the tension between brand and digital

Post it sorting at Mozilla with UNICEF UK volunteersThere’s been many debates over the impact of digital on brand and reputation. Only recently, it cropped up in a few different ways during a workshop I was involved with organising. Given this, I thought it was time to pull together some thoughts on the theme.

To give a bit of context; the workshop involved a diverse group of UNICEF UK fundraising volunteers playing around with a new Mozilla product. Appmaker helps almost anyone build a mobile web app. It’s still in an experimental phase but already quite progressed compared to the version I helped shape at mozfest last year.

Brand Vs digital

When this issue crops up its still typically presented as opposites. But like most things I’m not sure its helpful to see this as an argument with ‘sides’. This introduces a sense of competition rather than partnership or evolution.

In the workshop this sense of opposition was clear in most of the concerns raised, for example ‘what about your brand if volunteers are creating apps without your involvement?’.

Here’s a break down of the underlying tensions that crop up regularly and the real world factors as I see them.

Look and feel

What: The sense that anything not created by the brand owner is going to be poor quality or inconsistent and that this will damage the organisation.

My perspective:

Most “average joe’s” spend less time looking at your stuff than you do. Anything more than a minor problem is likely to be spotted quite quickly by today’s savvy consumer so the risks here are contained.

The democratisation of technology also means its easier to support non-designers to create reasonably consistent and good quality material if you put the right toolkit in place. If you don’t proactively put a toolkit out there you have to expect more variation and ‘dodgy design’ as people enthusiastically work out ways to hack it for themselves.

Sometimes a person outside the organisation can be more authentic and creative, and therefore more effective. Rather than spending hours trying to include authentic voices, empowering others means you’ve already done that legwork and created a sustainable model.

Open to abuse or untruths

What: The sense that people will use their new power to create an authentic looking app or other digital material to say or do something that’s not right, either on purpose or accidentally. Common concerns are that users will say something on behalf of a brand that isn’t true or funnel money or data into the wrong place.

My perspective:

This is definitely a risk, but its a risk that has always existed. Anyone could knock on a door and claim to be from a particular organisation by brandishing a printed leaflet. Educating consumers has always been a need. Today’s technology may have magnified the problem in some ways but it can also be a part of the solution.

Digital tools can provide ways to ‘lock-down’ elements of the setup so they can’t be tinkered with. Additionally there might be some sort of notification that gets sent to an organisation when certain actions take place meaning there’s a transparent audit trail.  An example with Appmaker is that UNICEF UK could possibly create a default ‘donate’ component that links directly to UNICEF’s secure payments and database.

There are also ways that digital can help to authenticate individual users are who they say they are. For example with Appmaker we could possibly create an electronic badge system where the unique badge can only be earned by genuine fundraising volunteers who have been in touch.

Finally, if there’s anything suspicious the thing about digital is that the genuine website and contact points for the brand are just a click away. As I said earlier, consumers are savvy, it’s fairly frequent that we get emails and tweets @unicef_uk checking if something is really authentic.

Aligning priorities and messages

What: The sense that you can’t keep control over key messages and timings if you’ve empowered others to act on your behalf and tailor their material/s for their own community.

My perspective:

If any of these concerns gets me the most riled up it’s this one. By consciously losing a little bit of control you gain the ultimate benefit that marketing seeks; you become a more integrated part of people’s lives. By being malleable to the interests of users you become more relevant and interesting to them personally.

Not forgetting that you continue to control the primary digital channels for your brand and can communicate the priorities to anyone who you’ve empowered. You might also reserve a place in your digital toolkit that will automatically update from central messages.

There’s not many (any?) moral ways you can control conversations or minds so this risk has always been an aspect of marketing.

Do you need designers and brand managers?

Don’t get me wrong, all of this doesn’t mean you can do away with designers or brand specialists. They can create the toolkit, focus on the big picture and keep pushing forward with more cutting edge work. They have a powerful role in making an ecosystem of digital empowerment real.

Digital can magnify the impact of designers and brand managers which is why it befuddles me that this topic still comes up in the language of arguments.

One thought on “the tension between brand and digital

  1. Really interesting thoughts, Lailah, on an important issue. You are right, it’s most definitely not an ‘either/or’ debate. The examples you give illustrate the inherent challenge that the digital age brings to perceived wisdoms about brand identity.

    Another way of framing the debate is to think of it in terms of how digital impacts the very essence of who you are and how you behave as a brand. This translates into questions about how the values and behaviours that underpin the identity might need to adapt. Being ‘digital’ can, of itself, become an explicit attribute of the brand.

    None of this will necessarily mean a change to the visual identity or the messaging, but it might mean adapting brand behaviours – i.e. how you respond and interact with your audiences.

    I would argue that if your ‘brand’ is stopping you being digital first, then the hard truth is that your brand is due a review!

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