It’s time to DevOps your brand — or: Brand management in the age of A.I.
A few years ago I was asked to participate in a breakout session pitting a bunch of entrepreneurial Silicon Valley marketers in the same room against some serious Fortune 500 CMO-types. They were mutually terrified of one another, and it ended up being an enlightening few hours. Looking back, I remember a young tech marketing entrepreneur suggesting that a major brand change, say, its logo color in digital ads. The response was unequivocal: “Our brand would never do that.” I tended to agree, being a brand transformation advisor trained and steeped in the mindset of consistency-over-all.
I’m not so sure I’d respond the same way today.
There has been much coverage of new technology and its disruptive effect on advertising and marketing, but precious little about how those developments may drive changes in branding and brand management. Fact is, data-driven insights are just as important for the “why” of brand as they are for the “what” of marketing.
You don’t have to look far for proof. In its recent study of commercial capabilities, McKinsey & Co. identifies go-to-market model design, marketing enablement of sales and channel partner management as the three top emerging drivers of revenue and margin growth. All three ladder up directly to your brand. And all three are most effectively built on a robust foundation of data.
Most of us are already awash in articles and studies about A.I., blockchain, marketing automation, analytics and big data. But this focus on tools and tactics diverts our attention from the brand management implications these tools create. As the inimitable Mark Ritson observes: “marketing was always going to absorb digital, it was never going to be the other way around.” He references a great read from Sloan Management Review called “Your Company Does Not Need a Digital Strategy.” In both articles, the case is laid out that marketing strategy reflects (and informs) business strategy; and digital (and other tools) support this.
Ritson spells it out: “Marketing is three things: it’s working out what is going on in the market; it’s coming up with a clear strategy; and it’s then selecting and executing tactics to deliver that strategy successfully.” He adds: “A generation of digital marketers are unable to properly achieve the first stage, completely skip the strategy stage, and spend their lives focused on just tactics, usually just communications, and usually just the digital half of those communications.”
The same issues and opportunities arise at the level of brand management. Data analytics, automation and A.I. can help refine core differentiation and sales-enablement efforts by helping to define the four P’s (product, pricing, place and promotion) as well as segmentation, targeting and positioning.
Moreover, emerging technologies make it possible to adapt your brand in real time as market conditions, competitive realities and your business strategy change. A parallel model is already proven in the digital realm: it’s called DevOps. The basic idea is to increase agility and improve collaboration through iterative software development cycles (rather than operating Development and Operations as separate stacks). DevOps is made possible by cloud computing, automation and other technologies. But at a more fundamental level it requires that software and IT teams rethink how they collaborate in an iterative, constantly adaptive way to drive efficiencies and impact. It slashes development cycle times significantly and allows for much more responsive service.
This same shift of mindset has the potential for powerful impact in the realms of marketing and branding. Has the time come to DevOps your brand?
A.I. is changing your brand. Is your brand changing with it?
What’s going on in the market? What’s the strategy? What tactics will deliver on the strategy? Until quite recently, Ritson’s three elements of marketing were the purview of human beings wielding whatever data they could get their hands on. The data was almost invariably incomplete, leading to analyses and conclusions that were, more often than not, largely speculative and generally subjective.
Today, marketing professionals face a somewhat different challenge: mountains upon mountains of data. If you want to know more about your market, your strategy and your most effective tactics to achieve your strategy, there is a good chance A.I. will be your partner in gleaning actionable insights faster and with greater precision than any human could achieve — and do so on a continuing basis.
In an article for Forbes, Paul Talbot looks at some big questions about the role of A.I. for B2B marketers — who have been slower than their B2C peers in embracing the marketing automation revolution. Talbot quotes Steven Cristol, managing partner, Strategic Harmony Partners, a Seattle-based strategy consultancy: “The significance of this pivot, when done right, for B2B customers has already been greater pricing transparency, time compression, and more personalized pre-sale and post-sale interaction — especially for customers who are not major accounts at suppliers with robust account management staffs.”
The types of changes described by Cristol aren’t just cosmetic. When a company is able to move faster, engage more deeply and deal more transparently with its customers, it changes the nature of the promise that is at the core of its brand.
And while Talbot rightly points out that the impact of all this is “tempting to either exaggerate or underestimate,” A.I. is already creeping into every step of the customer journey and experience. And we’re not just talking Netflix or Amazon suggesting films to watch or products to buy. Ben Lamm notes in AdWeek that “Most brand experiences will be delivered through A.I. by 2025. The only question is whether your brand will still exist.” While that sounds hyperbolic, he goes one step further: “A.I. is brand marketing and brand marketing is A.I.” Gartner tends to agree, predicting that 20 percent of business content will be authored by machines in 2018.
Lamm’s point? AI is probably the only way to accurately and effectively bring timely consistency to chaos operating at warp speed. And bringing that consistency will have profound implications not only on how brands are built, grown, defended and evolved — it will challenge some of the fundamental skillsets and beliefs of traditional brand transformation experts.
Branding at the speed of business
Building a brand traditionally involves doing a lot of research around the product / service, the competition, the target market and audience. Then taking all that and inventing an essence — creating a proposition, positioning, core messages, tone of voice, color, typography and other attributes that can be captured and codified in standards to apply across brand marketing, communication and sales assets. Academic research and conventional wisdom suggest that once those standards are in place, the watchword is consistency (ruthless consistency, indeed). Brand consultants wring their hands when the ad agency goes off and creates something off-brand.
Over time, as markets and competitive landscapes shift, personnel change and acquisitions and mergers unfold, the brand needs to evolve and morph, requiring all of this to be revisited, validated, and re-imagined. This too is conventional wisdom.
But “over time” means something wholly different now than it did even a decade ago. The pace of marketplace change is increasing rapidly. Agile is the new rallying cry — not just in IT, but across business units. Consumer expectations are rising — with an emphasis on instant gratification and increased personalization.
Certainly, heritage, predictability and consistency will serve some brands better than others. Yet in the face of this, the idea of a brand that stays doggedly consistent as everything else in the world is changing seems increasingly out of touch.
How can you manage a brand in real time with the agility and flexibility to deliver an exceptional experience and generate loyalty and advocacy when your brand standards and brand management capabilities are evolving at a completely different pace? In virtually every other aspect of enterprise management, technologies like cloud and models such as DevOps are cutting cycle times exponentially. Why is brand management not being treated in the same manner — particularly given that it is part and parcel of some of the critical commercial capabilities that will drive revenue and margin growth?
What if, instead, you began to adapt your brand in real time, DevOps-style?
The future is fluid
The answer may well be what some are calling “fluid branding” or “liquid branding.” And while many may viscerally resist the very idea of it as an undisciplined abandonment of all brand constraints, envisioning the rise of a free-for-all-equity-destroying-Frankenbrand, it’s very likely where brand strategy and management must venture.
What should happen, for example, when your data predict that people will buy 20 percent more product if you use green rather than red … but red is your brand color while green is not permitted in your brand palette? Or when you learn that a certain segment of your audience shares values and responds to messages that conflict with your brand values — but in ways that are not material other than they don’t make a neat fit with your brand guidelines?
These are deliberately broad-brush potential issues, but they cut to the heart of the idea.
While B2C brands are adapting to these dynamics, many B2B brands (and employer brands) are lagging — and lagging at their peril as the line between brand and marketing, marketing and sales grows increasingly blurrier.
The implication is that brands should be prepared to intelligently soften their peripheries without ever losing sight of their core.
In practice, brands could start by identifying what elements of their brand marketing they would be willing to create greater flexibility around as informed by data and A.I. This could be done by identifying segments, subsegments and possibly specific channels where flexibility or enhanced standards could or should be applied — while staying true to the brand’s essence / DNA and core positioning and messaging.
It could be that additional “incremental” brand standards can be created for these subsegments as data and A.I. identify them, and that algorithms could be created to ensure control and consistency within each subsegment. We’re already seeing ads customized to the individual user online — not just in terms of targeting and retargeting, but in terms of the images one person is served up compared to another. Brands will need to be able to behave this way, as well.
In time, just as with marketing automation, the brand A.I. would automate (with human oversight) some branding decisions with the ultimate aim of delivering a consistent, brand-aligned experience while maximizing the brand’s delivery to both the top and bottom line — taking into account real-time, contextual and historical customer, sales and other data. And that’s great, because it means your brand is truly reflecting and engaging your best customers and advocates based on data, not guesswork.
Three emerging principles for brand management in the age of A.I.
- Purpose is king. While there has been a fair amount of “brandwaggoning” (read: less-than-authentic me-tooism) in the purpose-driven transformation space, it’s now more important than ever for organizations to be crystal clear on their core purpose, vision, mission and values — and use them to guide every decision they make.
- Limber up. Consistency is still absolutely essential. But how we define consistency in brand management needs to expand to encapsulate the totality of the experience itself while simultaneously contracting to the level of the individual customer relationship. I’m not saying brand guidelines are not essential; I am saying that they need to be reimagined to accommodate the dynamism and speed of Industry 4.0.
- Radical, real-time collaboration. Let what the data (and other inputs) tell you about your customer impact the edges of your brand ecosystem in real time. Keep one eye on the long-term purpose, health and equity of your brand, but keep the other eye on evolving your brand (and how you manage it) on an ongoing, iterative basis.
That’s why we think that creating this more fluid and dynamic brand management approach could be thought in the same way application engineers think about DevOps: blending skills and capabilities to achieve faster, higher-value results that create competitive advantage.
Bill Gates’ well-known mantra that we tend to overestimate change in the next three years while underestimating change in the coming 10 years likely holds true here. There are brands already on the beachhead, including some household names (Nestle, Google, Facebook, UnderArmor, Disney … ). Elsewhere, brand leaders, strategists, consultants and managers would be well advised to start addressing these issues and opportunities today, even if incrementally in pilots and taking a stepwise approach. What they learn along the way will pay dividends over the long term.
Let’s continue the conversation.
This post was first published in Branding Strategy Insider, November 15, 2018.