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The future of brand engagement

Thursday 7th July saw a group of curious, like-minded brand owners, creatives and marketers gather in the similarly curious Victorian Loft at Lumiere London to consider the impact that technological advancements will have on brand engagement. At present, we’re embarking on what’s been referred to as the ‘4th industrial revolution’. Baffled? Luckily for us, four hours and plenty of lively discussion later, we left feeling full of insight, optimism (and, not to mention, feel-good refreshments). 

Of course, once you start talking about it, it’s not all as alarmingly alien as could be imagined. Yes, we’re talking about the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Reality (VR) and all manner of futuristic concepts that sound like they may have jumped straight out of science fiction. And, yes, rather than these developments being in the pipeline, they are very much becoming a present-day reality… If not already, these new technologies and design methods will completely transform your approach to marketing. The key question on everyone’s lips last Thursday evening was this: in an age of constant change and technological evolution, how can we harness the power of technology and connect with audiences on a more human level?

The future is closer than we think

First up was Paul Ringsell, Director at Beyond, who presented an image of the not-too-distant future – one where cars give way to autonomous transport systems; self-driving cars, drones and renewable energy sources will transform our cities. A world where technology is better at the things we teach it to do than we are (take the case of AI beating the World Chess Champion). It’s easy to see how marketers could get so carried away in the extraordinary opportunities that these developments allow, they could lose sight of the reason for their creation: to enable simpler, more enjoyable experiences for consumers. As technology begins to behave in more human ways, let’s make sure we don’t lose touch with our human side in a hunt for the ‘next big thing’ — user experience should always be at the heart of everything we do.

We’re in a ‘golden age of quality products’

Fellow Beyond Director, Andy Brattle, moves on to discuss how we are at a point where we expect that any product bought will do the job that it is intended to do. Now we want more than that; we want products to meet our emotional needs as well. And the only way to do that is to build an even deeper understanding of our audiences, use this to build meaningful connections, and sell products not only on their function, but also on the feeling attached to the user experience. Apparently, we are exposed to a mind-blowing 3,000 brand messages per day — the only way we can cut through this ‘noise’ is to build a brand following founded on emotional satisfaction. If we look at Airbnb, it’s the feeling of ‘belonging’ and being part of a global community. With Apple, it’s the sense of identity — Apple products are synonymous with efficiency, creativity and innovation. Moving forward, the future of technology will enable brands ever-increasing opportunities to harness deeper emotional connections with consumers.

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Ever-closer integration

Andy talked about the perpetual rise of the smartphone — now an even more popular way of getting online than a laptop. Incredibly, it’s predicted that in five years time, everyone around the world will be able to own one. This will continue to have a huge impact on the way that brands engage audiences — content must be ‘mobile-friendly’, ‘bite-sized’ and accessible on-the-go, and the amount of video content will continue to rise. Wherever we go, we tend to have a smartphone on our person, allowing brands to integrate themselves even deeper into our lives. 

As the gap between consumer and brand narrows, consumers are starting to play an increasing role in the creation of brand content, particularly on social media. Moving forward, brands are not just content creators, they are content curators. If this is managed effectively, brands could harness one of the most persuasive tools in marketing: consumer endorsement. A brand whose story is told through their loyal customers appears instantly more trustworthy and ahead of its game.

Jack Chalkley, Head Creative Technologist at Knit

Next, Jack Chalkley gave us an incredible insight into how brands can use technology in a forward-thinking, outcome driven way by making relevant and engaging connections. #HiutMusic is a unique Internet of Things (IoT) product which combines Spotify, Twitter and Raspberry Pi technology to connect Hiut (a small jean-making company in Wales) with their discerning brand advocates around the world. Not only is this a bespoke and inventive way to enhance brand appeal, it also engages on a human level as fans can interact with workers on the factory floor in a unique and personal way.

The idea is inspired by Hiut’s policy that ‘you can’t make great jeans without good music’, and it works something like this: #HiutMusic is a jukebox, or smart radio, which is powered by Twitter and situated in the Hiut factory. Fans from all over the world are able to request a music track via Twitter, using the hashtag #HiutMusic, and will then get notified as to whether their recommendation has been saved or skipped by the factory workers. The product is designed to align perfectly with the Hiut brand — it is simple, neat, and looks right at home on a wooden workbench. But it’s not as simple as it looks. The jukebox even illuminates different colours depending on where in the world the track recommendation comes from. The further away, the warmer the colour — a track from somewhere like Japan would light up a warm red colour. This product was made possible because Hiut understand their audience; they believed that their customers — the consumers of high-quality, hand-made jeans — were also likely to have a keen and eclectic interest in music. To enhance the relationship between consumer and brand, Knit crafted an innovative solution that kept the consumer experience at front of mind and also offered ample scope for brand amplification via social channels.

Alastair Clark, Race Director at DeadDrop Fitness 

Following Jack was Alastair Clark, the Race Director at DeadDrop Fitness who organise urban adventure races. The events take place mainly in central London, all of between five and 15km long. The concept was developed with the consumer strictly in mind, and this theme continues throughout DeadDrop’s branded communications, regardless of the platform used. As Alastair puts it, there’s a secret ingredient at work here: exercise (resulting in endorphin release), plus social feedback via social media (additional endorphin release) results in the ultimate feel-good factor.

This is true ‘gamification of a fitness event’ — the primary audience are experience seekers rather than fitness fanatics, and technology allows organisers to build the race day into a highly anticipated event by increasing participant involvement in advance and allowing greater emotional investment throughout. Through use of Facebook, organisers can start involving participants as soon as they sign up. During the race, ‘players’ are then encouraged to post on Facebook as they complete challenges, thereby receiving positive feedback via the social platform, while also acting as a brand advocate. DeadDrop have also purpose-built a mobile app that sends clues and instructions to participants in the build-up and during the race — another way that technology has facilitated and improved the user experience. DeadDrop is a fantastic example of how technology can enable a two-way relationship between brand and consumer; more power is given to the user to take charge of their experience, and at the same time users are creating branded content via social media, therefore, acting as advocates for the brand. Everyone’s a winner.

Shifra Cook and Ruth Marshall-Johnson, COIN Research

“People don’t need more data, they need a better outcome” — that was the key message from Shifra and Ruth of COIN Research, a consultancy and think tank that supports brands as they embark on their next stage of growth. COIN is constantly assessing the next cultural developments and how they will impact on people’s lives, so they offered superb insight into the sort of innovations we can expect in the not-too-distant future. We started with PZIZZ — the world’s first sleep and power nap system. PZIZZ is a highly-customisable app that’s designed to help those suffering from poor sleep by using a mixture of neurolinguistic programming, enchanting music, sound effects and binaural beats that can put users to sleep, keep them asleep and wake them up at the most beneficial time. It’s a perfect example of how technology can be used to improve quality of life when the exact needs of the consumer are understood. 

Next was ‘Ticketless Travel’ made possible with an app called MultiPass, which is already being trialled between Cambridge and London Liverpool Street. This game-changing piece of technology allows travellers to turn up and go with no need to queue for a ticket (the best fare is calculated automatically at the end of their travelling day), therefore significantly simplifying the user experience. By integrating the right technology into the appropriate situation, developers have designed a solution that enhances everyday living.

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Shifra and Ruth’s final example was the rise of the 3D industries and how we’re beginning to see a next generation of 3D search engines. Imagine how this could start having a wider impact on other platforms — like Instagram. Will we see a rise of 3D images in classrooms? Public spaces? On our smartphones and tablets? The incredible reality is that these possibilities aren’t fanciful ideas — they reflect a level of technological advancement where, if we have an idea, we can go out and make it happen. Perhaps the question now isn’t so much ‘what’s the next cutting edge piece of technology?’ but more ‘what’s the next big idea for my brand?’ We have more ability to craft magical outcomes than ever before.

A pause for thought

On that revelation we had a brief pause, at which point there was a polite (albeit fairly rapid) move towards the refreshment table. After all, what better way to digest all these remarkable insights than with a fellow marketer over a cool glass of wine and a healthy bag of ‘Smokin’ Pecks’? Our table of ‘feel-good’ treats was a virtuous feast, thanks to a variety of fruit and nut bars from Rude Health, Coconut Pecks from inSpiral and sparkling fruit drinks from Cawston Press.

Over to the panel

A lively Q+A session followed, starting with how to avoid potentially negative impacts of social media — a problem when consumer content isn’t carefully curated. The problem is, people can be troublemakers! So curating content is key. From here, we discussed the need for social media to be consumer-focused over and above everything else, and how it must directly answer the needs of the audience. All too often, brands will push their own agenda, which will undoubtedly disengage audiences. Social media needs to be about making connections with potential customers and garnering a following; there are other platforms that are much more suitable for sales.

We move on to discuss how to combat social media erosion. Again, the answer focused on providing snippets of content that are always relevant and will resonate with the consumer. Of course social media content must also relate to your brand story, but the consumer is the primary consideration. The message here was that social media platforms, like Instagram, are all part of the customer journey, not the end point.

The final question was one that felt particularly relevant to a number of brands present: if our product will win customers over on taste, how can you encapsulate taste within your marketing? The nature of this event led us first to wonder whether we would be licking our phone screens in years to come, although that seems unlikely (particularly considering the statistics on bacterial count). Instead, when it comes to food products, perhaps we need to rely even more on our psychological rather than technological knowledge and focus on sparking the imagination. We came to the conclusion that if a brand were able to bring good memories to mind — like a childhood experience in the kitchen, or a favourite meal, people are more likely to form that important emotional connection to the product. If a brand can be evocative and is associated with a positive feeling, consumers are more likely to enjoy the product experience.

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We wrapped up by thinking about the rise of craft and artisan products and how the user experience can be entirely different to that of products appearing on the mass market. When we consider branding, we usually associate it with growth – increasing customer reach, developing new products, more outlets, more media coverage, etc. This model focuses on profit and makes the retailer, i.e. a supermarket, a central part of the equation. What it doesn’t take into consideration is the rise of the more discerning consumer whose priority is quality, and who will happily visit an artisan bakery or specialist market in order to find the best. Artisan and craft products are becoming increasingly popular, and for high-quality brands that target the health-conscious consumer, and don’t want to compromise on quality for the sake of price (which many feel-good brands are), this market should not be overlooked. Artisan vs. mass-market – two very different journeys with two very different ways of engaging audiences.

It starts, and ends, with customer insight

So concluded our discussion on The Future of Brand Engagement. Although the world of marketing is always changing, and the development of new technology unprecedented, one thing remains constant: all future innovations have more chance of engaging audiences if they provide a solution which truly enhances everyday living. In order to do that, brands need to understand their audiences perfectly and place them right at the heart of everything they do — only then can the best solution be designed. It’s with close understanding that brands are able to harness the power of innovative new technology to cut-through branded ‘noise’ and make a tangible difference to peoples’ lives.