Brand

Changing brandscapes

Recently, I was part of an interesting round table discussion organised by afaqs and IBM around “Technology in Marketing“. While we did stick to the subject, in my mind, I was also wondering about the impact this (topic) was  having on the idea of brand. It has been only 4 years since I had last held a brand job, (I left TOI in 2010) but I can safely say that the landscape has changed massively. A few thoughts –

Time: The cycles of brand building have been massively reduced. This is not a 2010 phenomenon, but to give you some perspective, in that year Flipkart was just venturing beyond books and hardly the well known brand it is now. Zomato was a ‘promising startup’ according to a list made by the Smart Techie magazine and had just expanded beyond a single city. The flip side is that some of the other startups in that list no longer exist. AlooTechie, which reported this, also does not exist. I had a Nokia E series phone then, and they are pretty much a non entity now. In short, that word – change, and it’s faster than ever! It is said that brands get built over time, but do business cycles allow that liberty now?

Geography: A cliche used frequently is “Geography is history”, but a little incident reminded me that it may not altogether be true. One of the regular conversations these days is around taxi rentals and Uber is a favourite among many of my friends. I casually asked them whether they knew of the heavy rap Uber was getting in the US for remarks allegedly made by a senior VP. (alternate perspective) They didn’t, and it isn’t as though they don’t consume news online. They missed it amidst all the ‘noise’. While a brand may be global, how much does its international stature impact regional preferences, even in this hyper connected era?

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The Agency Experience

Last Thursday was my first anniversary at GroupM, and the next day was my last there. A short tenure, and one year in an agency is too less a timeframe to be exposed to all the facets, people and processes a large (media) agency has to offer. But limiting though it is, I’d still like to share my (limited) thoughts, because I wasn’t able to get these perspectives before I made the shift to the agency side. My contacts on the client side had near zero clue on life in an agency, and my agency friends were veterans who had always been on that side. It wouldn’t have occurred to them that these things might be unfamiliar to a n00b! :)

These are based on what I saw and experienced, and hence more subjective than objective. I’m restricting it to three aspects that bring out some good and some not-so-good points. More

Platform Principles

Though not by design thus far, I have actually been expanding on the 4P (planning to add one more) framework I wrote about in Agile @ Scale. The attempt is to help me navigate the concept of brand in a rapidly changing landscape. The Change Imperative tried to showcase some of the possibilities of these dynamic shifts, and Revisiting Brand Purpose dwelt upon purpose in the framework. This post is on platforms. Though media platforms have been around for a while and have been utilised by brands, and the internet, mobile and different OS can also be treated as platforms, I’m choosing to focus on the brand/ organisation as a platform.

Thus far, the organisation as a platform has been built to leverage scale for competitive advantage. But technology and open platforms are easily on their way to make scale matter much less. As this post  succinctly states, connections weigh more than efficiency now. So how can the organisation move towards connections?

My thought process on this was probably started in Social’s Second Chance. Social tools and platforms have brought the brand into full contact with the user and have caused paradigm shifts in not just marketing but across the organisation. This deck makes an insightful point that traditional marketing structures are dialectic in nature while social platforms are dialogic. That explains why brands are using social mostly as media and trying to frack it, despite there being better ways to approach it, even in the context of marketing. Experience > exposure is a lesson yet to be learnt.

Among other reasons, one of the big factors that are contributing to a resistance in truly embracing social in entirety is a fear – loss of control. This is a great read on designing for the loss of control and my biggest takeout from it is where it quotes from ‘The Power of Pull‘ – “shaping strategies” on the individual, institutional, and societal level.

I think there’s tremendous scope in rethinking the brand/organisation as a platform. In the bid for competitive advantage through scale and efficiency @ scale, it is possible that the organisation/brand has chosen to see value very myopically – as a transaction. What if the organisation transformed itself around connections – connecting employees to a sense of purpose, partners to the kind of work they’d want to associate with and its own narratives with that of the consumer’s? Of course there’d be transactions involved too, but how about engaging each in a way that understands and works with the unique value in every interaction within the context of a shared purpose?

(Arguable) I think efficiency lays more stress on methods, but engagement has the potential to focus on principles. Profitability at any cost vs value creation as a means to profitability. The choice might actually make the difference between survival and irrelevance.

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Revisiting brand purpose

I had almost completed a post on brand purpose when I came across this.

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I have realised that in my personal life, even ‘what you want most’ is a dynamic thing. I am not really arguing against discipline – there was a time when it kept the blog going. But what I wanted most was just simply that the blog shouldn’t die. To get back, in a rapidly changing environment, I sometimes feel that ‘living each moment fully’ is a better bet than a disciplined course of action towards a purpose.

Back to the brand purpose post. In the original draft, I had flipped Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In the human context, the hierarchy is traveled upwards, as each need is met and reasonably satisfied. But I wondered if, in the brand context, it should be traversed in the reverse direction. I mapped self actualisation (the brand version of ‘what you want most’) to the brand’s purpose, Esteem to confidence in that purpose and finding the first set of people who will help translating that into a working model, Love/Belonging to getting a community in whose individual narratives the brand narrative can play a part, and the last two levels (Safety, Psychological) as bettering the efficacy and efficiency of the brand respectively. Yes, it is fairly rudimentary, but think about it! :)

But the quote and my reaction to it made me think, is it possible/good to define a brand purpose that remains consistent in a rapidly changing business landscape? Maybe it’s cohesion, as opposed to consistency? Is a flexible purpose accompanied by an agile way of operating  the middle path? Are we getting to a point where the only constant in a brand purpose is relevance and value in the consumer narrative and the brand is guided more by a set of unique principles and perspectives that are constantly reshaped by its environment?

When does a hotel’s brand purpose meet AirBnB or a watch company’s that of wearables, or a bookshop’s that of an online retailer of books/e-books? When it affects business? Is that around the same time as ‘too late’?

Social Nextworks

The impending death of Orkut (2004-2014) made me think of the evolution of social networking and its transience. Orkut lived ‘only’ for 10.5 years, and this is despite being part of Google, though some would call that a disadvantage. Facebook  has been around for the same time, and the fact that it is a force to reckon with is a testament of its understanding of this transience. It also explains the acquisition of Instagram, Whatsapp and the attempt on Snapchat.

However, I recently realised that I am probably more active on Whatsapp, Instagram and Pinterest than Facebook and Twitter. I am also reasonably active on Secret. That made me dig a bit deeper.

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What is changing? From my observations, there are at least two factors that are driving the change.

Perspectives on connectivity: The early era was fueled by the need to connect. Facebook is soaring well beyond a billion users, and its longevity is (also) because the need still exists. It continues to look for better ways to do this, manifested through front end and back end changes. But despite this, and my own curation of my newsfeed by sending signals to Facebook, I am regularly overwhelmed by the volume. This goes for Twitter too. Personally, I have treated these platforms as a means of self expression. I would also like to choose the people whose perspectives I want, and who are entitled to a judgment, if any. But that’s not so easily done on popular platforms.

That’s when I start to look at the many ways to handle this – from social networks to messaging apps. I could go to where the crowds are relatively less and/or are more ‘focused’ – by domain or use cases, (LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram) I could interact with smaller groups, (WhatsApp) use ephemerality (Snapchat) or be anonymous (Secret) As I mentioned, at least three of these work for me. A wonderful nuance I caught in Mitch Joel ‘s prophetic ‘The Next Big Thing Online Could Well Be Anonymity‘, is that it may not just be ‘something to hide’ that makes some prefer anonymity, but it could also be so that ‘who they are will not become a focal point within that discussion’. Anonymity on the web is not new, but many of its enablers are.

Devices: The networks of an earlier era (eg.Facebook) were made for desktop and had to adapt for mobile. On the other hand, Instagram, Whatsapp, Secret, Snapchat etc are mobile natives. Given the increasing ubiquity of smartphones, their growth is not surprising.

What are the possible business models and what’s a brand to do? As more and more users flock to these new platforms, they would need to mature, with business models which could mean associations with brands – the journey from social network to social media.

Instagram and Pinterest are already social media, making advertising at least one of their revenue sources. WhatsApp does not like advertising and already makes money on downloads. Its competitors like Line, KakaoTalk, WeChat etc, however, have found various other means – virtual items, (stickers, in app purchases in free video games) promotional messages, baby steps in electronic payment handling fees, and interesting tie-ups. Snapchat already has many marketers on it and is likely to offer promotion options too, probably tied to a time bound event.

Secret has a lot of negativity surrounding it – s3x talk and startup malice and being just a fad – and there are comparisons to Formspring and its demise despite funding. But beyond advertising and in app puchases, maybe, there’s also potential for insights on a brand and its use cases? Things that cannot be found on indexed platforms. Also, Whisper already has a content deal with Buzzfeed.

Analytics for such platforms haven’t even really begun yet, but it can’t be far away. But more importantly, all of these platforms are potential enablers for a brand to take forward its narrative and become relevant to its users. It continues to be about storytelling, and digital.

A response to Facebook’s shrinking organic reach

Facebook’s plummeting organic reach has prompted several questions on whether it makes sense to continue investing in a presence on the platform. The short answer is still yes, and while I have never been a fan of Like acquisition, the platform continues to offer several avenues to help brands meet business outcomes. But marketers must learn from this episode, understand that Facebook and most other social platforms are fundamentally leased media and not owned, and be more cognizant of the landscape inside and outside Facebook in order to address business objectives better.

Rather than going for my standard long form text, I thought I’d play it differently and take the help of my favourite pop culture phenomena in the process. The disclaimer is that this is meant to be a primer on how to tackle this issue rather than a comprehensive silver bullet.

until next time, Like? ;)

Agile @ Scale

Prelude

I think I used ‘dis-aggregated social network‘ on this blog for the first time in 2009, referring to Google’s basket of services that were connected relatively flimsily then. IMO, Google has always been that way, even including Google+. (read) I remembered it when I tweeted this about Facebook – around the time news of their Fan Audience Network started trickling in.

It got me thinking (again) on ‘scale’, a recurring theme here. In a less complicated world, where the trends in the business landscape were significantly more linear, (growth, competition, consumption, economy) scale was a powerful weapon to wield. But it’s a different world now. Artificial Intelligence, 3D Printing, Internet of Things, Wearables  and a hundred other things might completely disrupt the status quo and the need an incumbent brand satisfies. These are the known ones, and then there are the conceptually invisible (at this point) ones. Surviving (let alone thriving) in this shifting scenario requires agility, and it is difficult (though not impossible) to see scale and agility together. I looked to Google and Facebook for an approach towards this because not only are they surviving, they seem to be thriving. Yes, we’ll get to Amazon in a while.

What does it take to be agile at scale? I can think of four ingredients, the last three repurposed from the title of this post by JP Rangaswami.

Purpose

I remember talking about re-defining of scale at the Dachis Social Business Summit. The thrust of the presentation was that brands could engage consumers at scale only if they use currencies that create value for the user in the context of a shared purpose. I have elaborated it in this post at Medianama. Recently, I saw that Hugh MacLeod has brought it out beautifully here. Simply put

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Possibilities

The purpose need not have one constant rendition. As the landscape changes, a business will need to adapt it to suit changing circumstances. For that, a business needs to understand the possibilities. I saw a very good line in this post about being a maker – the more you work in the future, the less competition you will have. How much into the future a business needs to be working is subjective and depends on its dynamics, but if it doesn’t disrupt itself, someone else will gladly do it for them. (“The Jeff Bezos School of Long-Term Thinking” is a good read in this context)

Platforms

While purpose and possibilities are all good at high altitudes, a business also needs strong operational  platforms to back it up. As organisations scale, I have seen two things that affect agility. One, the processes that are introduced to create efficiency @ scale more often than not, become the goal instead of a means, slowing things down and taking away from actual goals. Two, as processes and manpower increase, silos are created. The good news is that it is easy to see technology platforms bringing more efficiency into processes as well as an iterative way of thinking in the near future. It is already happening in marketing. This, and many other factors are also dictating a consumer experience driven approach and are forcing organisations to break silos. As the entire brand/organisation becomes a platform (read) that regularly revisits its context and purpose in the life of a consumer, ‘everything becomes a node on the network

People

HuffPo had a post sometime back, citing Zappos, calling 2014 the year of workplace reinvention. It is interesting to note that parent company Amazon has apparently aped Zappos’ ‘pay to quit’ policy, even as more and more stories about working there being a ‘soul crushing experience‘ are coming out. Meanwhile, the two points it mentioned for this to happen are purpose and trust. These I’d say are the bedrock of culture. It’s intuitive that a workforce mindful of the organisation’s purpose and their role in it would keep an eye out for the business’ possibilities, be ready to work beyond silos towards a great consumer experience, and bring in others who would help the business scale. This, along with purpose, has to be the glue that holds it all together, enabling the organisation to move fast without cracking.

While different sectors are at disparate distances from a radical shift necessitated by technological developments, it is, I think, inevitable. In this fantastic post titled ‘Knowledge is faster than mortar‘, which looks at scale through a different lens, the author makes the point that ‘the old mechanisms don’t fit the new social structure.Old mechanisms were built to scale stability, new ones will have to be built to scale despite instability. Anti-fragile, so to speak. Indeed, we will see many manifestations as existing structures try to adapt – internal mechanisms like Amazon’s 2 pizza rule, consumer facing disaggregation like Facebook that have a corresponding internal wiring, or brands tweaking their 4Ps even further for different contexts. But whatever paths businesses choose, this will hold true

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until next time, the fast and the curious

The era of wearables

In the post on the Internet of Things last month, I’d mentioned two narratives on social products that I considered were working in tandem to shape the future of marketing, consumption, and living itself. Both using sensors – one on things (IoT), and the other on humans (Wearables, though I stubbornly use Techsessories!)  This post is on the latter.

Why I think it matters: Though nowhere remotely close to Chris Dancy levels, I have been interested in this for a while. As I mentioned in my Personal API post, I see it as an evolution of my lifelogging pursuit – from logging in experiences to sensors automatically picking up data – and something that is highly relevant to my area of work – brands. In the big picture, I also see this domain as a key player in the evolution of our species – from our persistent movement towards immortality (physical) as well as, what I hope will be, a more gradual steps towards mindfulness. (mental, emotional)

What is it? Smartwatches are just the beginning, and at a broad level, wearables can already be categorised into

(Some statistics, a primer, and a good classification to broaden your perspectives)

Where is all this going? For the scope of this post, let’s briefly look at the impact/deliverables from three points of view

Consumer: There are quite a number of views (read concerns) that wearables are probably the first step towards turning us into cyborgs. (what I refer to as the augmented human here) There is another line of thought that wonders if all of this is taking us closer to ‘sofalarity‘. I can argue the Hug Shirt both ways! I wonder if, as we race towards singularity, there is an unconscious adaptation that our species is going through to survive, or continue to thrive. Personally, I like to think that technology is giving me the means to first quantify, and then use that data (converted to information and then to insights) to consistently work towards being a better human. ( a qualified self, so to speak)  I have already taken the first step with Goqii. While there is no dearth of trackers, I found their ecosystem approach interesting. I also envision creation of personal APIs becoming easier in the next few years, allowing us to store, analyse and transmit data and information to others.

Ecosystem: At one level, there is going to be some effort in making wearables really mainstream. There is definitely going to be resistance. The answer, as always, is in using wearables as a means to address human needs. On another level, while devices are expanding in scope, quality and sheer numbers, as Chris Dancy mentions in the interview (linked earlier) interoperability is still a concern. (just as in the case of IoT) It’s not just wearables talking to each other, but talking to a larger universe of the IoT.

Brands: This domain has seen its share of brands – standalone ones as well as majors like Apple, Google and Samsung who want in on the action. There are fashion brands too, and I can imagine a near future when technology will be a hygiene factor in many kinds of apparel. While this happens on the device side, the data generated finds application across spheres – think, for example, how this can be applied in the health domain, (from medication to insurance) employment, sports and so on. Thus, there are many roles for brands – a standalone device and ecosystem with minimum connectivity, or devices and/or ecosystems that work in a complementary manner with another set and provide a product/service. As privacy concerns escalate, I believe the role of the consumer will be the key one to watch. This is the opportunity for brands to connect its business purpose to the consumer’s narrative. Brands should work towards gaining the trust of consumers early on and create seamless platforms for connecting devices, data, and users, working towards a common shared purpose.

Wearables

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From not believing that the world needed more than five computers (1943), we have reached more than 1.8 billion smartphones (source) that arguably do more than what a ‘computer’ can. So, a wearable (or a set of them) soon superseding a mobile is very much in the realms of possibility. As functions evolve, form factors will change – that’s inevitable, and on shorter cycles. The last decade in particular  has seen a massive technological evolution, but I think this is just the beginning – we’re at the cusp of a sea change in the way we live and work – about to push beyond the known boundaries of the body and mind. In the context of this evolution, Carl Jung’s profound statement would be a good one to remember – “Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.

until next time, wearabouts!

P.S.  If the subject interest you, do follow my Techsessories and Health boards

P.P.S. Need a #lulz worthy wearable strategy – Check this out!

An Internet of Things narrative

Towards the end of last year, I’d written a post on the ‘social product‘. Its premise was that given social’s conversion to media, the opportunity for fulfilling social’s initial promise would fall on ‘product’ – using data, network effects, and relationships to connect consumers along a shared purpose. In the last few weeks, I have seen rapid acceleration happening on this front. I can see at least two narratives working in tandem, and I’m sure that at some point they will begin to augment each other really well. In this excellent post on technologies that are shaping the future of design, sensors occupy the top slot, and they are at the basis of both the narratives – one on humans, and one on things. The official classification, roughly, translates into Wearables and Internet Of Things respectively for the scope of discussions here.

This post is about the second. So, what is the Internet of things? The wiki definition is simple, but effective –  “The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to uniquely identifiable objects and their virtual representations in an Internet-like structure.” The best primer I have come across would be this infographic, which has everything from a quick technology explanation, applications and challenges to market size, statistics, and interesting use cases. For a really solid perspective, look no further than this deck titled ‘The Internet of Everything‘.

How does it affect us? For now, it is about convenience. If you’re familiar with Android launchers, imagine an IoT version – it’s almost there, using iBeacon! There’s more – Piper, which works as an IFTTT for your home, the smart fridge that can order groceries from the online store, the smart TV that can learn preferences and help us discover content, the washing machine that can help order detergent, the egg tray that will let you know about the number of eggs it holds and their ‘state’, the automated coffee machine, Philips’ connected retail lighting system, Pixie Scientific’s Smart Diapers, the GE a/c that learns your preferences, the smart bulb that doubles up as a bluetooth speaker, (!) and so on. Some of the products are really useful and solve a need, while some others are more fads and probably not adding the value that reflects the potential of IoT. But that’s just the learning curve in progress, as the market starts separating needs and wants.

All of this also means that consumption patterns will begin to change, as more purchases become automated, and more importantly data-driven. In my post on the driving forces of 2014, I had brought up technology as the biggest disruption that marketing has seen. This is most definitely one of the manifestations.

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What can brands do? For starters, get interested. Think about the tangible benefits that can be offered to consumers. What are the kind of data patterns that devices (or products) can surface to help the consumer make better consumption decisions? What kind of contexts can be relevant? Instead of force feeding advertising on traditional channels and fracking social platforms, can communication to consumers be made seamless using data, contexts and easy processes? While ‘device’ brands might have an initial advantage, ‘product’ brands need not be left behind at all. As the washing machine post (linked earlier) suggests, a Unilever or P&G might subsidise a machine, because it’s pre-sold with 500 washes worth of their detergent. It could even be real time, with SDK, API systems telling a partner brand to push a contextually relevant communication to a consumer. As things start storing and communicating data, privacy will be a major factor that decides whom consumers will share what with. Unlike media, trust cannot be ‘fracked’, it needs to be earned over a time frame.

Where does it go from here? A common language/protocol/registry is a good start, as is a white label platform – both are trying to connect an assortment of devices and gadgets. While there is value in data at an individual level (more on that in the next narrative) one of the critical factors in the success of this phenomenon is the devices talking to each other – humans acting as middle men to pass on data may not be a smart way ahead!  Digital Tonto has an excellent nuanced perspective that differentiates IoT from the web of things. (WoT sounds cooler!) The difference is in connection and interoperability.

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Equally important is this phenomenon’s ability to solve human needs. (Internet of Caring Things)

Collaborative consumption is fast becoming a consumer reality. As always, brands (generalising) are bound to be a few years behind, but the hope is that the web of things will force them to start collaborative creation and distribution and more importantly, focus on consumer needs.

until next time, #WoTever

P.S. In a corruption of Scott Adams’  idea, I think #WoT is paving the way for robot domination. ;)

P.P.S. If the subject interests you, check out my Internet of Things Pinterest board.

A new medium

I haven’t taken you outside of the blog in a while, but here goes.

LinkedIn recently opened up its publishing platform, and since it’s a contextually relevant platform to publish my ‘work’ posts, I was immediately interested. Thanks to Gautam, I discovered this link, applied, and soon got publishing rights. It was a harder task to write something though! I have finally managed something that is a differently framed version of concepts that I have written on the blog already. Do take a look here.