• Transform magazine
  • July 30, 2021

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Branding the invisible

Milankendallshah

In today’s world, in which more and more people are embracing the online and digital sphere, a growing number of brands are now effectively 'invisible,' as they sit at the intersection between hardware, software and connectivity. Milan Kendall Shah, strategist at branding consultancy Wolff Olins, explores the challenges invisible brands face and offers advice on how to brand the invisible.

What do Uber, Zoom, and Apple Pay have in common?

All sit at the magical intersection of hardware, software and connectivity but by virtue of their digital existence, the interactions they have with us do not exist in the real world. They are effectively invisible.

That doesn’t mean they should ignore branding though, in fact it’s important they add elements of visibility to stop them falling into the shadows. But it’s not always obvious how.

The biggest challenge is that brands lack real-world opportunities to differentiate themselves in people’s minds. Added to that, the reason we’ve adopted them so quickly is their skill at removing unwanted interactions, rather than introducing additive ones.

Take Uber, for example. It set out to eradicate all friction in the taxi experience: waiting on the street to hail a cab, interacting with the driver and paying the fee.

The removal of layers and barriers has enabled us to navigate the world with less effort, less thought and fewer glitches. These brands exist to make our lives more seamless, and they’re doing a good job.

But why does seamlessness present a challenge to these brands? One reason is the way innovations like Uber shift our expectations of daily life. Having become accustomed to a new level of ease, we become frustrated when these raised standards aren’t met.

We resent Uber for not being able to find us a driver within 30 seconds. We curse Zoom when we realise we’ve been speaking into a void for 10 seconds. We begrudge Apple Pay if it doesn’t ‘wake up’ instantly.

This leaves invisible brands in a bit of a predicament. We’re only really aware of them when there’s a problem.

Crucially, people become attached to the new standard, rather than the brand that enables it. This means we’re ready to move on to new alternatives with even fewer steps, faster execution and more faultless reliability.

One of the first companies to find a solution to the problem of ‘invisibility’ was Apple, which pioneered the idea that technology and even digital experiences could feel luxurious.

It achieved this by instilling wonder in the experience around its products. From entering palace-like stores to opening beautifully packaged devices, Apple made it deeply desirable to engage with its brand.

Apple has also mastered ‘showing up’ in appropriate moments via comforting haptics, seamless touch navigation and devices that connect intuitively to nudge you in the right direction.

Sonos came at this challenge from a slightly different angle, starting first as an invisible brand connecting your device to your speakers, and then moving into physical products, selling speakers too and gaining a presence in our homes. After all, it’s much easier to build a relationship with customers if there’s part of your offer that people can literally touch and see.

So how can today’s invisible brands stay relevant, retain their customer bases, and grow? One way would be to blend the invisible with the visible by showing up in appropriate ways and moments, through physical products, in-person experiences or watchable content. This could be on a large scale – like telcos acquiring content creators in order to be more closely associated with the online entertainment experience – or a strategy like sponsoring in-person gaming experiences in order to bring a brand to life in a physical space.

‘Invisible’ brands must also be visible where there’s value and transfer what it is they truly provide to customers into other sectors. For example, if Zoom is about online connections, could it set up a dating app or more ambitious yet, a rival to Airbnb? Loyalty could then be nurtured through creating an ecosystem of connected and complementary experiences that work well together. They could also stay invisible but create delight through maintaining their strategy of seamlessness while thinking of ways to add elements of surprise, spontaneity, and excitement; unexpected moments that break up the monotony of the day-to-day.

Of course, this isn’t one size fits all. What’s right for one invisible brand could be inappropriate or inauthentic for another. But, the key to being a successfully invisible brand is, somewhat ironically, to ensure you are visible in the right way – to expand your value, move into other categories or reintroduce some surprise in an ever more seamless world.