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Brand innovation is about participation and storytelling

By: John Cooney | 20 Jan 2014 10:51
The world in which brands operate is changing rapidly. Consumers are more powerful than ever before, and also more deeply and personally engaged with the messages, products and services they get from their favourite brands.
This change in the consumer's power and expectations means that marketers and branding specialists need to think about positioning, messaging and marketing in a whole new way. No longer is it merely about transactions - it's about relationships. It's not about trying to tell consumers what to think and feel - it's about understanding what their needs and desires are.

All about the experience

It's a shift from seeing customers as consumers towards seeing them as participants in your brand's story. Perhaps, to be a little cynical, it's the difference between taking the customer for a ride and joining him or her on a journey. For many brands, this is a complete upending of the traditional order.

In practical terms, this means that marketers should start with the emotional response they want from the consumer in mind, and then work their way backwards to the messaging, positioning, and the list of USPs. Rather than beginning with a set of benefit statements, start with an understanding of what makes the customer tick. Often, it's not the dry technical specification that makes your product such a marvel - how many people can tell you about the CPU in their Apple iPad? - but the experience that surrounds it.

Many of the world's leading brands and some of South Africa's leading companies have already spotted this trend. One of my favourite examples of a brand weaving its public into its narrative is the Adidas New Zealand "This is not a jersey" advertising campaign of 2008. All Blacks fans were invited to have their names etched into tiny threads stitched into the silver fern logo of captain Richie McCaw's jersey. This campaign, making use of some innovative nanotechnology, was an enormous viral hit that imbued a piece of fabric with huge symbolic meaning.

Reaching customers in new ways

Closer to home, the last Citi Golf to be manufactured made in Volkswagen's Uitenhage departed for a countrywide journey that would see VW fans nationwide sign the iconic car over 11 days. After 25 years, Volkswagen had pulled the plug on the ever-popular model because it was no longer economically viable to make it.

The sentimental farewell to the car latched onto what the Citi Golf meant to so many South Africans: a first taste of freedom, an affordable way of getting around, a symbol of independence. The 2009 campaign was a massive hit on social media and also created plenty of media buzz for Volkswagen.

As these two examples show, new technologies, be they nanotech or social media, help brands to reach their customers in innovative ways. But what really makes a difference is embracing a new way of thinking, which starts with customer insight and innovates backwards. It's important to show people something they haven't seen before and to make them part of the brand story.

This is about nimble thinking, understanding of the customer and creativity - the qualities that have always defined the world's best loved brands.

About John Cooney

Cooney's experience encompasses client service, agency and media management experience at some of South Africa's leading advertising agencies, including Ogilvy & Mather, TBWA Hunt Lascaris, Bates and Sonnenberg Murphy Leo Burnett. Cooney was schooled in Natal, has a Science Degree from UCT and studied Advertising & Marketing at Unisa. He has over 40 years of work experience, initially in finance and sales and then, for most of his working life, in the advertising, marketing and media industries.