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Brands in the digital age – it‘s a personal thing.

As we learned in business school, the concept of branding is a child of the industrialization and corresponding depersonalization (between producer and consumer, between worker and work, and even between self and self – according to e.g. Marx). It was an attempt to re-connect; a signal from producers to consumers; a trust building tool that became something even bigger. It became a quasi person, the surrogate of the personal counterpart in a relationship that no longer exists. With the help of marketing and (mass) communication brands got an „identity“, a „personality“, a „voice“ and „tonality“ etc. It worked – and still works. Not just because it is key to differentiate a brand, but also to build upon its central human traits and needs. The rise of the Internet and digitalization of the business and brand world changes a few, but significant parameters of this setup:

First, it provided a (back-)channel for consumers to producers. Direct contacts became much easier, faster and cheaper than before. There was no longer a need to rely on retailer information, advertising, or having to simply swallow the dissatisfaction and anger with something you bought. Second, it provided a cheap and convenient way for humans (and machines) to connect and interact. Beside the persistent level of criticism against it, the popularity of social platform and formats illustrates the repersonalization effect of digital media. This dual repersonalization that the digital age creates has major implications for branding and marketing:

A. Authenticity is getting crucial.

Authenticity in a digital world means to live by your promises, to acknowledge faults, to be able to adapt to varying conditions, settings and situations. Achieving market penetration with your carefully whiteboard-constructed brand personality across all channels won‘t do the trick. If you‘re faking it, you will be exposed in a second, and on a global scale. Your reputation will suffer or even end in smoke if you‘re not able to adjust. Don‘t throw in the towel; don‘t pretend to be something you cannot live up to. Maybe, the best brand communication idea is to confess openly and honestly, that you just have something to sell …

B. Personalization is possible and vital.

Similar to a true personal relationship, the strengths and value of a brand relationship is determined by the value of its connection. The value is closely related to the perceived relevance of contribution. Spending too few bucks – low value of a customer for a brand. Average product and unspecific communication – low relevance of a brand for a consumer. Digital media enables an increasing potential for the personalization of products/services and communications. The hype about „big data“ is an indicator. But „big data“ won‘t be the holy grail alone. It will take the skills and creativity to generate actionable insights – and it will need an organization (and brand) that can handle the corresponding complexity.

C. Human beings make or break a brand.

A brand is an anthropomorphized concept, sometimes to the point of taking on human attributes, but is not a living subject. It is impossible to have a real, authentic, meaningful social interaction with a brand by itself. It can’t talk. It doesn’t laugh, react, or interact, with anyone. It is always the human being behind the „branded interaction“ that does the job. The key is to make their interactions feel real and genuine by avoiding the pitfall of cropping their true personalities within guidelines that enforce the single brand image. Empower them to be able to act in a personal way, in a way they would interact with their  peers. It‘s less the „unprofessional“ wording of a Facebook post that will break the brand, rather the inability to solve a problem and entrenching behind directives. Create a team that lives by the same values as your brand and  a culture of responsibility, sincerity, trust and tolerance.

What’s the take-out? To thrive in the digital age, brands need the courage to kiss their “old-school bullshit” communication techniques goodbye, and allow themselves to take advantage of personalization opportunities and to create an empowering culture that enables employees to interact in meaningful and brand-building ways. It’s a bit like getting the right surfboard for your needs: the best stuff is custom made. A good shaper will ask a lot of questions about his client skills, style and preferred surfing conditions, and he will be honest about what board might be the best addition to your quiver – and it might turn out, it’s not the 6’0 Kelly-Slater-Style shortboard …

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