There’s very little that’s technical about the digital brand.
The biggest difference between today’s online world and that of Web 1.0 or even 2.0 is the level of skepticism from most commercial interests. Once upon a time, and for a long time, digital was for most businesses an afterthought; where the need for some form of mere presence was grudgingly acknowledged and reluctantly addressed.
No more. Businesses now prioritize online efforts for any new initiative above almost anything else – because now, digital is delivering. Delivering prospects, customers, conversions and revenue.
Is your brand delivering in digital?
With the entire customer lifecycle now commonly playing out entirely online even for offline products and services, digital has gone from last to first in both consideration and perspective. And those of us with expertise on the axis of brand and digital strategy are no longer met with blank stares and condescending grins. Woot.
What is a Digital Brand?
Perhaps the most ironic thing about the digital brand is that it sounds like something terribly technical and therefore impersonal, when in fact it is precisely the opposite. Brand in the digital age is actually far more intimate and human than in the age of mass communications, when the very concept of brand first flourished.
There are even those who would argue that the notion of brand itself is irrelevant in the consumer-driven, socialized digital channel. The premise is an intriguing one, but it falls apart when you realize that only the brand label gained currency in the media explosion of the last century. Customer relationships and a trade reputation have been around since the Middle Ages at least; one blacksmith flourished and another faltered due to the same basic business factors in play today. The square peg in the round hole was actually last century’s attempts to shoehorn relationship-driven values into one-way media and call that brand.
Consumer empowerment through technology is what changed the landscape in the new millennium, but it only seems new because we’d been without it for so long. When the planet was populated with small villages and communication was verbal, we had plenty of consumer empowerment. The back fence and the local market could make or break the new hat maker. Social media is the town square on a global scale.
Most of 20th Century branding was about how to make up for the lack of human connection. Most of 21st Century branding will be about how to manage an avalanche of human connections.
The 5 Critical Steps
To paraphrase Tip O’Neil: All digital branding is local. It’s about the customer experience at every brand touch-point. And those experiences are far from passive – there’s a reason why the word “audience” never caught on in the digital channel, and why “user” is still the most ubiquitous term. Whether they are interacting with a system or a person, your prospects and customers are tabulating impressions about you across a complex network of branded moments.
1. Think Like a Retailer.
Even if you are the most industrial b-to-b brand in the world; even if you have no actual e-commerce transactions, your online presence is a retail environment. A storefront. Not a catalog. If you were to design a literal showroom location for your company, what would it look like? What behaviors would you want your staffers to embody? What would make your visitors want to send their friends and colleagues to your shop? As a public, retail-style presence, be aware that your visitors won’t be limited to the vendors and clients with whom you already do business. Your virtual foot traffic will include trade press, potential employees, investors and prospective clients. Are the needs and interests of each of those constituents being met on your brand and social sites?
2. Kill the Campaign.
There’s a reason why traditional ad agencies have had such a hard time figuring out what works to engage customers online. Even when advertising is at its best – when it succeeds in creating an emotional connection – it rarely if ever translates into a functional connection. Only functional connections become relationships. Advertising never had to (and, for the most part, still doesn’t) feel responsible for managing what happens after the hook. Campaign thinking is short-term and tactical. Brand thinking is long-term and strategic. The campaign seeks a response; the brand seeks a relationship. Brand building online can certainly benefit from advertising support, but don’t make the mistake of believing they are synonymous.
Nothing will ever replace a direct human connection. Our job is to use this understanding as a basis for developing surrogate experiences. One of the most important impressions we get from commercial human contact is the perception of someone’s expertise. But we’re not inclined to be impressed by mere product knowledge or capability. That’s table-stakes. What is ultimately memorable and truly desirable is the sense that someone has a grasp on – indeed, a passion for – an entire category. It’s nice if the sales associate knows how the garment’s fabric holds up in the laundry, but if she can talk about trends, competitive pricing, and what they’re wearing in the hip neighborhoods, I’m coming back. I want a relationship. That’s the premise for thought leadership online: Spend more time curating category knowledge than hawking capability.
4. Diversify Your Formats.
It is virtually impossible to replicate through media the sensory cues created by face-to-face interaction that cause the brain stimulation needed for implanting powerful memories, perceptions, and emotional triggers. Given the challenges of breaking through the clutter in today’s marketing environments, it would seem absurd not to take advantage of the ever-increasing array of formats and features available to achieve as much stimulation as possible. And yet, how many brand websites and social pages have you visited that still rely on endless paragraphs of text for conveying information? Video, infographics, surveys, call-outs, accordions, tabs, tweets – the breadth of content diversity offers multiple ways to keep users engaged and stimulated. Use them!
5. Be Who You Are.
Threading through all of these critical steps is this single, most important factor. It’s an essential digital brand value that falls on the axis of authenticity and transparency, and it’s a very difficult concept to embrace or even accept for the pre-digital mindset. The intransigence on this issue comes from that security of distance that was so pervasive in old-school, one-way media. “Never show the man behind the curtain,” was the unchallenged, unquestioned tenet of 20th Century marketing, when the simplistic notions of size and power were enough to impress a public whose only direct experience with communications technology was turning a radio button or dialing a telephone. The whole man-behind-the-curtain perspective places the emphasis of the brand decidedly away from the human element. It is the very opposite of what’s working for brands today.
Today’s successful brands don’t think of their markets as a mass of nameless, faceless people “over there” looking at “us over here” and wondering “how we should appear.” Today’s successful brands understand that the proximity enabled by digital media carries with it a different set of values and expectations, and demands a different set of approaches for engaging customers who are too media savvy, too sophisticated in the ways of communications technology – too skeptical of anything that feels contrived – to give credence to anything that doesn’t turn out to be what it purports to be.
Brand confidence today is about the willingness to be human. The digital brand is about making technology transparent to foster a human connection.