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.