• Transform magazine
  • February 28, 2021


Five Minutes with Neil Svensen

Neil Final (1)

Neil Svensen, co-founder and chairperson at Rufus Leonard, talks to Transform magazine about the ins and outs of the digital brand industry, from how it has drastically changed over the years, how it will be impacted from the Covid-19 pandemic and the lessons that can be learned.


Why is the digital experience so important for brands?

Today all brands have some form of digital as a key part of the way their customers interact with them. As always, what really defines a brand is the culmination of all the interactions a customer has with it. So the experience a brand delivers throughout its digital channels, has rightly, become an essential part of defining what it fundamentally is. Digital has also defined a new level of holding brands accountable to the promises they make. I am not a believer in ‘social platforms’ defining what a brand is; in my opinion that is something that organisations should control through a deep, meaningful and positive culture driven by passionate and strong leadership. However, social platforms can and do unearth un-truths and bad practices on mass, and in a way that brands can’t ignore. As far as I am concerned this is a very good thing and means that brands that shouldn’t exist have nowhere to hide.


Rufus Leonard has recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. What are the biggest changes you have detected in the digital brand industry since you founded the company three decades ago?

Firstly, it doesn’t feel like 30 years, it seems to have flown by but looking back there are some big events that come to mind that changed the approach to branding. In the very early 1990s, it was the overnight arrival of the web. It really was like that. One day it wasn’t there and the next day it was the only thing on the brand agenda. Initially it was a bit like the Wild West, and everyone was desperate to get a web presence – really just brochure-ware sites. Everyone was learning, and everyone was trying to understand what this meant for their brands and their businesses. It took a couple of years for some clarity to develop and the real potential of digital to start to be imagined.

Next there was the move from pure brochure-ware sites to embedding real functionality, around the mid 1990s. When this happened, some of the established brands seemed to forget that the customer was at the heart of everything they did. Delivering real functionality became about cost-cutting, efficiency and forcing customers online to achieve this. More often than not this meant plugging into old systems and to do this all sorts of compromises had to be made. Customers could be forced down digital channels with no support or easy way out if things went wrong. 

Today things are quite different. The best brands are again driven by putting customers at the heart of everything they do. They strategically map the channels and resources they have, and are driven to deliver the best joined-up customer experiences they can across every touchpoint. With many of our clients, the use and understanding of digital and the use of the data it enables, has matured throughout all parts of the organisation and structures have changed to enable this joined-up approach. Digital activity has increasingly become properly integrated into the breath of channels. The most digitally mature of these brands are avoiding the trap of digital sameness by confidently using digital in ever more creative and personalised ways, ways that set their brands apart from very competent competition.


In what ways will the industry change as a result Covid-19 pandemic? Can these changes improve how brands view their relationship with customers?

There has been an active move from brands to show real commitment to supporting people and society, not just shareholders. This commitment has always been at the heart of those brands we all trust the most, they have just not put it as front and centre as we see now. Moving forward I believe this will remain the case, it’s the reason we focus on helping clients engineer meaningful difference in everything they do. A real social commitment from brands will become increasingly important, essential really, and will obviously have to be fundamentally part of how the brand acts for the reasons I mentioned earlier. We will get through this pandemic but there has been a mind-set change that will have a long-lasting effect on what customers demand of the brands they choose to interact with.


According to the special report on brand trust during covid-19 published by the Edelman Trust Barometer, more than half of consumers say they will not pay attention to new products unless they are designed to help with pandemic-related challenges. How can brands make sure they stay relevant and ‘act appropriately’ during this time?

I don’t think that this is a massive surprise. This pandemic, and what it has caused, is something none of us have seen before and we are all looking to each other to do the right thing to help minimise the crisis wherever we can. This is true of what we expect of the brands we choose to interact with. The most important thing is that brands act appropriately, that they don’t take advantage of the situation to make short term profits, that they do what they can to make things better, however small. The way that many brands have reacted has been a pleasure to see, whether it is banks giving mortgage holidays, insurance companies refunding parts of premiums because of low vehicle use or mobile phone companies sending handsets to care homes. Generally, those brands that I believe have a deep social consonance have proven that to be true.


In times of crisis people turn to brands they trust. What is the key advice you would give to brands trying to maintain that trust?

Be a brand we can trust. Do everything you can to do the right thing and be honest and open. This crisis has caused disruption to everyone and everything and people understand that, if this means you can’t deliver as quickly as normal or you are going to prioritise those people who have the greatest need, then say that. It’s the sort of directness and clarity that underpins the brands we trust most.


Brands’ digital presence is becoming more and more essential as we find ourselves isolated in our own homes and with an outlook that points towards increased ‘contactless-ness’- how can brands achieve that?

I think this whole pandemic has been a wake-up call for a lot of businesses to fast-track their digital development plans and make them real. It seems to have stopped the senior deliberations that some more established companies have had regarding the speed at which they adopt digital and this feels like a positive thing. 

The one thing I would say is make sure that digital is seen as an integral part of everything you do and not as something stand alone. The best brands are succeeding by joining everything-up, by using the power of digital to enhance brand experience across the board at every touchpoint and confidently, in a way that is authentic to them. It’s really finishing where I started, a brand is the culmination of all the interactions a customer has with it, digital has a power to make these interactions even more convenient, useful and rewarding for everyone.