• Transform magazine
  • December 13, 2018

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Taking Brands Beyond Binary

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The ways in which digital affects brand communications has become increasingly complex as businesses struggle to change internally while remaining competitive externally. Dean Quinn investigates

It used to be so easy. Get a nice, easily recognisable logo, come up with some ‘brand’ values that somehow encapsulate what your company is all about, farm out your above the line marketing efforts to an agency to come up with unique and memorable campaigns and then sit back and watch the cash roll in. Then something changed.

That something was the birth and growth of the internet, giving rise to the beginnings of what we now call multi-channel marketing. For the first time in history, consumers had an immediate way to interact and engage with the companies and businesses to which they afforded their patronage and marketers had to adapt pretty quickly to cope with the changes.

Back in the day, it was enough for communicators to master one or two channels to get their brand messaging across. The advent of the web and more recently, the social media explosion and shift toward constant connectivity means that it is now a two-way conversation – mistakes can be highlighted instantly and the brand values companies spent years and millions developing and disseminating could be challenged at the click of a mouse.

Smart businesses realised this approach was potentially damaging and set about building in-house teams and recruiting integrated agencies to pull the disparate strands of their communications functions together and devise a way to fully ‘go digita.l’ The rest either struggle on with a fractured approach or were vanquished by ‘pure play’ competitors in their sectors – for every Amazon MP3 there’s an Andy’s Records, every ASOS a Republic, every eBuyer a Comet.

Even the most cursory look into recent FMCG digital history clearly illustrates that creating a unified communications strategy encompassing digital and traditional channels is something with which businesses are still struggling. People now expect to be able to interact with a business through social media and they have begun to demand the same brand experience across all touch points.

The larger brands make the effort, and have the resources, to fully understand the consumer mentality. They understand the importance of creating a consistent brand experience and building a long-term relationship with their audiences. Where most businesses fail, however, is in the execution – there are still few agencies or in-house teams out there that have the skills or the will to create a holistic strategy.

Harriet Rhodes, social media manager at Cogent Elliot, an integrated agency based in London and the West Midlands, stresses the importance of an integrated approach to digital for brands, “Most brands that do succeed have done so because they have the fundamentals in place, every employee not only has access to the overarching brand guidelines, but embodies the essence of the company and its message.”

She adds, “Many businesses are still reluctant to put the time into creating such guidelines and instilling values across the wider business, however some of the most successful marketing campaigns on and offline have come from brands who’ve put the time in to get the foundations in place first.”

Establishing brand guidelines and ensuring that a workforce embodies them is easier said than done though, especially as firms use often outside agencies and contractors to manage their digital communications. Neil Taylor, managing partner at The Writer, the UK’s largest language consultancy, says that the shift to digital has rendered the well-worn brand guidelines document obsolete.

Taylor says, “When it comes to language, digital has made guidelines pretty much redundant. If your customer service is getting a ton of flak on Twitter, you’re not going to be sitting reading some pdf about how to reply. And it’s not even like the people writing on behalf of your brand are a tight band of ‘communicators.’ Digital means most businesses now have hundreds – if not thousands – of people writing to their customers and colleague in all kinds of different ways. All of which means brand language can’t be a set of rules. Instead it’s about getting the culture right.”

This can often be a difficult undertaking, especially if the firm in question has a large amount of staff based in multiple locations. This becomes even more challenging if the company’s reach extends internationally.

“Everyone who writes or communicates with customers on behalf of your brand needs to get the spirit of your voice.They need a little linguistic angel on their shoulder every time they write anything for the brand. Which means you need to get them trained up and practising before their moment in limelight comes”

There are ways to combat this, however; a little foresight in the way the company is structured can go a long way towards easing the ‘brand message disconnect.’ Jason Lloyd, head of digital at Arcadia Group’s Dorothy Perkins retail operation brand says that the problem of how to present the brand digitally while maintaining a strong trading stance is one that large firms constantly grapple with but can be overcome, “The teams that manage these two key areas are separate and driven by different metrics and motivations for what they’re delivering for the company. This tends to be because most digital teams in companies are new and deliberately separate from the rest of the business in order to incubate and drive digital best practice. [Most are] ‘trading led’ so they can fuel sales growth, whereas the brand marketing and creative teams are more ‘brand focused’ but the advantage they have is that they are more integrated into the existing company.”

Brands can combat this fractured approach in a few ways, the most effective of which is by restructuring and incubating a more integrated approach to their marketing efforts, says Lloyd, “From a theoretical perspective, a digital team should be fully integrated into the existing functions of a company, this would avoid the disconnect and reinforce the delivery of brand campaigns. Some companies try to get around this by putting the digital team inside the larger marketing team, but it can only be successful if a company is fully digital in its DNA, or led by a CMO/Marketing Director that has come from a strong digital background. If the marketing leader is not from a digital background however, they need a very capable management team who are experienced in digital working for them and who they trust implicitly.”

He suggests an alternative would be for a digital director to oversee marketing, brand and creative teams within an organisation. However, this becomes tricky when a digital manager – not a marketer – is overseeing digital sales, typically the purview of a customer service expert.

It’s apparent that in this digital age, with the number of channels available to connect with consumers and end users increasing seemingly by the week, there is no catch-all solution for ensuring a consistent brand. What is clear, is that that firms both large and small must continually adapt and that the requirement for integrated brand communications shows no sign of abating.

“Everyone who writes or communicates with customers on behalf of your brand needs to get the spirit of your voice,” says Taylor. “They need a little linguistic angel on their shoulder every time they write anything for the brand. Which means you need to get them trained up and practising before their moment in limelight comes. Brand teams need to think of themselves not as a police force, but a team of coaches, getting out into forgotten corners of the business and changing how people approach their work.”

That approach will extend throughout all of the online content created by the brand. Rhodes says, “Content creators are usually at the forefront of this and are tasked with being the outward representation of the brand, across digital channels at least and whilst they will champion values and givens and own tone of voice, it’s a futile venture if all activity is not underpinned by an omnichannel plan.”

Lloyd agrees, “The upshot of this is often the creation of a disconnect that can be apparent in some of the ‘difficult conversations’ between these teams and the diffusion of digital creative that can be seen for a brand where some of the adverts that relate to performance marketing aspects of the company are driven from the digital team versus brand digital creative causing inconsistent messaging.”

Full-scale training programs, appointing outside agencies to galvanise brand values or even the complete restructuring of internal marketing operations are all viable solutions to disjointed brand communications. Some firms may need to employ all three but if one thing is for sure, it’s that technological advances keep moving the goalposts. Only those brands that move with them that will flourish.