One would expect that a brand would be social by nature.
If a brand exists in the mind of the consumer, then surely its
modus operandi should be to develop an empathetic relationship with
the people who buy it. This, however, has not always been the case.
Brands used to push out their messages and consumers either
accepted or rejected them; there was no back and forth, no
listening, no dialogue.
Yet in recent years the way people engage with technology,
society, the environment, and manufacturing has changed. Technology
provides an unprecedented level of transparency that is placing
power back in the hands of consumers. Companies are required to act
ethically and in an environmentally responsible manner. They are
also finding that to be successful they need to offer more
customizable products and experiences. All of this has resulted in
a shifting paradigm for brands and branding, which in turn has
changed the branding industry in a number of ways.
To help explain the changes that have taken place over the
years, I typically refer to three waves in history that have
affected the way people relate to brands.
Evolution of branding
The first wave: Subsistence branding
The first evidence of branding dates back to the ancient
Egyptians in 3000 BC. People who grew crops and raised cattle used
branding as a way to identify ownership and assist with bartering.
Not until the eighth century did the term brand come
about—originating from the Old Norse word brandr, meaning
to burn. Farmers branded cattle to show ownership of their
property, and the act of branding cattle with a hot iron was an
early form of branding—an early logo, so to speak.
The second wave: Industrial branding
The Industrial Revolution brought about the next significant
change in 1760 AD. Manufacturers used environmental resources to
mass-produce products for consumers. Brands were distributed in one
direction: from manufacturer to consumer. One-way communication was
also the norm: a message was developed and pushed out to a
customer, creating a monologue (rather than a dialogue) with the
The third wave: Social branding
In the last few decades, technology, the Internet, and social
media have radically changed the way brands communicate with
consumers and—more importantly—the way that consumers interact with
brands. A new transparency has shifted the balance of power between
brands. Brands are finding themselves forced to listen to their
customers, and public opinion has more sway than ever before over
company actions. For example, a British Airways customer was
dissatisfied with the way the airline was handling his father’s
lost baggage. He paid to promote a tweet and within six hours had
generated 25,000 impressions. The next day, British Airways was
compelled to publicly apologize and locate the lost luggage. The
third wave of branding is being shaped by changes in technology,
manufacturing, and ethics.
A new paradigm: Social branding
The role of technology
Technology is driving more direct dialogue with
When Felix Baumgartner successfully completed the first
supersonic free fall from space to earth, his Red Bull sponsor
benefited tenfold. With no paid media coverage on the event, its
YouTube video still reached over 34 million views in less than a
year. Building on this success, Fast Company reported recently that Red
Bull intends to make more money out of content than it does out of
energy drinks in the next five years. By producing on-brand content
that is relevant to its customers, Red Bull has been able to extend
its brand promise of Extreme energy into new frontiers.
Essentially, technology is allowing Red Bull to own—rather than
rent—its communications media.
The same change is also taking place in conventional brands like
DC Comics, which in recent years moved beyond traditional
paper-based comic books to build a brand that is omnichannel. Now,
the brand is just as comfortable in digital and physical
environments as it is in print or film.
What DC Comics understands better than most is that people who
like comic books are fans—not consumers. Its website’s fan zone
allows viewers to offer opinions, and DC Comics evolves its
characters to keep fans engaged. So when the audience decided that
Superman’s relationship with Lois Lane was old news, the new
Justice League series saw Superman ditch his former flame to take
up with Wonderwoman.
DC Comics demonstrates that content is still king in the
technological age. Brands can use technology to develop brand
stories and engage in meaningful interaction with their
The role of manufacturing
Manufacturing is becoming more collaborative and customized. In
order to succeed, companies are finding that they need to cocreate
with their customers in ways previously unimaginable; this not only
involves product development but also distribution channels and
If you visit the Nike ID website you can see that consumers have
become co-manufacturers. Visitors are customizing sneakers to their
particular needs—and for a slight premium, they are choosing every
detail down to the shoelace color, and having the Nike shoes
delivered to their door.
People also have new options for acquiring their products, from
in-store purchase to home delivery or online showrooms. Pampers,
Procter & Gamble’s largest global brand, now sells more product
online through Amazon than it does through Walmart in the United
Seth Godin, author of Tribes and Purple Cow,
decided to go directly to consumers to fund his next book. Using
Kickstarter, an online funding platform for creative ventures, he
raised more than $250,000 from readers in the first week, which in
turn secured him a book contract with his publisher.
The role of ethics and the environment
Greater transparency is also forcing brand owners to put ethics
high on their agenda. Corporate social responsibility is no longer
a buzzword, it’s now an integral part of how a brand should do
business. And the environment is no longer a resource to be used to
deliver a product, it has now become a balanced part of the
Brands like Toms Shoes are demonstrating the power of putting
social causes first. When Blake Mycoskie was travelling in
Argentina in 2006 he noticed that many underprivileged children had
no shoes to protect their feet. In response he created the
one-for-one movement: for every pair of shoes purchased on Toms
website another pair goes to a child in need.
Ikea describes its environmental program as the “never-ending
list.” Rather than create a series of one-off obligations, Ikea has
built a culture of social responsibility that is an ongoing and
integral part of how it does business.
Timberland has also become increasingly transparent in
communicating its initiatives and the changes made to its workforce
welfare over the years. Visitors to its website can locate factory
addresses, creating a new level of transparency about where
products are made. The company also runs several initiatives to
help communities in Vietnam, where many Timberland factories are
The future of branding
So, what does this mean for the future of branding? Companies
need to evolve. They need to focus on innovation initiatives that
build more responsive brands in a fluid environment. Many firms
still treat digital media as its own work stream, separate from
innovation. However, in an era where consumers expect a
conversation with brands, all businesses are digital businesses and
need to adapt accordingly.
We’ve come a long way since the Industrial Revolution. The
balance of power has shifted between brand and consumer, making it
the responsibility of brand owners to respond. Meaningful dialogue,
product customization, and bespoke experiences are the key to
future success. Moreover, corporate social responsibility is now
more than simply lip service. The new paradigm of branding—social
branding—bodes well for us all as we move toward greater dialogue
between brands and people.