2012: Looking forward … optimistically.

2012: Looking forward … optimistically.

Many myths have circulated about this coming year – most stemming from the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica (Mayans were a tribe in this civilisation) predicting cataclysmic events on December 21st. As at the start of any year, we are seeing many more predictions – some frivolous and some hopeful – but a lot are gloomy and serious – from economic woe to further environmental damage.

The gloom will effect society in general and hurt billions individually. The start of 21st Century is literally seeing change happen – via the 24/7 connected world on a screen in their pocket, on their lap, on their desk, on the move…on…always on. The changes could be as fundamental as the Industrial Revolution but are happening incredibly fast and being unprecedentedly viewed in real time. The economic woes have trumped the environmental danger in the immediate turn – as the effects are still to hit, while people’s wealth-led expectancy is being threatened daily.

The economic cycle will turn and will get better. For some economies that will happen in 2012 and for others in a year or two. There will be winners & losers in economies that emerge stronger as well as those that slump. In business terms, this is already apparent with the shifts from West to East, from big to small, from company to consumer, from mass to value.

Companies that act to recognise these shifts by experimenting with new business models, with an outside-in view of the company’s offers via innovation, honesty and awareness of the effect on their communities will survive and maybe even thrive. Those who cling on to outdated models – chasing shareholder profit programs, cutting for the sake of promises for quarterly meetings, fixating on competition before customers – will be left behind.

Brand can be a positive asset for all companies – it can be a central pillar of support to staff and customers, representing the emotional truth of a company’s offer – whether a service or product, whether local, National or International. The traits of a 21st Century brand demand a dialogue with customers, ensuring the offer is useful and open. Those companies that use their brand successfully to meet the challenges facing their customers will likely overcome the challenges they themselves face. These companies already understand the value of Conscious Commerce and will extend this further in 2012. These brands are positive and optimistic for the future. And for some massive multinationals and emerging markets, this will not only affect the economic challenges they will also begin to address the environmental and societal challenges positively.

Therefore on December 22nd, 2012 – a potentially massive “morning after the night before” – I’d love to look back and see the following successes… my personal brand led predictions I guess

  • Unilever’s Sustainable Living takes off – their goals are commendable
  • London 2012 Games are a huge success and the Legacy kicks in – living up to the brand promise…
  • BRIC growth continues and we see true global brands emerge from the emerging markets (Tata is a good start)
  • The UK’s biggest misfiring brand – the NHS – reasserts a central core value of care rather than one for performance

And of course that there is a morning on December 22nd….

Is Brand 3.0 better suited to B2B marketers?

Is Brand 3.0 better suited to B2B marketers?

Business to Business (B2B) and Service Brands have long needed brand thinking that is different to the Mad Men inspired thinking that broadcast messages to consumers and relentlessly defended the positioning against competition. Customers and Users have moved on. Services and products cannot be based on a transactional basis alone because customers demand more understanding of their own “unique” needs.

Customers are complex and demanding of experiences that are rewarding – not just for themselves and their own company and customers, but for the communities they exist in. The bigger companies exist in communities that can be better named as society and the Multinational’s community impacts on the environment, mankind and future generations – think of Paul Polman’s Unilever Sustainable Living program or Bono’s Product (Red) or the Microsoft’s legacy work of the Gates Foundation. Sustainability is now a core tenet of 21st Century growth and companies on both sides of the B2B equation know this. Soon Procurement will look not simply for lowest cost tenders but how future offsetting on sustainability policies are incorporated. Carbon trading is becoming regulated by the governments and will soon be a mandatory prerequisite in many big tenders.

Great B2B marketers know the value of Partnerships and that by innovating new products and services via partnership can mean that Enterprises can shape and test new business models – but also that they will see new revenue streams to lift their old models.

Understanding the wider benefits for the customers’ communities and using new partners & business models to grow will add value to the company’s offer by adding an enhanced benefit to the customers (& their own customers & staff). Another tenet for the 21st Century is speed. Expectation for improvements, for new, for understanding or for better…all to be delivered at faster speed. For some more traditional companies this is harder to achieve than for some newer tech enabled successes. Companies that may suffer from “Silo Slowness” will need help in change & marketers can help bring this need for speed to fruition by bringing more business creativity initiatives into the organisation’s processes.

Marketing in a B2B environment has never really been a pure communications role – the organisation has traditionally been geared up for service – so an understanding of the customer journey (or their customer’s customer journeys) is already part of successful B2B companies. Marketing must be relentless in understanding customer’s needs – not what they were but what they are & importantly will be – not just insight but foresight.

As marketers, their roles are complex and can be a mix of investigator, integrator, innovator and instigator. B2B marketers have to help bring a company’s focus to customers future needs – and today that can mean being useful & optimistic.

In order to connect to their customers they must be useful – consumer marketing is many ways are still learning this. Engaging customers is not simply a good story well told. Mad Men thinking is fast being left behind. Indeed B2B never needed Brand to mean advertising campaigns or corporate logo – they needed brand to rally the staff and the service around a customer’s needs. Cisco and Oracle are fundamentally benefit driven. Brand as communication was termed tactics not strategic – strategic brand thinking centred on R&D for their customers. Today’s economic woes mean the inertia many companies are struggling with needs marketers to look positively into the near future and identify some quick opportunities and highlight possible actions that can lead to grab them.

Where B2B marketers can struggle is when the organisation is geared in delivering products or services that are complex – in the building of the product, in the testing, in describing or in their delivery/installation. Such companies can consider they’re a specialist and will be run by engineers or technical experts who have grown up with the company or the category. These leaders will understand the complexities of the offer/service and develop it incrementally year after year. Innovation may well be inherent inside the culture (as they are always seeking improvements) but this innovation will be familiar rather than surprising. Incremental sales and efficiency are valued and expected. In such companies, Sales and Marketing often work as a service to the engineers and developers. Country & category operations run the same way. Customer service will be ensuring products/services work as promised and lessons learned are shared back to organisations sporadically. These leaders believe marketing as a support function should deliver 20th Century branding.

Marketing can still be useful – but needs to be heard. This can mean being challenging and even disruptive – but from a need for change perspective, engaging cross discipline teams on new initiatives, on creating a few, small actions that are future facing, the results of marketing’s voice may rise.

Without an effective voice from marketers, B2B companies can over focus on their product features and then attack with pricing tactics vs. competition, and not the benefit experiences their products and services deliver to their customers. Benefit driven pricing can be higher if they are clearly valued. Cost optimisation comes to the fore, everything is shaved & discounting can become a primary sales strategy, and they have to price their products like a commodity.

B2B marketers can succeed & own the new brand thinking by

  • Great insights and foresight on the customer’s needs
  • Innovating partnerships for new business models (& new revenue)
  • Drive value via the benefits for customers vs. simply delivering best competitive pricing
  • Seeding the internal story around the brand so building the value to customers communities

6 tenets of 21st Century branding for brands to survive the downturn.

6 tenets of 21st Century branding for brands to survive the downturn.

With the global economy’s continual reduction of growth estimates and increasing predictions for a double dip recession, more companies and consumers are not surprisingly becoming distinctly risk averse. Media pundits and headline writers continue exacerbate this.

This results in a further reduction of confidence and an increased inertia by many companies to save their cash, reduce costs and continue to delay hires that were identified and approved before the summer. Worse, more people are being laid off and a generation of youth face an incredibly tough start in their adult life.

The US is deflecting its economic issues with the Presidential hoopla and even from the UK, we saw how it really hyped up the post Thanksgiving sales day of “Black Friday” – early reports suggest a success but mainly for the bigger safer stores (like Costco & Wal-Mart) rather than those already weaker chains where bigger discounts may not have been offset by enough sales. It leaves us all wondering what their longer term plan to ignite growth is.

The UK still watches the Eurozone nervously and George Osborne, the UK Government’s Finance Chief announces his Autumn report with an expectation to say Plan A remains (A = Austerity) & no Plan B exists. He’ll announce that macroeconomic growth with be stimulated by the twin forces of “Credit Easing” for small business loans and “Infrastructure Investment” programme (paid for by allowing UK pension funds to invest as well as further cuts in benefits), which are geared to encourage new jobs as a prime outcome.

If jobs are created, great, but this will be a slow injection of positivity. Those consumers with jobs (still the majority remember) will need to drive the economy by continuing to spend, invest and survive. This is what will get us all through this downturn. It always has.

Brands are as important as any factor in helping this growth – however slow.

The stakeholders of 21st Century branding need to recognise this. Brands remain about having a meaningful relationship with their customers. Meaningful as determined as much by the customers than the companies. Meaningful as determined by value for different customers and their communities rather a set of values (= cold words to put on a website or on the walls of Head Office).

There are 6 interconnected tenets for brands to consider – even in these difficult times

  • Choice
  • Preference
  • Useful
  • Sharing
  • Dialogue
  • Open

Choice: Consumers and customers have and need choice – whether to spend more or less, now or later, this brand or that brand, that service or a new service. Keep the choice relevant and not static. But they will choose, even if it is between paying for a utility rather than a new sofa. Share of wallet not share of voice or share of category.

Preference – A choice is influenced by factors of loyalty, price, current & past experiences, relevance to the person, whether the customer feels they are understood rather than taken for granted.

Usefulness – The 21st Century Brands that will succeed will be those that are most useful – that understand their role in customer’s lives and constantly demonstrate it. They are flexible, relevant, fresh, consistent, upbeat, honest – however the customer describes useful – and there will be many different descriptions for the same brand.

Sharing – brands that give back will succeed. Give back to all their stakeholders rather than simply their shareholders. Indeed, those brands that represent firms that continue to chase profit at all costs will fail. Giving back, in various degrees, to their staff, their consumers, their customers and suppliers, their communities and the world. While the short term economic conditions will affect the scrutiny of this balance, ignoring it will have dire impact on the brand’s ability to survive a return to growth. Conscious commerce is a business model that works and will be a prime economic driver for the years and generations to come.

Dialogue – the only way to understand these dynamics is to have a constant dialogue with customers. That means listening rather than talking at or broadcasting to them. Today’s brand research revolves not around a launch or a crisis but through regular (weekly), expansive, free form dialogue with hundreds and thousands of customers – not a few small irregular focus groups or tick box awareness studies. This is more possible via the online communities and social research skills today than ever before.

Open – Throughout the 5 tenets described here, there is a need to be open with your staff, your customers and your communities. Open means honest, regular and relevant. Act on and admit errors and address complaints quickly. Celebrate positive news. Trust is so much easier to lose than to gain (and significantly more so than to regain!)

I wrote earlier on the dangers of Inertia for brands. Actions can be small and meaningful if brands intend to learn from them. As we look to 2012, there will be brands that succeed. These brands will fuel the growth we need to keep ahead of the downturn as well as driving us out of it.

This is not an exhaustive list. What would you add? Leave a comment or forward to others to do so, please?

Conscious Commerce & Brand Choice: preference will be for the future rather than a habit of the past.

Conscious Commerce & Brand Choice: preference will be for the future rather than a habit of the past.

A very good debate run by Unilever and Guardian Sustainable Business today asking a panel of experts  how to close the gap between concern and action – the panel was made up of Unilever’s CEO, Paul Polman, the CEO of Havas, David Jones, Tensie Whelan the President of the Rainforest Alliance and Malini Mehra CEO of the Centre for Social Markets.

Unilever is taking a bold leadership role with their Sustainable Living programme – in which they are changing their business model towards conscious commerce. The debate was inspiring and a the tone positive and optimistic.

The debate looked at the cooperation needed between business, individuals and government in order to grasp the nettle to change the way the world behaves to match the growing attitude of concern for the planet and our future. Interestingly, the positive tone was in the absence of government in the debate.

Some nuggets stuck in my mind after watching

  • David Jones calling Unilever’s Paul Polman, a pioneer of green blooded capitalism
  • The different attitude of growing up in the West top “have more” vs in emerging markets “to be more”
  • For companies to offer consumers choice based on their values rather than simply shareholder value
  • Politicians could (but won’t) legislate for the future as their electoral terms are short term – much like companies who only focus on their shareholders are focussed on quarterly performance not future effect
  • Brands remain important tools for future consumption, but the offers they make and provide (or those that their holding company do) must give back to the wider community
  • That the younger generation – because of digital connections of social media, are the most knowledgeable, most powerful and most responsible of all time
  • But the future will be changed via inter-generational cooperation as well as the axis of conscious commerce being the preferred choice
  • Small actions, long term outcomes – Don’t stay in the sidelines, it comes down to people making small actions to make a difference

Really worth catching up on the discussion on the Guardian sustainability site or follow #sustliving on twitter