The greatest change branding agencies have faced in a generation

The digital transformation of today’s brands has forever changed the branding agencies that work for them, says Principals' Tim Riches.

Once upon a time, a branding project would be triggered by a merger or a demerger, shifting competitive dynamics or maybe even a scandal. But digital transformation in itself has become a driver for brand change. It’s an entirely different trigger, as it’s typically tactical rather than strategic.

When organisations begin a major digital transformation, at some point, they will start looking at visual concepts of new websites, apps and so forth. That’s often when the discovery is made that the brand isn’t really standing up in those environments.

For a long time, brands were purely designed to function in communications channels. It was a question of how the brand would look and sound in advertising, on corporate documents, as signage or in stores or branches.

However, we now find ourselves in an age where people expect great experiences and the brand has to work across a demanding range of channels that are about more than simply looking distinct and consistent.

How a brand functions in digital and human interfaces has become increasingly important because it links to service and delivery, whether that’s an app that helps consumers read gas meters or the process of sending a parcel.

Branding 101 hasn’t changed. The overarching strategic goals of branding – defining a clear sense of identity and achieving differentiation to drive preference over competitors – remain the same.

But the shift toward experiences has permanently altered how people assess ‘different’ and ‘better’. No one ever recommends a brand on the basis of seeing an ad for it. They recommend a brand based on an experience they have with it, and whether their expectations were exceeded

For a branding agency to meet these brand challenges, we need to be able to get a wider range of touchpoints working together to reinforce the brand. We must create brand strategies and design tools that build bridges between what the brand promises and what it delivers. We want distinctiveness in as many facets of the experience as possible, not just in the promise.

To do this, we need to speak the language of insights, service design, culture change and digitisation – even if we’re not leading the delivery of these projects.

And this poses a challenge as traditionally, branding has been all about helping our clients identify what makes them unique, but the principles of user experience often drive familiarity.

So how do we build on best practice and usability but still help brands to be distinctive overall? It’s a challenge modern branding agencies grapple with daily.

From a client point of view, it’s a never-ending chase to get ahead with digital. The cycle of digital transformation isn’t about to finish for brands any time soon.

But for agencies, this period of digitally-led change will come and go, and it’s set to leave us transformed. We’re going to be multilingual across these different realms of design thinking and doing.

The lasting effect will be greater digital and human-centred design capability, built on a foundation of systematic creative thinking. We’ll still be champions of differentiation, but we’ll have a wider field than ever to play in.

In short, it’s a change that needed to happen and one that will make those branding agencies that can marshall the right capabilities more relevant than ever before.

Tim Riches is the group strategy director for branding agency Principals.


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