the market on one side, and the virtuous impact on its reference community on the other.

This process leads traditional advertisements turning into branded content, which now is actually more content than brand-driven. Companies have a very personal relationship with their clients, and they do so with strategic planning and synergistic actions, using on one side human intelligence and creativity to stir emotions and on the other technology to create a functional proximity that, as said, turns a contemporary brand into a life partner. For those familiar with the concept of “writers room”, the space where authors and screenwriters shape the most complex global entertainment sagas, it’s like opening this space up to collaboration, providing room for to psychologists, data scientists, interaction designers, software engineers, startuppers, and consumers, who become fully involved in the process.

We’ve walked through a story made of complexities, which have become increasingly more challenging to tackle, as technology impacts our daily lives more and more. In a nutshell, we could say that the contemporary branding process is basically the story of a reversal: if, until 20 years ago, identity was a matter of making a mark people would recognize, now it’s about leaving a mark, in the many different ways it is now possible, in people’s lives. Contemporary branding today in essence, is designing that mark.