Invisible Digital is the Force for Next Generation Branding

Next Generation Branding Happens from the Outside In

Apple does it. Amazon does it. Nike does it. Google does it too.

All are ranked in the top 50 of the 2012 BrandZ most valuable global brands report. Yet even within this exclusive collection of brands, some stand out from others. It’s not just that they encompass all that represents a strong brand as suggested in the report – “innovation, trust, reputation, responsible citizenship” – but something far more important. They are brands that exist from the outside in – brands that are created by the consumer experience that radiate back towards the company.

And they achieve this through the innovative use of digital strategy.

Apple’s Innovation: Invisible Digital

The excitement around the launch of any Apple product is palpable. From the first iPod through to the latest incarnation of iPhone, Apple has mastered the art of slow burn communication. There are various “leaks”, glimpses and mockups that find their way into the online world. Rumours of impending announcements are made and message boards, blogs and social media sites explode in anticipation. Meanwhile, the retail experience is perfected – employees are briefed and educated, supply chain is primed and inventory is delivered. And often, as in the case of the iPhone 5, the announcement is simply an exercise in expectation setting – it’s a pre-announcement of an announcement, a pre-launch of the launch. After the announcement, products can be pre-ordered online, ready for delivery or pick up after the launch.

It’s a carefully orchestrated strategy designed to prime the market and maximise sales. It is an experience that uses digital to connect the dots – from expectation setting through ordering to delivery. And yet, it’s a digital experience that does not call out its existence. At almost every touchpoint, customers experience a sense of digital innovation without the accompanying sense of interruption or dislocation. It’s digital that is invisible.

  • Invisible digital drives footfall: Retailers understand the importance of footfall – of having people physically in your stores – and Apple is no exception. But while many retailers struggle to drive people into store, Apple can orchestrate vast queues of people to line up for hours just to pick up their new device. Sure, these customers could choose to have their iPhones delivered to their home, but that would exclude them from a very public ritual that is beamed by mainstream media around the world. Orders may be placed online, but fulfilment (in all its senses), is delivered in person.
  • Invisible digital orchestrates engagement: Apple chooses not to actively participate in social media, ploughing their efforts into activities which create remarkable experiences for their customers. Whether it is an ad hoc visit, a reservation at the Genius Bar or the excitement of picking up  a new device, the free WiFi at the Apple Store ensures that customers can create conversations around this experience, taking photographs, blogging, sharing and tweeting.
  • Invisible digital casts a brand halo: When we purchase a product or service we are investing a small amount of our reputation into a brand. And as we use that product or service there is a cross-halo effect that takes place – we share our own reputational glow with that brand and the brand, in turn, reflects upon us. Invisible digital allows this to happen seamlessly – and with each micro-interaction, the personal and public brand becomes ever more closely aligned.

The Bottom Line: Invisible Digital Sets the Stage for Next Generation Branding

Google claimed top ranking in the 2007 BrandZ report with Apple well down the list at 16th. It seemed at the time that Google were unassailable. Five years later, they are ranked 3rd behind IBM, and have suffered a 3% drop in their brand valuation (with a brand valuation that is only 60% of Apple’s $182 million). The need to innovate is relentless, but innovation must not focus on technology alone. Innovating the customer experience must become a priority for brands and invisible digital may be the key.

Invisible digital is not about technology in the traditional sense. The technology simply enables a flow that transports customers from one experience to another. The touchpoints, the interactions and ultimately, the aggregation of experiences creates next generation brands. Some brands understand how this works. Others must accelerate their efforts and investigations or risk falling further behind.

The Hard Work of Radical Transparency

I remember feeling like my jaw had hit the floor.

I had just started my first week of working for IBM and had read about an article published by an analyst firm. Days earlier – working as a freelancer – I had tried to contact this very same firm to discuss another topic – and gave up, stonewalled at every turn. And when time is money (and that money is your own), you have to choose your battles.

But this time there was something different. “Gavin Heaton from IBM” sounded so much more important. I was FROM somewhere – and it was somewhere with a big brand name. And within seconds I was speaking with the document’s author – discussing some of the findings and thinking through how this might impact my new role.

Over the years that follow, I fell in love with branding. I loved the way it extended into people’s lives – how it opened the door to opportunity and how it could change our experiences – as customers, employees and partners. But these days, branding is a different beast. It’s been inverted.

Sure, many of the strengths and benefits remain, but we have to work harder now. We cannot rest (or hide) behind the brand in the way that we used to. We have to inhabit a world of radical transparency … one where our brand does not stand alone in the public sphere – but is accompanied into the spotlight by our governance processes, decisions, data and even the personalities of our staff, executives and stakeholders. Take a look below at this video from the SEOmoz team.

Are we ready for radical transparency? We’d better be – for it is already upon us.

SEOmoz on Radical Transparency in Business from Dan McComb on Vimeo.

The @MarsCuriosity Rover Has More Personality Than Most Brands

When NASA’s Curiosity Rover hit the ground on Mars, it was minutes before we knew its fate (see infographic below). It takes some time for light and data to travel the 35 million miles between Earth and Mars. And yet we sat glued to the streamcast of dozens of people sitting at desks at Mission Control – hanging on every disembodied word from the flight controller – effectively living moments that had already happened.

Meanwhile, across the twitterstream, the @MarsCuriosity account was brimming with enthusiasm and pithy one-liners. One of my favourites is below.

It makes me wonder … why can’t brands adopt social media with such passion and interest? Why can’t they embrace an attitude that engages their audiences?

But it’s not just Twitter that NASA has mastered. They have open sourced their imagery and data – allowing anyone to design their own NASA-focused infographics (aka the social media expert’s tool of choice). After you have created your own infographic, you can then upload it to be shared with the NASA audience – giving you more than just a touch of space nerd celebrity.

At a guess, NASA have followed this path for a strategic reason – to drive a powerful emotional connection with a global, passionate and technically-literate audience. And at some point – around budget time – that audience will be called upon to help sway the thinking of penny-pinching politicians.

And if NASA – can orchestrate this type of sophisticated global engagement program – why can’t brands?


Dodge Shows Startups the Power of Advertising

There is no doubt that Dodge and the team from Wieden + Kennedy have produced a great piece of advertising for the Dart. But as I was watching it … as I was listening to the sparce copy that was voiced with just the right amount of self-deprecation and assurance, I couldn’t help but think that it was describing the world of the startup entrepreneur.

Watch it – because it’s great. Then, play it again and listen with your eyes closed. Don’t think cars. Think startups.

What do you hear?

Start with a simple idea. Stop thinking. Start doing … Drink more coffee. Build a prototype. Mould it shape it. Hate it. Start over …

Now, despite the hype and energy around startups, I often wonder why they don’t take a small proportion of their often overblown valuations and invest in advertising. And I don’t mean advertising for themselves … I mean in brand building for the sector. Surely there are some grand stories to be told and some people to inspire.

If the car industry was the powerhouse innovator of the 20th Century economy, then surely we should look to the startup industry in the 21st. It’s about time we told some stories.

Using the Cloud to Launch Your Products

The “cloud” is not just about reducing your IT costs. When you think about it, what business calls “the cloud” has been providing us consumers with plenty of flexibility and innovation for years. Look no further than YouTube to see how this innovation is changing the face of what it means to be a “broadcaster” or a producer of “media”.

But for those of us wanting to reach new audiences, create markets or simply just “tell our story”, cloud computing changes the nature of the game – putting us all on the same level as the largest of enterprises. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of cloud or “on-demand” platforms that provide high-end functionality for low monthly or per-use fees.

I take a quick look at some of the best platforms for launching new products in my latest post for The Pulse. Check it out.

Where is Chuck Norris?

What happens when you ask Google “Where is Chuck Norris?”. Try it. Click the first link. You’ll find out. And now, imagine if you happened to own the brand that smelled like Chuck Norris. Then you’d know what it meant to be a truly social brand.


It’s Not About the Logo. It’s About the Experience

When you work day-in, day-out in, on or for a business, it’s easy to get caught up. After all, every working moment you are absorbing the brand experience, drinking the kool-aid, deflecting and spouting management-speak and trying that little bit harder to humanise the brand.

But what you end up with is the inside-out view.

And what we really need … what we crave, fear and yearn for is the opposite. The outside-in view is always a jolt to the system – because it impacts what we believe. It throws our own reality into our faces.

It’s why I love this video. Dozens of logos are shown to a five year old and her response is recorded. It’s classic outside-in.

But the thing that really stands out for me is not which brands she recognises. It’s that the ONLY logos she recognises are those that she can associate with an experience – an experience that she can recall and articulate.

THAT is what we should be working towards. It’s not about the logo. We need to make all that we do about the EXPERIENCE. That way your expensive design work will stand in reference for something. And that’s worth paying for.

What Qantas Will Learn from its Social Customers

Or an alternative title: What Qantas Will Learn from its Former Customers Because they are Social

I can still remember the smell of the lithographic duplicator machines that were used in my primary school. The light purple writing would hold that odour long after the ink dried. And one day – I think it was in 5th class – I remember learning about the Queensland and Northern Territory Air Service. What today we call Qantas.

Back then – in the 1970s – school children would learn about Qantas as part of the school curriculum. We would read the teacher’s notes and then write neatly formed sentences into our brown paper covered school books. I dutifully etched red and brown pencil lines into my book, showing the shop and the sign over the Qantas booking office in Longreach. I was proud. I’d done a good job. And with every stroke of the pencil, I was also marking this brand deep into my psyche.

But over the weekend I watched the Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce – with the full support of his Board – trash one of Australia’s most loved brands. In grounding the entire domestic and international fleet, Joyce threw the travel and business plans of thousands into chaos – and those passengers reacted by tweeting in record numbers.


A usually quiet social brand, mentions of Qantas spiked on Saturday as the news of the groundings spread around the globe. The graph from Trendistic, when extended back 30, 90 and 180 days barely rises off the base line. And while mentions tailed off on Sunday and earlier today, mentions of the name Qantas are still ranking well beyond its normal zone. Jenni Beattie from Digital Democracy tracked the Qantas conversations across a number of other social platforms – from a Facebook protest page to off-brand forums like Golf and Vogue Fashion.

CEO Alan Joyce doesn’t appear concerned, stating in the Wall Street Journal “I think the Qantas brand is an amazingly resilient brand and we've gone through very significant industrial disputes before”. But for the Australian public, this wasn’t a matter of industrial relations – it was a matter of national pride. The actions of Joyce and the Board severed a bond of trust.

Now, much has changed since the 70s. OK – maybe not the trade unions that Joyce is arguing with. But the ticket buying, holiday making, business travelling customer that contributes to Qantas’ record breaking profits is a whole different beast. These are “social customers” and they are different. And brands – even brands as big as Qantas – no longer operate in isolation.

Essentially, your customers pwn your brand – and if they can’t, they go to where they can. This is especially the case with emotionally charged brands (and travel/holiday related brands certainly are). In the days and weeks ahead, Qantas will learn more about the social customer, including:

  • The social customer is ubiquitous: it’s not just Facebook or Twitter. They write blogs, publish stories and photographs. They share these with hundreds – if not thousands – of friends with the click of a mouse and a glare of disdain
  • The social customer wields influence with a swagger: they have grown up with the internet and have more tools at their disposal than you let through your firewall. They move fast and do so with intent. If they can impact the decisions of others (to not purchase with you) they will do so.
  • The social customer is not your friend: they don’t want a platitude and they won’t go quietly. They will remember your words and your actions and they will choose their purchases carefully and with deliberation.
  • The social customer is the 99%: they can smell inequity at a hundred paces. You’ve just given them a reason to chose another brand who understands their lifestyle and their priorities.
  • The social customer is developing a social conscience: it’s taken decades, but it is forming. Just take a look at the Edelman Trust Barometer. Brands will be judged by their actions.

What impact will this have? Here are some thoughts:

  • Long term brand value is impacted, causing re-evaluation of the Qantas credit rating
  • Fed up customers move to other carriers such as Virgin – impacting short term and mid term advanced bookings
  • New customers, aware of the disruption, steer away from Qantas towards competitors – or avoid Australian destinations altogether
  • The angriest of travellers contact their superannuation fund managers to remove Qantas from their super portfolios
  • Companies, reliant on travel, strengthen relationships with Qantas competitors

What else? Is there another impact coming? What else do you see?

Even in B2B You Have to Think Like a Rockstar

Business-to-business marketing can often appear dull and boring. The messaging is subdued, the social media is lacklustre and personality? What personality, right?

Now, there are always excuses here – government regulation, brand guidelines, tone of voice or particular assumed audience needs. But these are merely excuses – not reasons. We should instead see them as challenges – for to succeed in B2B marketing, I believe we need to think like rockstars.

How does this work? Mack Collier has put together a great deck on the subject of rockstar thinking. He calls out four key points – but let’s think about these in a B2B framework:

  1. Rockstars are fans too: remember, rockstars don’t necessarily love their own music. But they do have inspirations, musicians and artists they respect. Pay homage to your inspirations – learn from what they do and bring their work and focus into the work that you do.
  2. Rockstars shift control to fans: if you are a rockstar what do you like to do? Yep – hang out with other rockstars. Think about ways that you can elevate your advocates – and empower them in unexpected ways.
  3. Rockstars find the bigger idea: what mission are you on? How are you improving the lives of people. How are you changing the planet? What is the difference you are making. Sure you can throw money at a problem, but what can you DO to change the game. Think about it, then DO IT.
  4. Rockstars embrace their fans: in the B2B world there are many stakeholders. How do you celebrate them? What can you do to recognise their help and their efforts? How can you answer their questions faster? Think about stepping out from behind the shadow of your brand to provide unexpected value.

B2B can be exceptionally funky – and can prove a fertile opportunity for out-of-the-box thinking. Do you have examples? I’d love to hear of them!

Who Makes Snow?

Good copywriting is hard work – and hard to come by.

But this ad from National Australia Bank is a winner in my book. Some great visual storytelling – often in juxtaposition to the narrative – combined with sharp editing and a nice balance between landscape, industry and faces bring a warmth to the often bland branding associated with financial services.

What do you think? Thumbs up? Thumbs down? Meh?

Via @acatinatree