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Still Life, Unstill Waters

From the Discomfort Zone: Brand Friendship

Digital technology’s biggest contribution to the world is bringing extreme proximity among human beings.

From the 1970s onwards, entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs started to create a digital interface for customers. From the 1970s onwards, entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs started to create a digital interface for customers.

Religion, it can be argued, is the origin of branding. All religions had intangible ideologies, but they physically manifested with tangible architecture. This comprised the genesis of branding, but without commercial give and take. I’m naming this sanctified unification through fraternal relationships as Brand Friendship. Afterward, when formal monarchies materialised, the monarch’s emblem was the brand that symbolised his power to conquer lands and make people subservient.

Historical perspective: The commercial branding era started in Europe after the 17th century when Christianity liberalised the pursuit of literature, science, art and technology. Following Britain’s 1760 Industrial Revolution, European inventors Louis Vuitton and Cartier, among others, manifested their brands prominently through luxury products that carried their seals. Inventors Karl Benz, Ettore Bugatti and others shaped precision engineering automobile brands. Henri Nestle created milk powder and condensed milk for infants as a substitute for breast milk. European brand creators promoted their brands more prominently globally in luxury and sophisticated engineering categories, not in mass scale production. That’s possibly because scale was not paramount in Europe, which is made up of small nations.

Branding of giant companies: North America’s cowboy branding culture had no monarchical influence, hence a different approach. Hot stamping of American Wild West farm animals was done to identify their different owners. The 19th and 20th centuries saw an American shift towards inventive power by distinctive inventors like Proctor & Gamble (P&G), Thomas Edison (GE), Graham Bell (telephone), James Casey (UPS), George Eastman (Kodak), Charles Flint (IBM) and Henry Ford (automobile). They started with a commercial trademark which extended to stylised graphic branding up till 1960. Giant American companies established their power through such symbols. They mastered mass market production and masterminded the religion of commercial branding with mass scale industrialisation while providing affordable pricing to customers through inventive mass production processes like the Taylor system at Ford Motor Company. The two World Wars helped businesses become global.

So clearly, both in Europe and America, the branding culture started with inventors.

Departure of digi-tech: From the 1970s onwards, entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs started to create a digital interface for customers.That stretched to a new branding dimension with Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others. This led to uncontrollable mass production of digitally driven products and services with cost reduction and no industrial frontier. These happenings created a huge disruption of absolute behavioural change in the human being, what I call the departure of Brand Friendship in the commercial world.

The customer is in command today: Digital technology’s biggest contribution to the world is bringing extreme proximity among human beings. No longer can corporations have commanding power over their customers. Previously, the distance between a company’s boardroom and customers was wide. If your company was expanding globally, you were advised to invest a percentage of your revenue in brand building. You listened as though it is a ritual that cannot be ignored. But did you check how efficacious your brand investment was? Today, in spite of heavy investment, your customers can make you miserable through criticism using the social media. Customers are redefining QCW (quality customers want); no longer is internal industry action driving them. If you listen to and address customers, you are in. Otherwise, like inward-looking Kodak, you are out. By not anticipating human behavioural change, even Microsoft is experiencing business descent.

Usage of desktop computers is drastically falling by 6 per cent annually.

Vital connection medium: As the brand is your first medium to connect to customers, the big question is how to drive it in this digi-tech, social zig-zag world. Traditional marketing ideas of getting brand pull and emotional connect by hiring a recognised brand ambassador and spending heavily to blitzkrieg the media are not valid any more. International statistics show that 70-76 per cent of purchase decisions happen at the point of purchase. So an industry cannot just buy society’s emotion and the media. Your only choice is to create Brand Friendship, which extends beyond the brand’s monetary transactions.

What exactly is Brand Friendship? Its three elements are sorrow, seriousness and smile. The serious fact is that everything in every industry starts from product performance, which should be better than other competitors within a price band. You have to smile to create friendship between the customer and brand in a social context because sustaining your brand’s success depends on it.

Strong proximity with social relevance: Marriage is merely social recognition. If there’s no friendship between a couple, adultery leads to the hide and seek game. After every deceptive trick is exhausted, it may translate into divorce or living together in a cold war-like situation. No friendship between children and parents translates to no trust. Children nowadays live the way they want, while play-acting in front of parents. If you spy on why your adult child did not return home last night, your friendship will definitely disappear. In this contemporary world, is there much meaning between being a minor and adult? How can you stop your minor child from not Googling porn websites in your absence? So a new definition of who the minor is and who the adult is needs to be looked into. Real friendships develop not only in school or college, but at any age, time or with any person when a spiritual connect happens.

At the workplace, whether you are the boss or subordinate, unless a certain friendship exists, the delivery you get will be basic, without that extra mile of passion. Corporate Brand Friendship is extremely important for tomorrow, not just with customers but to develop a friendship with employees. My Brand Friendship idea creates strong proximity with social relevance between the brand and its many stakeholders.

Shombit Sengupta is an international creative business strategy consultant to top management. Reach him at http://www.shiningconsulting.com

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