Branding in a post-digital world: Introduction
Rob Coke, November 2015

Forget your digital strategy – we’re already living in a post-digital world. So what are you doing to help your brand thrive here? Why do you exist, what keeps you relevant, and why should people care about you?

Wait, hang on a minute. You’ve probably got more urgent needs – like sorting out your ‘digital’ strategy first. This talk of being ‘post-digital’ is the last thing you want to hear, right? In brand marketing, many companies seem scared at the moment because of the pace of change.

I don’t want to add to that with another buzz-phrase.

But, as practitioners in this space, I do think our job is to look beyond what’s going on immediately around us. Not to get too caught up with specific platforms and technologies. We need to take a long-term view, based on principles which can be adapted.

We know it’s ideas that get people excited, it’s great content that engages them, and it’s the context those are delivered in that decides how effective it will be. But we also need to be fluent, and to know what’s possible from the tools available. Then we can make good decisions about the best way to present those ideas.

That’s why we’re thinking about this idea of ‘post-digital’ – we want to make sense of where things are going, and to develop strategies that prepare our clients for what comes next. Now that innovation and connectivity part of the everyday, we shouldn’t be surprised by the pace of change. Instead we must embrace it, and think about how it can benefit our audiences.

 

What is the post-digital world?

Post-digital isn’t really a new idea. We started using it recently to explain the way we think about certain brands. But then we discovered it’s been used in the art world for a few years. Russell Davies, the strategist and writer, first mentioned it in relationship to tech entrepreneurship in 2009 – and had to explain it again two years later:

“What will we do when we can take all this connectivity for granted? When it’s no longer special or interesting? What will we build then?”

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Moving beyond the screen

Russell was talking about moving beyond interaction with the devices we know, into creating things that are more personal. He was talking about experimenting with things like Arduino, a computing platform that senses and controls the physical world.

We can see this change around us, from keyboards to touch screens, from Graphic User Interfaces to Natural User Interfaces – in wearable technology and voice recognition. The digital world is moving off the 2D screen and coming more into the real world. So it’s actually becoming more analogue, and more tactile.

Now, we’re moving towards the Internet of Things, extending connectivity into everyday objects. To me, ‘the Internet of Things’ is a strange phrase. I think it’s something we’ll look back on and be a bit embarrassed about, like Victorians calling steam trains ‘iron horses’. But it is important, because now we all understand that desktop computers, then laptops, then phones, games consoles and TVs were just the first machines to have connectivity, and that everything that can be connected, will be.

There are currently seven billion connected devices in the world – within the next decade there will be 50 billion, which means many more ‘things’ being connected. And in the same way that we understand technology is evolving, we start to see that brands that need technology aren’t finished products either, but will always be in development. Old-school branding was about predicting and designing every eventuality up front – and we just can’t do that now.

 

The end of the revolution?

So does ‘post-digital’ mean we’re seeing the end of the digital revolution? Far from it! We think of it in the way we might use ‘post-modern’ – which was a reaction to an austere form of modernism, but built on its principles. In this case, it takes what we’ve learnt and makes it more aligned to human behaviour. The way we connect and communicate is no longer about the capability of technology, but our ability to imagine.

 

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That’s why the Internet has started to really come to life with the advent of pervasive social media. As Paul Adams pointed out in his book ‘Grouped’, the social web took networks constructed around one-way communication and rebuilt them around human behaviour, echoing (and let’s be honest, amplifying) the way we act in real life. The next step is really becoming comfortable with always-on connectivity, and integrating that into our everyday life.

 

Or just the beginning?

But we’re not quite there yet. If anything, we’re only starting to realise how much things are going to change. Because we’re still in the middle of the digital revolution, it can be hard to see beyond it. But it will level off, even if the next wave isn’t far behind it. If we look at the cycles of innovation through history, we always see waves developing, making great advances, then becoming commonplace before something newer kicks in. And we can also see how the rate of change accelerates.

 

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But as most of us have lived through two of these waves, we make comparisons with how we remember things – which is sometimes helpful, sometimes not. And we forget the world has seen this scale of upheaval many times before. Writing in the Guardian last year, Tom Goodwin likened what we’re going through to the advent of electricity:

“Electricity was a transformational element that could change everything, but only when applied at the core.”

At the end of 19th Century, it actually took 20 years for electricity to be put at the heart of business, rather than used as an add-on. So steam-powered machines were still used, but illuminated by electric light. Only when factories started being rebuilt around electric machinery and production lines did things really change.

 

Applying digital at the core

That feels like where we are now – gradually understanding how a world of constant connectivity might look. So when digital is at the core, not just an addition, how will people behave? How will brands behave?

Look what happens when businesses do apply digital at the core of an idea. Airbnb has opened up a whole new way to travel. It cuts out the need for hotels and travel companies. It’s connecting people who have an asset to people who want to use it. More than that, it creates the experience of staying somewhere as a local, rather than a tourist – and it creates a community of people around a common idea. In a way, it’s a move back to a more traditional way of dealing with each other. It’s disrupting whole categories, and it’s changing the way we behave.

This is scary – particularly for established brands – because we see people removing traditional business models from their lives.

 

Brands are about ideas

So, how do brands stay relevant in this world? To answer that, we should go back to an essential definition of what a brand is. There are lots of different ways to describe brands. Jeff Bezos of Amazon famously said:

“Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.”

This is great, because it reminds you that you never really ‘own’ your brand, it exists as an idea in people’s minds. And your brand is still what people say when you’re not in the room. It’s just there are so many different rooms, and everyone in them has an opinion. An opinion that can be spread far and wide very quickly. So you’ve never really owned your brand, and now you really, really don’t!

Going a bit deeper into the idea of a brand, Robert Jones of Wolff Olins says:

“A brand is a set of ideas in people’s minds, shaped by actions, and recognised by a visual and verbal style.”

This is a really practical way to think about brand. A set of ideas tells us why something exists and what it stands for. Then, how do those ideas drive the actions of the brand? What sort of things will you say, make and do? Finally, how do we recognise the style of the brand, across multiple channels, networks and touch points?

To come back to the ideas, the ways a brand should be thinking. For me, the key principle is that post-digital means being more human, and being more human means being led by ideas, because that’s what interests people. So we need to use strategy as a system, to help guide what we do in a more human way.

Over my next few posts, we’ll be looking at five ways to be more post-digital, to be more human as a brand, with examples of brands that are doing it well, and sometimes not so well. First up, is the importance of purpose.