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The Dual Imperatives of Brand Belonging

Credit: IBM iX

When IBM iX embarked on a global study of belonging and brands last year, we were spurred on by a chorus of commentators alarmed at our growing isolation and social anxiety. Authors as diverse as Yuval Levin and Sebastian Junger are writing about the national consequences of our disunity and its causes, from nostalgia to an incomplete understanding of modernity. At least one government is addressing loneliness as a public health crisis: U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has appointed a Minister of Loneliness. CEOs are writing social cohesion into their companies' purpose: Airbnb and Starbucks have explicitly made "belonging" central to their brand purpose. Tech giants are grappling with "the cultural issue of the next half century"—how we live with technology without eroding our humanity. Facebook replaced their former, outcome-neutral mission, "to make the world more connected and open," with the more civic-minded "Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together."

IBM iX is one of the companies at the forefront of AI-generated marketing insight and the design of increasingly data-driven personalized brand experiences. We undertook a study of human belonging in part to better understand how technology could be a force for good in a fractured time, how we could help people be, to use Sherry Turkle's expression, less "alone together." First, our global qualitative conversations conducted with research partner Ipsos surfaced variations on a single theme across the U.S., Germany, Brazil, Russia, China and India: that while our digital connectedness is a marvel of convenience, self-empowerment and, particularly in developing countries, upward mobility, there are striking downsides. Many of us are inundated with news, notifications and posts, and we spend less time sharing pastimes from service clubs to shopping, and feeling the satisfaction of community. Our next research step was to understand what role brands could and do play in addressing the belonging deficit. How is the awesome power of hyper personalization of brand experiences to be deployed so that we also address the whole of human needs?

As marketing moves ever closer to markets of one, we discovered something rather counter intuitive: that 39% of the brand behavioral imperatives that matter to consumers and improve business performance are collective in nature. They are about consumers in social contexts. They are about people bound together by shared values, interests, rituals. They are about big ideas that derive their strength and allure from the shared cultural spaces and collective unconscious in which they have taken hold. It is up to brand experience designers and marketers to uncover these affinities and attitudinal commonalities, and to enable their shared expression.

With our research partner Ipsos, IBM iX uncovered the substantial business and marketing performance gains to be had with "Brand Belonging"—our research-validated vision of next-gen brand experiences. Top Brand Belonging performers grew revenue over six years at three times the rate of lower-performing brands, and gained market share of up to 10% over a three-year period.

We also identified six Experience Drivers that contribute to Brand Belonging. Three are individual in nature and three collective—a blend of independent and interdependent consumer expectations that reflect the mutual dependency of self and social system, in other words, the very bilateral nature of human belonging:

Individual Experience Drivers are:

  • Everyday Enrichment: Making moments more meaningful by simplifying everyday tasks, enabling self-improvement, and enriching experiences over time.
  • Compelling Relationships: Developing deep relationships with consumers by recognizing loyalty, personalizing experiences, and celebrating their identification with the brand's persona and evolution.
  • Trustworthy Excitement: Being dependable while heightening life's pleasures and excitement about the next brand interaction.

Collective Experience Drivers are:

  • Activated Purpose: Engendering feelings of community, tolerance and optimism through actions that benefit both the world's and consumers' well-being.
  • Empowered Community: Enabling consumer actions and interactions focused on social cohesion, self-expression and social good.
  • Empathetic Innovation: Deploying a system of continuous consumer listening and company learning to improve products, services and experiences.

In the IBM iX Brand Belonging Index, each brand's combination and proportion of experience drivers differ, as do the experience drivers that are propelling apparel, automotive, home entertainment, hotels, insurance, and snacks—the verticals we studied to explore the implications for high and low-consideration brands. Yet, in order to achieve the financially and socially beneficial state of Brand Belonging, every brand has the same dual imperatives. A brand has to care for and fortify individuals' sense of self while inspiring and enabling involvement in something socially cohesive, something greater than themselves. IBM iX is calling on marketers to embrace both the personal and interpersonal needs of the 21st century consumer by actively building Brand Belonging strategies and more human technology.

To learn more, visit IBM iX Brand Belonging Index + Study.

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IBM iX is a next-generation experience design and digital consultancy. We bring together a unique combination of strategy, consulting, creative and design, analytics and systems integration capabilities to create and deliver personalized experiences at every touch point to drive growth and transform the way individuals engage with brands. We use disruptive thinking, visioning workshops, and cross-industry expertise to help our clients to imagine the realm of the possible and redefine their company's role in the world. We design the businesses that will shape the world for years to come, and then we help our clients make them real.
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