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The 10 characteristics of modern brands

Retailers are no strangers to rapid change. What was fashionable and in-demand one moment is passe the next. But now, the foundations on which businesses have long been built are also shifting.

At a recent event in Melbourne put on by WGSN Futures, Lorna Hall, head of insight at WGSN, provided a case in point. The men’s magazine GQ is now selling subscription skincare boxes, while the online accommodation site, Airbnb, has started publishing its own magazine.

“Brands are no longer staying in their own lanes. They’re not who the world thinks they are anymore,” she said.

Hall went on to share 10 characteristics of successful modern brands.  They…

1. Put purpose first

With more than half of consumers saying they believe brands are in a position to do more to solve societal ills than government, Hall said it’s imperative for modern businesses to have a purpose beyond sales. Patagonia is an oft-cited example of just how successful purpose-driven businesses can be.

The US-based outdoor apparel and equipment brand has made protecting the environment a core part of its communication with customers, and this year it launched Worn Wear, an online platform where customers can buy and sell used Patagonia products. The website sold out one month’s worth of inventory almost immediately – without any advertising.

2. Employ new roles 

Hall noted that modern brands are rethinking the role of the marketing department. She cites data that 50 per cent of CEOs see their chief marketing officer as a prime driver of disruptive growth within the business. This has given rise to a slew of new titles, such as Chief Growth Officer and Storyteller-in-Chief, which reflect the broadening scope of the position. With this added pressure, the CMO’s average tenure is shrinking to around 18 months.

3. Shift to sell services, not products

A combination of factors, from the lasting effects of the global financial crisis, to the values of millennials, to the increase in competition from online and overseas retailers, have made it harder than ever for brands to succeed simply by selling products. Hall said modern brands are counteracting this trend by shifting to sell services.

For instance, the US-based online shoe company, Zappos, offers consulting services to businesses interested in learning from its unique organisational structure and customer-centric approach, while online luxury retailer, MatchesFashion, now offers events and conferences that appeal to its consumer demographic.

The LVMH-owned Moet Hennessy even sells trips to Antarctica alongside bottles of vodka.

4. Let youth lead

Hall pointed to a growing number of brands that have appointed twenty-somethings or even teenagers to leadership positions within the business to ensure their products and communication remain relevant to younger demographics.

For instance, the rapper Lil Yachty was made creative director of heritage brand Nautica in the US, and influencer Emily Oberg became the creative lead at women’s fashion brand Kith. And Hall credited the success of Gucci in recent years to the fact that chief executive Marco Bizzarri consults a ‘shadow board’ made up of under-thirties on key decisions.

5. Experiment with AI 

Artificial intelligence need not be relegated to chatbot assistants at checkout. Hall said modern brands are experimenting with AI as a creative tool to surprise and delight their customers. She refers to a campaign for the HBO television series, ‘The Young Pope’, which involved using IBM Watson technology to identify hate-filled posts on Twitter and automatically reply with a relevant verse from the Bible. The replies included a hashtag for ‘The Young Pope’.

6. Use psychographics, not just demographics

Demographics tell brands who the customer is, while psychographics tell brands why they are buying. Hall said modern brands use both to get a fuller understanding of their customers.

7. Create their own channels to market

Gaining the attention of consumers in this ‘always on’ economy is next to impossible. That’s why successful businesses don’t bother competing for space on traditional channels like billboard or radio advertising, they find new, uncharted channels. For instance, cult US fashion brand, Supreme, re-branded tickets for the New York City subway system with its distinctive red and white logo, while Lego created what some have called the world’s best two-hour-long advertisement with its hugely successful ‘Lego Movie’.

8. Use creative hacking

Meanwhile, other retailers are using creative methods to cut through the noise on traditional channels. For instance, Burger King recently ran an advertisement that made use of the growing number of smart speakers in consumers’ homes. The ad included the phrase ‘OK, Google’, which triggered the speakers to respond.

And Qantas has tapped into the captive audience of millions of people receiving out of office emails every day. The airline teamed up with Instagram to let people spice up their boring OOO email with holiday photos, alongside a link to book flights of course.

9. Engineer virality

Along these same lines, Halls said modern brands do not sit idly by waiting to go viral, they understand how internet culture works and look for opportunities to draw the media spotlight. For instance, when luxury brand Balenciaga came out with a blue tote that looked eerily similar to Ikea’s ubiquitous plastic bags, the furniture company’s creative agency came up with a tongue-in-cheek reply within hours.

10. Use the new 4 Es

Marketing was traditionally all about the 4 Ps: product, price, promotion and place. But Hall said modern brands are committed to the 4 Es, which the creative agency Ogilvy defined several years ago: engagement, experience, exclusivity and emotion.

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