When the word ‘digital’ was just starting to pervade our consciousness, I was working for a product design company. For us digital technology gave the opportunity to enhance the products we were designing. Phones got contact databases, cameras lost film reels in favour of SDD cards, and everything got smaller. That was a long time ago, quite a little bit later, I jumped across into the world of brand design and marketing. Digital agencies were springing up everywhere. As fast as advertising agencies snapped them up more came along and their focus was not product enhancement but marketing extension. Then, over time, we went from designing products and websites to social media, e-commerce, services apps and so the proliferation accelerated.
Bringing us to date and in 2022, top marketeers are questioning the validity of digital communication- Does it really add value? Does it increase sales? How do I measure ROI? Mark Ritson has clarified that there is no such thing as digital marketing anyway, just like there is no such thing as TV marketing – its just marketing. Through all this bruhaha I have been thinking about what role of branding and identity plays in the digital domain. It sits somewhere between the advertising and the product experience, attached to both, but with all the lines of distinction blurred. Has the potential value of identity been lost in the digital space, and should we divert more of our efforts into this discipline?
Before we address role of brand identity, we have to look at the product offer. In many categories, from telecoms to shampoo, the product offer has become commoditised with innovation being overlooked in favour of marketing to increase saliency and recognition. Are there any functional differences between the two major price comparison websites in the UK for example, one fronted by a baritone the other by a meerkat? Very little it would seem. The way you interact with both these companies is 100% digital, they have no shops, or people to interact with. As a customer it is impossible to understand if one set of algorithms is better than the other, so all we see are funny characters and offers of cinema tickets. We are aware of both offers, but do we know which one to choose?
The job of saliency is vitally important, but when it clouds the potential of product delivery it is a missed opportunity. Marketing starting at one end and product delivery at the other will, today, meet and overlap in a digital space. It is important that both are balanced and have an equal say so there is clarity and focus from a user perspective.
Brand identity sits somewhere in the middle, overlapping them both. Brand identity’s role is to represent the product, but also, traditionally, to ensure recognition between the TV ad and the pack on the retail shelves. That is still the case, but in the digital domain it’s all jumbled up. We would always advise our clients to not put advertising on their packaging to ensure clear stand out and recognition for consumers in system-one thinking. That has all gone to pot in the digital space and the offer has become indistinct in all the noise. So, we need to create some order and have a strategy for how the roles of marketing, brand identity and product experience work together in the digital domain.
There will opportunities to innovate and enhance the product or service in the digital space, but they may be subtle and spread out across the total experience. It is the job of the brand to make them standout and ownable by bringing them under one purpose and identity.
If the brand has a clearly defined purpose, its values can be expressed through the way these useful and helpful interactions are conducted in a unified and compelling way. The identity is no longer just a mark or visual brand world, it is now multisensorial. It is no longer static but active, evolving and interactive.
In other words, ‘digital’ has the potential to amplify both the product offer and the brand purpose. It can be genuine and valuable, and it can extend the remit of a brand into a more fertile space for design and innovation. Analytical tools, big data, networking, and e-commerce enable one to one relationships between brands and consumers and ultimately high value customisation and personalisation.
The challenge of making the most of the digital domain is its multiplicity and transience and the diversity of agencies looking after them. The importance of a clear brand strategy that ensures consistency of identity and behaviour is often lost. However, keepers of the brand DNA, brand purpose and identity do not just need to police the digital domain, they need to exploit it. Product development, with minimal set up costs, can be more experimental. It can be one to one with consumers, so it can have its own feedback loops for fine tuning. It is active, so enables far more engaging and emotive expressions of the brand purpose, values and personality than a passive object like a piece of packaging. To make this all work in harmony brand identity needs to play a stronger leadership role, set the tone and lay down the guiderails just like it does in any other domain.