1. A mission must be more than a mission statement
Most brands now know they have to offer more than just the right products at the right price; they also need to be clear about what they stand for as they face an increasingly discerning public. Consumers want to associate themselves with brands that support the same good causes that they do, and this is particularly important to younger people. Environmental concerns are an obvious area where many brands can take an appealing position, but there are wider consumer interests in issues such as fairness in the workplace, and support for social and humanitarian causes. Promises must be borne out, however, and the public has a finely tuned ear for pledges that turn out to be hollow. Coffee chain Pret a Manger was called out earlier this year for making claims about the natural ingredients in its bread that the Advertising Standards Authority ruled were unsubstantiated; similarly, there were claims of hypocrisy when the owner of the free-range egg brand Happy Egg Co was found also to sell eggs from caged hens. Brands need to keep to both the letter and the spirit of their promises to consumers, and be open about ingredients, policies and workplace practices. Fakes will be found out.
2. Voice technology is shifting the goalposts
Voice recognition has been with us for a few years, but it’s advanced significantly in the past two, to the point where 30 percent of search is expected to be done without a screen by 2020. Devices such as Amazon’s Echo and Google Home are not just taking out the hassle of typing, they’re enabling consumers and brands to have a different kind of relationship. First, there’s the conversation element of voice-led interactions; brands have long worked to establish a personality and tone of voice in their communications, now they must project that tone quite literally. The natural language people use when they speak – which differs significantly to what they type – enables a deeper, more human kind of interaction. Brands can go beyond answering questions via voice (store opening hours and the like), provide information about promotions and new products, and tailoring information and entertainment to what it knows about the user. There’s also an opportunity for brands to lock in consumer loyalty. When a householder asks their smart speaker to “add yoghurt to next week’s supermarket order”, which brand will be the default, and which supermarket, for that matter? Brands that establish themselves as the first choice in a category, not only secure future sales, they also lock out the competition.
3. Experience is the new brand battleground
Product quality, desirability and price are all now taken as read; what consumers are looking for now is an experience – something that’s memorable and ideally photographable from the product itself, or from the process of buying or using it. Technology can all help brands stand out here, by removing points of potential pain, so smoothing the customer journey, or by adding excitement to the experience. Augmented reality (AR) is one way that leading brands are delivering on experience – technology that’s more accessible now that Apple and Google have both unveiled developer toolkits. For many consumers, their first experience of AR was with the game Pokémon Go, but it’s retail brands that are among the fastest adopters of this technology now. Gap, Zara and Neiman Marcus are among the apparel brands experimenting with in-store mirrors that allow shoppers to superimpose clothing over their reflection. US home improvement chain Lowe’s has launched an in-store navigation app that allows users to better navigate stores and access product information. And in Shanghai, augmented reality permeates the Starbucks Roastery. Both the Roastery app and Alibaba’s Taobao app reveal the entire “bean to cup” story of Starbucks coffee as visitors point their phones at features around the store. There’s also a gamification element that further adds to the experience: as people move around, they unlock virtual badges that enable them to earn a customised Roastery filter, which they can share on social media.
4. The tide has turned on plastic
There’s a battle raging against the pollution caused by discarded plastic, and while there has always been a vocal minority speaking out on this subject, now it’s mainstream. Backed by celebrities including Georgia May Jagger and the nation’s favorite wildlife presenter, Sir David Attenborough, consumers are starting to buy products with greater consideration of packaging they come in and the pollution they may cause. Some of this has been taken out of consumers’ hands; retailers must now charge shoppers who want a disposable plastic bag, and the government has banned personal care products containing plastic “microbeads”, which often featured in cleansers but ended up in the oceans and, in some cases, in the food chain. Scotland has announced plans to put a surcharge on plastic drink bottles, to be refunded when the bottle is returned for recycling. Brands that can change their products and their packaging stand to gain here, as do those that already use minimal plastic. Personal care retailer Lush sells plastic-free shampoo in a soap-style block, for instance, while Coca-Cola has made a commitment to recycle at least half of its containers by 2020, and adidas has made sports shoes using recycled plastic. Frozen-food grocer Iceland in January became the first major retailer to commit to eliminating all plastic packaging for own-brand products within five years.
5. Brands must innovate or die
The High Street of almost every British town right now is evidence of the urgent need for businesses to keep moving or consign themselves to history. In the past year, an unprecedented number of retail brands have been closing dozens of outlets or shutting up shop entirely. House of Fraser, Maplin, Poundworld and Marks & Spencer, to name just a few. While the retail sector is facing particular strain, as more and more Brits do their browsing and buying online, and have a host of specialist suppliers to choose from, the need for innovation is bigger than retail. Banking, automotive, hospitality and fast-moving consumer goods are all facing challenges to their business models, and ever-higher demands from discerning consumers. Brands need to accept that what has sustained them in the past is unlikely to keep them growing in future; they must consider what threats – from inside and beyond their sector – have the potential to become category killers and face them head on. They must also be imaginative in rethinking what their role is in consumers’ lives. Are they an issuer of cheque books and debit cards, or a service that helps someone secure their family’s future?