Digital Divide 2
Tom Doctoroff - Vice President, Strategy Marketing

The State of Brands in America: A Great Digital Divide?

The political divide between “red” and “blue” America is well established. But, as the digital revolution sweeps across the commercial landscape, has another chasm emerged – that is one between brands “born digital” (e.g., Amazon, Lyft, Netflix, Spotify) and so-called “legacy” brands (e.g., Kraft, Colgate, Chevrolet)?

More profoundly, has digital “transactionalism” replaced the principles that have underpinned brand health for decades? Has everything we have learned regarding equity and loyalty generation been relegated to the ash heap of history? Is the Millennial generation so commercially jaded they pooh-pooh all labels?

Happily, no. “Experience,” both offline but increasingly digitally-enable, deepens the relationship between “legacy” brand.

Prophet’s recently-competed 2018 Brand Relevance Index (BRI) based on 15,000 interviews across all socioeconomic strata, sheds light on the matter. The study measures “relevance in life” on four dimensions:

· Relentless innovation –pushing the status quo and developing new ways to delight;

· Ruthless pragmatism – ensuring wide availability and dependability with an acceptable balance between price and value;

· Distinctive inspiration – infusing purpose into the brand in a way that motivates people to achieve their aspirations without sacrificing authenticity;

· Customer obsession – remaining on the cutting-edge of understanding how consumer live and work.

The conclusion is clear. Yes, the top six most relevant brands – Apple, Amazon, Pinterest, Netflix, Android and Google – are digital “ecosystems.”. However, the top 50 is littered with “low-tech” brands we grew up with (#22 Dove, #24 Band Aid) and bring happiness into our lives (#28 Marvel, #15 Pixar, #40 NPR).

That said, it is equally clear that all brands in the BRI top 50 – both “traditional” and platforms – must relentlessly enrich customer experience -- often, but not always -- by dint of technological innovation. “Tell and sell” is dead and buried. So brands need to forge enduring two-way relationships with consumers that deepen and evolve over time. They must make smart, bold moves that amaze consumers, push competitors out of consideration, and – at times – define entirely new categories and markets. And they must do it while remaining unwaveringly authentic to their original purpose. They must move us to action by integrating themselves more deeply into the fabric of our lives.

This article is composed of two sections. First, we provide four observations on trends that immediately leap out of the BRI data. Second, we outline four less obvious signature moves brands can take as an antitode to an increasingly high-tech, depersonalized world.

A Few Immediate Observations

Several points leap out after even a cursory glance of high- and low-ranked brands.

First, pragmatism prevails. Americans, like the Chinese, are profoundly pragmatic. (Of course, the United States is the ultimate bottom-up society while China epitomizes the ultimate in top-down patriarchy.) Our individualistic culture thrives on eliminating barriers to personal and national achievement. The cowboy is an icon of American masculinity because he forged order from chaos by taming the “Wild West.”

Amazon (#2) is unbeatable when it comes to availability and making consumers’ daily lives easier. In 2018, the company created new Alexa device compatibilities for smart homes, introduced an offline “Amazon Go” pilot online-to-offline store and even integrated Alexa features into Ford cars. Turbotax (#32) is also ruthlessly pragmatic. It makes the complex “insanely simple” in moments of need. The brand’s success also demonstrates that practicality can be charged with emotion. Turbotax enters assuages head-spinning complexity of tax return preparation. It creates a simple experience to take pain away. (In China, Alipay, Alibaba’s virtual payment system, is consistently ranked as that country’s most relevant brand. It provides eliminates transactional friction but also enables lifestyle liberation, fulfilling a deep emotional urge.)

Winning on pragmatism alone is rarely enough to ensure long-term affinity.

Second, as mentioned above, brands not “born digital” can still be loved. In vivid contrast to China where high-tech brands dominate the top 50, “old” brand such as Tide (#44), Hershey’s (#43), Ben & Jerry’s (#37), Costco (#26) and Clorox (#42) all make the grade. Despite the proliferation of data, bits, bytes and platforms, the brands that connect with consumers broaden the role they play in life. Digitally-enabled experience is one way to enhance relevance, but low-tech moves can also hit the heart.

Folgers (#38), for example, expanded into “craft coffee” by launching its 1850 series to stay ahead of evolving artisanal tastes. It also launched Dunkin Donuts home cold brew blend in large canisters. Fisher-Price (#16) introduced a “Playtime Guide,” packed with ideas to help parents enrich key areas of childhood development – physical, cognitive, social and emotional.

Third, social media “platforms” that do not support passions are losing luster. Facebook, Spotify and Snap dropped, respectively, -102, -87 and -72 in rankings versus 2017. Of course, the negative PR surrounding privacy and politics surely adversely impacted performance.

However, other “passion-driven” platforms such as Pinterest (#3) and Etsy (#35), an online emporium of home-made products, continue to perform because they fuel passions. These are not “network-focused” platforms; they de-emphasize conventional social media elements to create space for inspiration, self-improvement and exploration.

Pinterest champions accessibility to personal creation. The brand has an unwavering commitment to inclusive design and innovations that forge community, making the platform more accessible to everyone – including those with a range of visual impairments. New voice-over technology, heightened color contrast and simplified design increases inclusiveness. Pinterest’s commitment to innovation is never-ending. The Pinterest Lens, for example, enables individuals to seek inspiration from objects in the real world using smart phone cameras.

Nintendo is another example of a platform that has moved beyond mere utility. Nintendo’s Switch, for example, provides gamers the freedom to have fun “on the go” by transforming the home console into a portable system to forge communities of like-minded fanatics.

Fourth, tribal affiliation drives relevance. Marvel has evolved from a male-dominated superhero brand to “Marvel Rising,” telling stories that represent different world views. Black Panther and Wonder Woman, the latter a DC franchise, adopted African American and female perspectives, conveying empathy regarding the injustice of discrimination. Marvel Rising has also diversified its platforms to include digital short stores, a book series, YouTube Channel and live events.

Nike (#10) has broadened its “Just do it” performance-driven purpose. “Dream Crazy,” for example is a compelling campaign charged with tribal inclusiveness. Athletes are drivers of change. The omnichannel effort features “non-traditional” sportsmen and women – for example, vegan weight lifters, wheelchair athletes, cancer survivors – as well as controversial stars such as Colin Kaepernick who make bold political statements.

Implications: Actions Brands Must Take to Deepen Relevance

Beyond the aforementioned “self-evident” trends revealed by the BRI, an analysis of brands with momentum reveal a need to: a) innovate beyond function, b) empower, rather than simply enable, c) let technology liberate joy and d) foster connections, not just connectivity. What do all of these moves have in common? As the American digital landscape become increasingly cold and complex, they ensure brands touch both head and heart.

Innovate beyond function. Marketers should redefine battle grounds by broadening a brand’s role in life. They must offer products and services that make the mundane exceptional. It goes without saying that Apple tops our list because it has evolved from desktop computers to a seamless ecosystem -- one that that unlocks phones with facial recognition and an intuitive music streaming service quickly gaining on Spotify (#9). Products elevate everyday moments, inspired by a “think different” mantra. In one ad, when viewed from a different angle, inspiring copy takes shape, “Follow a vision, not a path. Where others see ‘first’ as valuable, you value the first thing that actually matters. While others are distracted by the new, you focus on the difference of a whole new take. Even before you could see how, you never doubted we would change things. And then we did, together. Again and again and again. So keep seeing things differently.”

Dyson (#48) has morphed from a manufacturer of vacuum cleaners to a brand that tackles inefficiencies others ignore, such as noisy motors and heat damage from hair styling tools. Kitchen Aid (#8) started off as a counter top mixer. It is now a “total kitchen sous chef,” that replaces appliances from juicers to food processor and meat grinders with accoutrements that attach to the mixer.

Keurig (#19) is no long a coffee machine. Today, it’s K-System which includes dispensers, a broad variety of capsules and cups, all in service of providing at-home coffee “the way I like it, in an instant.” In late 2018, it even introduced a cocktail-making pod machine.

Empower, rather than simply enable. Brands need to define a compelling “purpose” rooted in deep consumer insight. Brands need to empower people to realize individual potential and create a better world. Consumers embrace goods that are, in effect, relationships that deepen over time.

Samsung (#7) exhorts “Do what you can’t.” It designs products that help people break free of conventional boundaries. The new Galaxy is “for creators, for designers.” Evocative copy from Samsung’s corporate campaign advocates pushing limits: “Because you want a bigger screen, not a bigger phone, we took the display right to the edge. Because your TV isn’t always on, we turned it into art when it’s off. Because you want to be there, when you’re notthere, we made it simple to share the moment. Because you want your things to work together, we’re making it seamless to connect them all.”

Dove (#22) exudes passion for bolstered self-esteem. The brand celebrates the beauty in every woman. It continues to evolve its “Self-Esteem Project” to instill confidence in 40 million adolescents around the world. In the spirit of its famous campaigns, “Real Beauty” and “Sketches,” the brand recently eliminated digital distortion in all advertising and online content. In a similar vein, North Face (#39) celebrates unexpected explores – female role models who “move mountains.” In a multimedia campaign, it promotes self-actualization by showcasing athletes, educators, creators and innovators who epitomize “feminine strength.” In 2018, North Face formed a partnership with the Girl Scouts to create twelve outdoor goals that young women can strive to achieve.

Let technology liberate joy. Hi-tech goods and services do not need to be cold and functional. Instead, technology can be a joyful antidote to soulless technology. Netflix (#4), YouTube (#12), Disney (#14), Pixar (#15), Pandora (an automated radio recommendation app, #23), Xbox (#25), Marvel (#28), EA gaming (#34) and even the Food Network (#36) all fuse technology with fun.

Pixar transmutes state-of-art computer graphics into stories that tug heart strings. In fact, the list of Pixar films essentially serves as a timeline of groundbreaking technological developments in computer graphics – innovations animators leverage to immerse viewers in imaginative worlds and stories. In the smash hit “Coco,” for example, new techniques were deployed to render the threads of Mexican clothing more realistic. The popularity of “Incredibles 2” was driven by a compelling family-driven storyline and, less conspicuously, dynamic skin simulation and enhanced fast-paced scenes with visually-distinctive “portals” to connect inter-spatial locations.

Foster Connections, Not Just Connectivity. “Connectivity” is inherently transactional. (Think Amazon “dash” buttons.) But technology enables marketers to unlock individual passions and connect people who share those passions.

Xbox used to be a hardware console. Today, it’s a community-oriented company for gamers. “Xbox Ambassadors,” hard core opinion leaders, forge connections while sharing expertise. They host Twitch shows, create YouTube videos and provide product feedback while game titles are in beta.

Twitch (#149), a brand on the rise, will likely penetrate the top 50 in 2019. Originally a passive streaming gaming experience, today it brings millions of streamers and fans together to transcend the virtual world. They play games and watch live eSports as a community. It also launched TwitchCon, bridging on- and offline worlds, joining superstar gamers and fans where micro-communities blossom.

Etsy (#35) was born as an online market place selling handmade and vintage goods. It was a great first step – putting human creation at the center of commerce and “just saying no” to “big box” commerce. But in recent years, Etsy has become tribal. There are community spaces (“Etsy Teams” and “Etsy Forums”) that make it easy to connect with entrepreneurs around the world. And Etsy’s “Maker Cities” grant programs encourage localities to support marginalized groups – for example, the handicapped – to participate in the creative economy.

In Conclusion

Prophet’s Brand Relevance Index (BRI) clearly shows that digital ecosystems are transforming our lives. But brands that were not “born digital” can still be “relentlessly relevant” for consumers. However, to maintain relevance, they must without abandon a “tell and sell” approach and adopt an experiential mindset, often via digital engagement. The result? Deeper intimacy with brands and connections to communities with people who share passions.

Written with the invaluable strategic contributions of Erin Myers, Jesse Purewal, Greg Hall and Sabrina Singh

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