Thoughts from Fast Company Innovation Festival 2017
At this year’s Fast Company Innovation Festival, brands were inevitably at the center of conversation. The speakers all repping an array of industries were speaking either about OR on behalf of a brand analyzing, pontificating and at times, criticizing what the modern day brand is and how it should behave. All of it led to a diverse and passionate mosaic of opinions but there were some primary recurring themes such as Community, Context, and Purpose (specifically pertaining to social impact).
The most exciting, relevant, and interesting brands understand the power of all three- some incorporate all while others incorporate a minimum of one. Today’s consumer expect brands to go beyond the transaction; each purchase, point of purchase and even path to purchase is correlated to something much more personal to consumer. Today’s brands are now emblems of values and self-identification. Those brands that understand the landscape they now inadvertently live in find ways to leverage their newfound power to build more personal relationships with the consumer and thus gaining fans and evangelists for the long haul.
The new (or newish) brands unanimously fawned over nowadays – by the media, by the VC firms pouring Series A,B,C funding into them, by their rabid fan base- tend to have a connecting element: community. In the session “How Glossier, Sweetgreen, Away and Walker & Co. Created Cult Brands”, the aforementioned companies discussed how they’ve created the cult-like following around their young brands. While each of these brands live in entirely different sectors- specifically beauty, luggage and restaurant- all of them have made conscious efforts to connect meaningfully (both in the digital and physical spaces) and continually cultivate conversations with their consumers; some take it a step further and even incorporate their feedback into products produced. Glossier mentioned that 8o% of their growth came from owned channels while Away discussed forming such close-knit relationships with their consumers that they’ve received calls to their sales reps for travel tips. Sweetgreen discussed how vested they are in making their consumers feel a part of their “cooking” process by opening up their kitchens to consumers and making a point to be transparent about local and regional suppliers they use. These are small moves that indicate a much bigger goal in their minds, as their founder, Nicholas Jammet stated, “We want to become the Starbucks of salads.”
Building a community of likeminded fans and collaborators is a goal all these younger brands aim for. Whether it’s through demonstrating shared values or in the case of partnerships for Away, they see their community as apart of a bigger ecosystem they exist in, “We build our brands off the shoulders of the brands we respect. We look at the best brands in their verticals and collaborate with them; a big part of our customer base heard about us through these partnerships.” Similarly, for the fashion brands, Kenzo and Opening Ceremony, which are led by the same team, Carole Lim and Humberto Leon, the collaborators they bring on emphasize the type of community the brand is building and each partnership is a reiteration/reassurance to their core audiences that the brand is still speaking to them. For the Opening Ceremony founders, when they decided to join Kenzo, this meant bringing alongside the famous DNA of the brand they were known for to Kenzo but still respecting Kenzo’s decades-old Japanese heritage. Original fans of Kenzo were both nervous and suspicious of what would ensue but as Lim stated, ‘Being underestimated gave us ammunition. We saw the opportunity with Kenzo as doing something new but doing it our way. We also used it as an opportunity to collaborate with people to showcase our new vision.” Kenzo’s collaborations have resulted in partnerships with auteurs like director Spike Jonze and actress Margaret Qualley for Kenzo, which have undeniably introduced their cumulative audiences to the other and growing both communities.
Experience is an oft-repeated marketing term; interestingly, at the festival, most brands explained that for them, they saw it as intrinsically linked to context. Context into the products/services sold by companies as well as the brand world in which those products/services lived. Providing an interesting experience is an additional layer of the narrative of the bigger brand story companies attempt to tell their consumers. For many DTC brands, this means, opening up physical spaces where interestingly, the primary goal isn’t to sell but instead to further story. For Away, only 30% of the space in their New York retail store is dedicated to selling luggage while the rest is a hybrid café/travel concierge. As their founder, Jen Rubio says, “The ability to build context is how we’ve grown, we’ve been able to build a community around one product. Our goal is to build an experience in each of our stores; sometimes the experience you think they want is not necessarily aligned with you. But our approach is consistently thinking about the story we want to tell around what we do.” Perhaps this is the reason why when referring to physical store or brick and mortar, most of today’s young brands instead call them showrooms (or if you’re a certain tech brand, you call it a “community space.”) Walker & Company (who’ve created the men’s grooming brand Bevel and hair care line, FORM) mentions being inspired by former JC Penny head honcho, Ron Johnson who declared that 90% of his spaces were dedicated to people to NOT buy products.”
Many of these brands also see emerging technology as a big component of the next generation version of retail: in the session, “Inventing the Future of Retail with Foursquare, brandless, Shea Moisture, and Lippencott,” Jeff Glueck, the CEO of Foursquare stated, “According to our data, 92% of consumer activity is still out in the real world. Future AI will not just inform and affect how you live but how you consume; for instance, location data will play a big role in how you interact with a space.” Ideally, nascent technology will make the consumer purchasing experience so seamless that new opportunities in areas such as personal data or tracking will emerge for retailers to explore. While brands must be sensitive to how much information they collect and how transparent they are to consumers, Bonin Bough of Shea Moisture believes, “Consumers are okay with having their data known as long as they are ensured that it provides them value on the other side.” Because the ability to collect information is now so easily accessible to brands, it is incumbent upon them to use it responsibly and in turn, provide a deeper level of service and if they’re savvy, personalization, curation and education. The value exchange must be tipped towards the consumers and if it is, brands will not just obtain monetary gains but loyalty for life.
In two separate sessions featuring brands at very different points in their company trajectory, two brands emphasized the same North Star they were following: purpose. In the session,”Inventing the Future of Retail with Foursquare, brandless, Shea Moisture, and Lippencott,” interestingly, the youngest brand out of the group, brandless seemed to have the biggest goal for their company- to disrupt the economy of food. brandless is a company that debuted earlier this year to a lot of tech and media fanfare; their value proposition was a simple one of selling food and pantry items all priced at $3 direct to consumer via their website. However, as their co-founder Tina Sharkey says, their aim is to “democratize access” by society. While brandless is technically selling commodities in a straight-forward manner and admirable price-point, their bigger impact will be on how other brands react and change their business structure. The direct to consumer model will only continue to grow, encouraging (if not forcing) brands to upgrade their technology on how consumers browse, purchase and receive their goods. Additionally, an overall deduction of all goods may occur, giving a wider access to people of all socio-economic incomes.
While the economical ambitions of brandless is admirable and possibly just another creative route to a quicker IPO, it is also a testament to the weight today’s consumers place on a brand’s value system. Consumers want to contribute towards brands that reflect the lives they want to live and for much of today’s younger generations, this consists of a purpose-driven life (discarding the material for the experiential). A brand that inarguable does one of the best jobs in modern-day business at embodying this mentality is Starbucks. In his own session, the company’s CEO, Kevin Jones declared that Starbucks’ ambition is to “redefine the role of a publicly traded company.” He went on to discuss the company’s long-practiced actions such as giving each barista (or as they call them “partners”) shares in the company, making the commitment to hire 10,000 veterans and their spouses and in Kevin’s case, personally visiting stores in disaster areas to connect with local employees. To today’s ethically and values-conscious consumer, the actions of a conglomerate like Starbucks humanizes the brand; the public doesn’t expect a coffee brand to save the world and they understand the motivations behind any social-impact actions are probably ones to help the company’s bottom line. Kevin admits, “In our social impact strategy, we think about two things: about building our business and growing the brand.” Now more than ever, companies understand their brand is a platform. They can use their platform to solely to sell, but they can also enact positive societal change and affect public sentiment at scale. By committing authentically to causes through actions all levels- from its local employees to leadership- companies can create a more bespoke perception of their brand that goes beyond selling. Consumers will commit themselves to a brand and be loyal to those brands that they ultimately see themselves in.
Not to say that aligning your brand doesn’t come with consequences. In the session, “How NeueHouse is Taking a Stand with Its Brand (and Why You Should too)” with executives from NeueHouse, Sonos and Ivan Wicksteed (the former CMO of Old Navy), while it was agreed that brands do have a responsibility to take a stand on issues, they need to be sensitive to what those issues are and specifically how they insert themselves into the public conversation. For a brand like SONOS, the concept of listening is inherently a part of what the company is about; its CMO, Joy Howard stated, “The rise of authoritarianism and the emergence of big tech isolating people from one another from listening together, these are issues that are a threat to what our company represents. We see silence as a threat.” For a speaker company like Sonos, getting involved in these types of issues makes sense as they’re able to connect their brand to these values they are defending and are thus, are seen as authentic actions.
Purpose and platform come with the territory as a modern brand today. With a consumer base also comes a microphone to a captive audience; it is debatable nowadays who has more reach and influence- Apple or the government? However, with brands more than over approaching their brands with purpose, on a multitude of platforms- whether it be digitally or physically- it evident that he/she who controls the media inevitably controls the message.
What is clear is today’s brand and consumer landscape is unlike any other- not of just ten years ago but of five or even two years ago. The Internet and all forms of technology- from the existing to the emerging- are drastically changing what consumers want, expect and demand of brands. The shifting of the demographical majority are impacting how brands make and market their products and services. And most dramatically, but perhaps most excitingly, what is to come, has never been a bigger questions mark. In the future, will drones be a part of our shopping process? Who will become the next generation’s WalMart equivalent? And how else will the physical store continue to evolve? Only time will tell but at least we’ll know which brands will most likely be leading the way.
Photo courtesy of Fast Company