How brands are built in the digital age

This was going to be my Admap prize entry to answer the question “How brands are built in the digital age”. But of course life got in the way so instead it is this blog post. So rather than well reasoned and evidenced argument, you’ll be reading conjecture, opinions and hypothesis. But hopefully interesting none-the-less….

In a world of change one thing remains constant in the marketing industry, and that is the power of creativity to generate ideas that build brands. Brands are built in the digital age through great creativity expressed in new ways and in new channels by creative agencies and clients who have an understanding of what great creativity requires.

With all the debate around the changing media landscape and what it means for the industry it is easy to feel that everything about what we do as marketers and creative people is changing. And of course things are changing. But the core of what makes for valuable brands and famous marketing campaigns hasn’t changed, and it is easy to get distracted from that main task – the relentless pursuit of better understanding of what great creativity takes, and the value that it can create.

Creativity and brands

Creativity allows brands to be distinctive, taking greater than their fair share of people’s attention, and the ideas and meme’s spawned by creativity are one of the main things that are shared over digital networks. Just think about the amount of Buzzfeed content shared in your newsfeed right now. That is a brand that is build on the power of ideas. Perversely, mainstream marketing spends a lot of time worrying about the packaging of these ideas; is it a Facebook post? or video content? how long should it be? how much should we spend? which of our agencies should make it? – and comparatively hardly any time on the ideas themselves.

Brands need ideas more than ever. The digital age has brought something that has always been true into sharp relief – that brands exist in the minds of consumers. Brands aren’t the result of one great advert, they are like a bird’s nest, built from the scraps of twigs that a person encounters and bothers to pick up. And a lot of those twigs are digital. So it takes time to define or reinvent a brand and changes happen relatively slowly as a result of consistent quality creativity – as was often said during my time at Dare – every idea counts.

Creativity and agencies

Creativity also help clients answer their main problem when it comes to growth. Most clients face the same problem with their brand. To grow they need to convince a greater number of disinterested, disloyal consumers to purchase, ideally also more frequently. To do so they need to be distinctive.

Creative agencies can help clients do be distinctive by taking products with functional parity and add intangible values and meaning to them to make them more valuable to the people that use them. Which isn’t simply about trying to “make people want things” it is about helping them choose, as well as adding meaning and fun to their lives through the brands they experience.

But this isn’t by and large about “making things that people want” either – that is what client organisations do – they have the resources required to create customer experiences at scale. Rather, there is an opportunity to re-conceive the role for creativity and the agency in the era of digital disruption, to move away from the industrial era’s myopic focus on communications, messages and positioning as the sole means to make brands distinctive and add meaning to them.

A vision for what that could be was created 10 years ago by Mark Earls in his book Welcome to the creative age. Earls talked about the role of the “Purpose idea” in elevating the brand above empty positioning and image, and envisioned “interventions” – brands doing things to live their purpose rather than talking at people in their marketing activities.

The thing that has changed since Earls wrote his book is that the physical barrier to entry to having a direct relationship with the customers that existed in the industrial era has fallen away. Agencies can now manifest brand behaviour in digital products and services and don’t just have to rely on comms “channels” and advertising. We can encourage people to pick up a brand’s twigs by making them entertaining, useful, rewarding, shareable.

If creative agencies can combine their creative skills, with technical skills and an ambition to elevate marketing beyond comms to brand behaviour, and seek to develop truly disruptive innovation, they can continue to be a vital source of value creation.

Creativity as a skill

The digital age requires specialism , and having the right idea in the right place, not just sticking a press ad in a banner with ruthless cost efficiency. So it is easy to think that the future of agencies is big data, and heavy technical skills. But creativity is a skill and is not the same as the skill of executing in a specific medium. In a digital age creativity is a skill to be nurtured and prized regardless of the medium. Because it allows us to “do the right thing” as well as “do things right”.

Creativity is great at:

Making insights resonate
Making ideas into memes
Making the tangible or rational engage emotionally
Making the human condition a shared experience

Creativity is about understanding that all ideas are not born equal, and whilst there is of course some subjectivity, creating and judging ideas is born out of experience and talent. Absolutely not about luck or gut-feel, great ideas are hard to identify, they are hard to develop, identify and bring to existence.

Creativity needs the right conditions to flourish, talent, culture and environment are all key and creative agencies have remained relevant because they offer something unique. They are able to create cultures and attract types of talent that the client can’t. At its best this talent is informed and in tune with the commercial reality of the client’s business, and passionate about the brand and it’s role in adding value to the lives of customers. And at its best the agency is a team of people with the skills to think laterally about creative solutions to problems and has the perspective to think objectively about those problems. This objectivity is the main benefit of sitting outside the client organisation and are not being solely dependent on it, and its politics, received wisdoms, and inertia.

Of course creativity needs to change as well. Technical skills and knowledge are essential to great digital creativity, and they need to be upstream in the creative development process. One can’t separate the artist from the brush. This means a more collaborative creative development process is required to truly unlock the power of creativity in a digital age.

So, successful brands are built in the digital age with creativity. Creativity that inspires ideas for brand behaviour that can build the brand twig by twig. Creativity applied to business problems allowing brands to embrace the digital age and find new ways to live their purpose. Creativity that is nurtured as a skill by agencies, and clients who value its contribution. And ultimately, creativity is what allows brands to add value and meaning to customers lives.


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