Bob Dylan wrote the album The Times They are a-Changin' in 1964. There is no doubt that back in the early 1960s, the times certainly were a-changin'. They still are. The rate and pace of change in global trade, global communications, global culture and global technology in 2018 is nothing short of stupendous.
What strikes me most is not so much the change, although it is spectacular, as the fusion of global trade, global communications, global culture and global technology. The totem pole of this fusion is the power of global branding. Take Red Bull, a brand whose global success hinges entirely upon using social media to become a cultural and commercial phenomenon.
Red Bull doesn’t take the usual route of interrupting time-constrained and data-bombarded people with an unwanted message and product. In Red Bull’s Stratos campaign, it wanted to generate buzz around the brand association with an adventurous spirit and the breaking of new technological ground. Their audience was the extreme sports crowd so they knew that Felix Baumgartner jumping from space and free-falling to Earth would capture the imagination of their target demographic.
The jump was caught on video so they used YouTube, non-branded hashtags and tweets on Twitter to let people know about it, and encouraging the viral spread of the video by using Facebook Connect to get email addresses in order to publicise the event. Did they know it would go viral? Hmm.
The digital heart of Red Bull’s “extreme branding” is significant given the challenge faced by 21st-century brands in gaining our attention.
Social media and new technologies means you and I can and should be treated differently as individuals, and this demands figuring out how to let us control of product and branding decisions.
Take the example of bringing together 3D printing and social media to customise products. We are moving ever closer to people being able to print off from Facebook a smartphone incorporating the chips, antenna and other three-dimensional components. A feature edition of the Economist has gone so far as to relate digital manufacturing, including 3D printing, robotics and collaboration online, to a third industrial revolution.
The challenge, of course, is that brands need to be prepared to let go and lose control. Many firms display cognitive dissonance based on views that the “old control logic” to managing their products and brands is no longer working but without much clue as how to respond. Some well-known global brands are rising to the challenge.
Take McDonald’s, which is providing brand content to Generation Z (the iGeneration or post-Millennials, born since 2000) users of Snapchat. Sixty per cent of Snapchat’s users are under 25 and one-quarter are of school age. Snapchat offers a fixed and ephemeral messaging service where photos and videos disappear after 10 seconds, encouraging Generation Z users to creatively push the boundaries in manipulating the McDonald’s brand.
McDonald’s is effectively empowering the Snapchat community to deliberately transform their brand. Snapchat users edit multimedia messages provided by McDonald’s, referred to as “snaps” consisting of a photo or short video, overlaying it in irreverent and humorous ways.
For McDonald’s, letting go and losing control of its brand to Generation Z makes sense, given its problems in attracting younger consumers. In many ways they are embracing what ground-breaking thinkers such as Seth Godin have identified as a move away from mass production and mass marketing based on transactional relationships with consumers towards permission-based relationships. These treat people with respect and involve them with branding and product development as the best way to get their attention in a cluttered world.
As Godin notes, when someone chooses to pay attention, they are actually paying you with something precious. Attention becomes an important asset for a brand, something to be valued, not wasted.
In the climatic lines of the final verse of Dylan’s title track on that album, he quips “the order is rapidly fadin’ ”. With the irresistible march of digital into every facet of our lives, and the sophistication and empowerment of consumers, the old control logic of branding is rapidly fading. Like Felix Baumgartner, the space jumper with the Red Bull wings, brands have to jump. And, like Felix, leaving behind what is familiar and known is not always easy!
Prof Geoff Simmons is director of research at Queen's Management School