TRUE spoke with Siegel+Gale’s Anne Swan about the prerequisites for effective brand communication in the digital age.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges brands face in the digital age as they attempt to connect and engage with stakeholders?
Swan: The biggest challenge today for brands is really delivering messaging in a very clear and compelling manner, so that they can find a way to stand out and be heard amid the constant barrage of information. Consumers are overwhelmed, and that sets the bar higher than ever on creativity and finding ways to cut through the clutter. To cut through, they have to deliver to the customer something that’s relevant and something that they want to hear. I think that’s a big challenge.
Another is dealing with the multitude of platforms available and when to use them. Launch plans today encompass so much more than just TV and print; they really need to take into consideration all aspects of the journey, from how it’s going to market, to how it’s being talked about and who’s talking about it and what kind of feedback is coming from consumers. We had much more control in the past. Are you prepared for instantaneous feedback?
Brands need to learn to stand their ground, stand by their decisions and strategies if it’s right for the brand, even if it means losing some customers.
Q: What role do consumers and the public play in shaping the identity and messages of organizations and brands?
Swan: Consumers through social media have more power than ever. On one hand, that’s terrific. The brands themselves can really listen to the consumer. They can understand their consumer in a way that they were never able to before. As a result, consumers definitely influence the shape of brands and how brands present their stories—so much so, in fact, that brands may be in danger of paying too much attention to consumers, particularly when they’re making a change. When you’re launching a new identity or launching a new product, there will always be some negative feedback. Brands need to learn to stand their ground, stand by their decisions and strategies if it’s right for the brand, even if it means losing some customers.
Q: How has your advice and strategy changed when you’re dealing with brands?
Swan: Brands today really need to start with a story—really with a concept. And that concept should be driven through all aspects of the brand; it must be the foundation upon which everything grows. And that story cannot change from campaign to campaign to campaign. So brands today, more than ever, need to understand who they are at their core and what they’re not, and then be able to deliver that message. When you’re living your brand in an authentic and real way, consumers feel it. And they become part of your story. They want to engage with you. If it’s not, then they’re likely to walk away. There’s not a lot of room for making mistakes because consumers are very savvy today.
Our advice today is that it’s not just about delivering something that’s creative, or a campaign that’s cool, but really making sure that whatever you do, whatever you say, links back to the brand’s authentic story, and making sure that you have that story defined, and that it is very clear. You need to think about everything in a more cohesive way, from start to finish. That definitely is something that’s changed, and I would say that goes for brands, as well as products.
Q: Can you give me an example of a brand that has been very successful at this?
Swan: One brand that really understands the global marketplace and has really been able to deliver its message and story to different regions is Starbucks. No matter where you are, the brand experience is the same. If you’re in Italy, if you’re in France, if you’re in China, how you order your coffee, it is the same experience, it’s the same language. It’s the same environment, and you feel comfortable. And I think brands that can deliver that in a way that’s truthful make customers feel comfortable. They feel like they’re part of it, and they’re more accepting of that brand.
Q: What are the biggest mistakes brands make when trying to adapt to the always-on global nature of communications?
Swan: A mistake brands make today is when they change their message to suit the medium. They think about their messages in terms of how it’s being delivered, or where it’s being delivered, or the types of social media, versus the message that they are delivering. It’s one story and one message, and sure it has to be adapted, but it can’t be changed.
Q: Is social media emerging as the primary platform for brands?
Swan: Well, there certainly were times when you could say print was king or TV was king. It’s an interesting question because I think today it depends on what you’re launching. I still think TV has a very prominent role, even with the younger audience. But social has become a kind of foundation for everything we do. Social media isn’t over here on its own. Social media has to be part of everything we do, and everything we’re thinking about—even if it’s a print campaign, even if it’s an advertising campaign, whatever. Social media is the voice for the brand; it’s the voice of the consumer. It’s the dialogue, and that dialogue is going to be happening across all touch points. We used to put out information, and that was it. That was the end. And today, you put out the information, you have information come back, you think about it, and put that information back out again. Social media is a listening tool, and that’s how we’re going to be using it in the future.
Q: How have all these pressures affected the creative process?
Swan: It used to be that an identity was hero, and one person created that identity, and one person thought about how that was going to come to life, and then it was handed over to another person, who would then think about the messaging or a campaign. So you would hire individual designers who were stars or wanted to be stars. Today, it’s all about teams and team players. And we look for designers who can play on a team. We look for collaborators. We look for people who don’t necessarily want to be superstars, but want to contribute to a team. These are very different people.
It’s also really important to have integrated teams—with technologists and engineers and creatives. You have product designers bringing experiences to life and creative working along side. Marketing and communications teams also need to be part of the brand experience from the beginning, not just brought in later to sell the ideas. Today, without a doubt, having that integrated team is the key to success, and having those players working together, everyone contributing, makes that product more believable and easier to launch.