The Future of Your BrandThis article is part of the series — The Future of Your Brand Is … which will be unfolding here over the coming weeks. Be sure to check out The Futue of Your Brand is Play — Part 1 and Part 2.

Late last year I was thinking about trends and opportunities for 2008, hoping to discover some gold. And while I don’t normally do trend forecasting, I actually found it interesting and challenging — and a lot of hard work. What I found, however, was not that I had an undiscovered gift for beyond the horizon forecasting … I found great benefit, instead, in enforcing a discipline upon my thinking. You see, writing a blog trains you to write in a short form — you distill ideas down to a manageable size. But to really order my thinking around the patterns that emerged from my research, I had to dig deeper … find those connections and similarities. I had to play with the data and findĀ  a way to craft it all into a cohesive story.

I must admit that I was disappointed to find that I had no ground breaking ideas to report. Then I realised that blogging had provided me with an unexpected benefit — a constantly inquiring focus and a mountain of ready data. By going back over a number of posts over the last 12 months, I could see actual hypertext links between pieces of information. Tags and categories helped form the patterns … and comments from my readers helped open my eyes on some points or suggest completely new ways of thinking. And while I write hundreds of posts per year, often forgetting the detail of many, there are some that achieve mythical status in my mind. And while re-reading some of the posts made me want more, it also made me wonder, “what is it that causes one post to stand out among many?”. (Here’s a hint, it is the future of your brand.)

Coming to grip with infatuation
For as long as I can remember I have loved words. I am fascinated by their sound and their shape. I love listening to the way they are pronounced by different people. And I especially enjoy a good performer holding onto the long ends of a word and reminding us of the sexy way words transform our world. In many ways, this infatuation of mine was always going to lead to some kind of writing. No wonder I ended up working in marketing and blogging (or worse, combining the two).

But as I poured over thousands of words, trying to connect sentences, ideas, actions and conversations it became obvious to me that I was under the spell of some kind of infatuation. This exercise on trends and opportunities had become something else. Something beyond itself. It had become “meta”. There were many levels of connectedness rolling around in my head. I could imagine the linkages, but could not quite discern the tissue between them … until I realised my infatuation. I had fooled myself. I had become infatuated with discerning the trends.

The definition of “infatuation” includes “foolish or all-absorbing passion …”. And it became clear that my best way forward was to admit it. But there was something slightly different at play. What I was feeling felt like it was being reciprocated. If I was infatuated with ideas, they too were infatuated with their expression. With every idea that I would distill and connect, I would feel this glow, a buzz. I thought I was entering a completely weird universe until the light went on … this bi-directional energy is about reciprocity. It is about give and take. It was a metaphor. It was akin to receiving a comment on my blog.

In many ways this was a childlike experience. I had entered into a domain that I had only ever dabbled in before and I felt like a child looking in awe at a new world. But in applying my experience with kids marketing, I started to see parallels with social marketing, with the passion for gadgets and with the gold rush energy surrounding cool new technologies. It was like being back at school, except that the schoolyard was now a whole lot bigger! In fact, it seems that as adults we spend a lot of time unlearning what we learned (or knew intrinsically) as children. As Rachel Happe says in Social Networking and the Popular Girls:

… why are we as adults relearning things that these girls know better than most of us do?

I mentioned before that one of the challenges with kids marketing is to create the Eureka moment. It is that moment in time where thought and action are compressed — it is where we are simply astonished by something. It can be the cleverness of an idea, the audacity of an ad or the feeling that we are in the presence of genius. When you apply this to a product (particularly a kids product), the importance of the Eureka moment becomes obvious. The Eureka moment does two things:

  • It produces a yet-to-be-told story that places the child in the role of participant — that is, the brand/product is subsumed by the imagination of the child and the child becomes the centrepiece of the brand story (eg I see myself driving around in a Green Machine)
  • It creates instant credibility (and desirability) in those closest to the aura of the experience.

So it works for the child (internally) and for the child (externally). It provides self-worth and social currency. It is bi-directional.

If you have kids, then you will probably have heard of Webkinz. You can buy these cute toys from stores all over the place — but it is not the toys that kids want most of all. It is the code that comes with them. For with every Webkinz that you buy, you get access to an online world where this toy comes to life. It is a virtual world for kids and their toys. The Webkinz folks have cleverly observed the massive take-up in virtual worlds such as Second Life and World of Warcraft, and have crafted an immersive and engaging environment for kids. The conversations about Webkinz buzz around the Webkinz universe and around the playground. If you are not participating, then you are missing an opportunity to play with your friends — not to mention not even being able to understand the terminology used by your friends.

The passion with which kids have adopted immersive worlds, and the energy that they devote to them is amazing. From the kids point of view, connecting with friends online is a very natural way of living — in fact, many kids have known no other way — the Internet has been part of their lives for as long as they have been alive.

For brands who are not developing their digital mindspace, there are bound to be substantial challenges as older teens begin moving into the workforce. Not only will non-digital brands find it hard to reach this new workforce, they will be missing opportunities to engage a savvy consumer-force fully conversant with technology and its place in their lives. And while the real impact of this shift may be a few years off, the shockwaves are being felt even now — for just as kids have adopted the social media and immersive worlds loved by their parents, the bi-directionality of kidsperience is also manifesting in the adult consumer space. The kid-like enthusiasm with which 30-70 year olds are colonising social media is shifting technology into a more playful space … placing even larger demands on brands.

A Seesmic Shift
I remember watching the buzz around Seesmic from the safe distance of Twitter. The limited release of “invitations” caused a split between the seriously cool and connected and the wannabe social media crowd (for the record, I was a wannabe). It was like the Joost launch on steroids. And while the conversation around Seesmic continued to grow, it started to create a game of sorts where you could only play if you had an invitation — the challenge was to reach out into your network and request an invitation before they all dried up.

But the most interesting aspect of this was the energy around the launch. From a distance, it was like watching the ad for the Green Machine all over again. This time, however, it wasn’t kids who were hyping it. It was adults from all over the world. And better yet, each one of those adults had the keys to the door — with a limited number of invitations to share, each Seesmic participant could share this new technology gift with a friend.

I am sure there are plenty of other examples that you can call to mind. Technology brands are adopting are more open approach (even a playful stance) towards their brand. Look at Google and the fun they have with their logo. Look at the NAME of the PLAYstation (realising that the average age of a Playstation owner is >30 years). The list goes on and on.

But it is not just technology where I see this shift taking place. There are subtle shifts happening across the speectrum. And it is not JUST about the P-L-A-Y approach that I have mentioned before … but it is about brands becoming creative with their marketing and letting consumer PLAY with their brands. It is about brands opening their brand stories in a way that allows consumers to step inside. And surprisingly, it is NOT about big shifts. It is about the small ones. So while the Future of Your Brand is Play, equally, the Future of Your Brand is Micro.