I've recently been thinking more and more about brand identity and how over the last 2 years or so, it's become increasingly central to a company's marketing and business success. I'm not just talking about graphics / logo and such like, but the entire experience it conveys via the brand's personality.
Undoubtedly the rise of brand personality has been helped by the ubiquity of social media and customers' ability to talk back and expose the phoney, pushy brands telling us lies (we can see through you, ok?).
Here are three arguments for the re-emergence of brand identity as a key differentiator (TL;DR? Just read the summaries):
(1) Proliferation of consumer touch points
In today's digital age, consumption is ubiquitous, multichannel, and often simultaneous. I watch something on the TV set while working on my laptop, occasionally using my smartphone, and, during a break, may play a quick round of 4 Pics 1 word on my tablet. That's 4 screens and I haven't even mentioned offline channels yet!
If I want to buy something, I often do an initial quick search on my smartphone, leave it, then later conduct a more in-depth search using my tablet (bigger screen, easier), before completing the purchase - often a few days later - on my laptop or desktop. That's modern buying!
Anatoly Roytman, Accenture Interactive EMEA managing director, sums up modern consumption nicely in his econsultancy interview:
[C]ustomers expect multichannel experiences where they can move seamlessly between channels and devices how and when they want. Even though the needs of each customer are different, they are all looking for the best price, the easiest buying experience and personalised service.
And they expect to see the same price, same description and same brand as they move between channels.
In a multichannel world, brand identity is the glue that binds customer experience together. It doesn't matter to digital natives WHERE you are. We don't differentiate by channel. We differentiate by experience - and our experience with your brand had better be good, at all times, wherever we are! Switching is only ever one click away.
(2) Proliferation of consumer choice
There aren't just gazillions of channels, there are also gazillions of samey products and services. I have absolutely no loyalty to supermarkets, for instance, especially as I know that, say, a New York cheesecake that I see in Sainsbury's is likely to be exactly the same as the one I see in ASDA, and Tesco. Made in the same factory and just using different packaging (someone who used to work in one of these factories told me this).
The same goes for clothes and fashion - the recent Panorama documentary Dying for a Bargain showed how some of the clothes for Lidl, Gap and H&M were made in the same factory in Bangladesh. Products increasingly comes from the same place, rendering many of them interchangeable. How and where products are made often no longer provides sufficient differentiation, or a USP.
In addition, we are bombarded with stuff, and decide much faster whether or not something is worthy of our attention. There's been tentative research into the attention spans of digital natives and one study suggested that they switch media venues about 27 times an hour!
We desperately need shortcuts when deciding what to buy. There is too much 'choice' and very little time. Consumers won't spend 30 minutes with your brand just for fun. We won't read your long articles, search around for ages on your confusing website to find what we're looking for, put up with clunky apps, or sit patiently watching your long, broadcasty product videos.
When there's too much choice, we rely on other cues - reviews and recommendations, word of mouth, and, trust in brand identity. If a brand delights me every step of the way, wherever I interact with it, I am more likely to return, given the overwhelming choice and scarcity of time. It's easier to go with what you know.
Caveat: This is only true if, and only if, the brand experience is consistent, delightful, and 100% focused on delivering excellent customer experience. Remember: Switching is only ever one click away.
(3) Google's changes prioritising brand identity
Google has gone through an astonishing number of changes in the last couple of years or so (its algorithm updates Panda, Penguin, now the shiny new Hummingbird). Exciting, to say the least! We've also seen the emergence of Knowledge Graph, the increased importance of entities, social signals, conversational search, the removal of the Keyword Tool (still sorely missed 🙁 ), and more.
Last month, Google made a decision that Rand Fishkin has called the first existential threat to SEO: to move towards 100% keywords (not provided).
For non-SEO readers of this blog - this essentially means that it's no longer possible to easily tell which organic search terms bring traffic to your site - one of the relatively easy and free ways, especially for SMEs to gain search engine visibility and thus ultimately acquire customers.
Now, you have to either pay Google to get access to keyword data by running PPC campaigns and / or pay your agency / SEO more (as they will have to work harder, and longer, to get you organic visibility). Alternatively, and this is where brand identity comes in - you have to diversify into other digital channels and work towards creating a strong brand experience across all touch points, both online and offline.
If you can no longer rely on non-branded organic search terms to build your business and gain customers, people need to know your brand, what it looks like, 'who it is', in order to find you.
It's a bit like it was at the beginning of the WWW, and before SEO. In 1996, when I was still using Altavista and the new kid on the block was Yahoo, there were directories and such like and you 'found' sites by knowing the URL / the brand or you could discover them via webrings (anyone remember those?). It looks like back to the future to me - though as with all of Google's updates and as is generally the norm in digital, only time will tell.
Google has made it consistently harder to game its search engine. It's increasingly risky to rely on Google and organic search alone to get customers through your door / onto your site. I'd strongly recommend that you diversify - the future belongs to companies with a consistent brand identity and personality across both digital and offline channels, and with a remarkable, excellent customer experience as a result. Make sure your customers can find you wherever they are!
Switching is only ever one click away.