Time to Rewrite the Brand Playbook for Digital

Get Rid of Some Old Branding Concepts, Redefine Some and Replace Others

By Published on .

Ana Andjelic
Ana Andjelic
There's a struggle with defining "branding" in digital. Some people claim that brands should be about utility, others that we need to build brand platforms and yet others think that brands should entertain us and give us something to talk about.

Yet overall, surprisingly little has changed in the actual branding strategies in the industry.

Something is wrong here. Traditional authorities on branding, like Charlie Wrench, chairman-president of branding consultancy Landor Associates, claims that "the digital world has not changed the principles of branding but rather has magnified everything we know to be true about building a great brand."

This is like exploring new territory with an old map.

While Landor's entire survival depends on telling brands that digital media are just business as usual, a lot of marketing professionals also tend to forget that brands have always been the products of their media. When there was only print, logos were important. With radio, slogans (in jingles) took center stage. With TV, it became all about brand image communicated through the 30-second spot. Simply put, branding strategies have always been connected to specific media technologies.

Change this technology, and the rules of branding crumble. That's why we need to stop asking the wrong questions.

First wrong question: How to use digital tools to build brands?

This reveals that we are still dealing with the strategy vs. implementation dilemma. The question should be: How can digital tools challenge what we call the brand? Instead of simply wondering whether we should spend more time and effort on developing strategy or focusing on implementation, our challenge is to address branding online simultaneously as behavior and technology. Judging by how they use Foursquare, some smart brands like HBO or Zagat or Bravo seem to already know this. Rather than simply advertising on the location service, HBO is encouraging users to visit real-world locations related to its program "How to Make It in America." They are not creating something new; instead, they are using technology to simply curate information and reward certain behaviors. And, because both behavior and technology are quite unpredictable in digital, this situation prevents definition of a particular brand strategy in advance. Regardless of whatever a brand promised offline, in digital there's no template. There's always an opportunity to choose anew how a brand is going to behave online.

Second wrong question: How does technology apply to the principles of branding?

The branding industry of the past worked by coming up with an idea that they handed off. In the branding industry of the present, it is not easy to hand things off. Rather than retrofitting today's technology with yesterday's formulas, we should ask: How can digital create new ties between people and products? Here, we deal with the campaigns-vs.-platforms challenge. More often than not, there is no way of knowing in advance what our digital solution will be or how it is going to unfold in reality. For example, instead of a simple branding campaign, which extends delivery of the brand promise to the digital space and ends after a short period of time, PepsiCo decided to build its Pepsi Refresh project with the main requirement of maintaining a longer-term change in people's behavior.

Third wrong question: How should we use the internet to build brand value?

By asking this, we reveal that we still think of digital media as yet another channel of communication to be added to the already existing roster of mass-media channels traditionally used for branding. Instead of treating digital as an additional venue to display brand messages, you need to ask, "What is valuable on the internet?" Twitter CEO Evan Williams likes to say that many of the great businesses of the next decade will be about making information about our behaviors more visible: How fast you run, how many followers you have, who you know, where you go, what you buy -- everything is visible these days. But digital does not stop there. It also reveals the non-obvious and unexpected relationships between people and products and technology. Because our thinking about branding has been based on our awareness of the obvious relationships, digital media are much more than a simple evolution of branding. Think of Lufthansa's MySkyStatus or Whole Foods on Twitter or branded tips on Foursquare or Blippy. By making more and more things connected via information, brands in digital can increase chances for serendipity.

Fourth wrong question: How should our brand promise be brought to life online?

Traditional branding deals with extending the brand promise to the digital space and integrating go-to-market tactics with digital tactics to support the brand promise. Of course, brands realized that they needed to appropriate their message to the new media, according to McLuhan's "medium is the message" idea, and now everyone is talking about brand experiences online. But they rarely think about them as designers do. Instead of talking about image, message, trust, expectations and perceptions, designers talk about experience, services, functionality, usefulness, interaction. They are focused on exploring all the ways that brand interfaces communicate the brand. They know well that people's behavior in digital is shaped by a simple trade-off between expected gains and expected costs of interacting with a brand. That leads to the pertinent question, "Does digital remove the need for brand promise in the first place?" In this situation, our job is to design digital brands so that we enhance expectations of gains and reduce expectations of costs. Smart shops, like Huge or R/GA, are already doing this. Others still claim that "digital is boring." It may be boring, but it delivers.

Every new media technology has its own rules of branding to go with it. Instead of simply appropriating everything that we know about branding to digital media, it may be time to focus on how digital media change branding. In particular, we may want to get rid of some of the old branding concepts (brand promise), redefine some (brand equity, brand value) and replace others (brand image). We can now change how we answer tomorrow's brand challenges. And in order to do so, we need to ask the right questions first.

Ana Andjelic is a freelance digital strategist and doing her Ph.D. dissertation on digital branding. You can follower her thoughts at I [love] marketing.
Most Popular
In this article: