Brands are classically defined as a promise made to consumers. But is this promise only about functional benefit? No. Brands reside more in the heart than the mind and hence connect on more emotional strings. Do you buy Apple I-phone because it is an Apple and its ownership makes you feel special or because it is better than any other smartphone? Do you buy brands which are lesser known but highly recommended by your friends? Are all our purchases rational?
All consumers are irrational in their purchase and only justify their irrational purchase using rationales. Brands connect with their consumers and find a place in their hearts. However, this is possible only when marketers engage consumers and develop a relationship with them. Brands are actively engaging in co-creation and prosumerism and forming relationship with consumers. This is important because in the competitive landscape the brands are fighting for their share of consumer mind-space and the retail shelf-space.
Branding as a discipline has evolved over the years and technology and social media has radically changed the way brand communicates with consumers and more importantly- the way consumers interact with brands. In traditional marketing, consumers listen to the marketers. The new age technology has shifted the balance of power and brands are more accountable to their consumers now. They are forced to listen and act on their consumers' voice and the opinions.
Brands and branding as a discipline must be more social and approachable to reach out to consumers because social media and technology has led to more direct dialogues with the consumers. They are using the digital platforms to not just interact with brands but also to consume the content. For example, all newspapers besides the print also have online version as many consumers have changed the way they consume content. Marketers therefore need to plan an omni-channel brand strategy. As kids, we remember reading Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) as hard copy comics but today they are present online to resonate with new age technology inflicted kids. Mahindra and Mahindra uses social platform to engage and converse with customers and used the same as anchor media to launch XUV500. Customers see their complaints and query being answered within minutes using social media platforms, many a times by Mr. Anand Mahindra himself. Such involvement from organization confirms the importance of social media platforms in shaping customer perception and uses them as moments of truth to enhance customer experience. Technology has enabled unprecedented level of transparency that has shifted the power back in consumer's hands and made brands more social and approachable.
Manufacturing has become more collaborative and customized. Companies have realized that they need to co-create the brand experience with customers, involving product development, distribution channels and funding. Organizations seek consumer feedback and involvement in product design. Brands like 'W' co-create offerings with consumers. Many food brands like Milkmaid ask consumers for their recipes and promote them by making it a part of their packaging. Even car manufacturers seek consumer feedback to develop prototypes.
Lastly, Ethics and Environment consciousness coupled with customer engagement is forcing brand owners to put ethics high on agenda. Corporate social responsibility is not merely a 'flavor of the season' but a way that defines brand's business. Similarly, environment is no longer an available resource but a responsibility of all brands. P&G's 'Shiksha' initiative adds to brand equity and how it is perceived by customers. The green brand phenomenon has changed the way people consume and perceive brands.
This means that brands need to evolve with customers and markets. They need to focus on innovative initiatives that build responsive brands. Today it's not just an option but responsibility of the brand owner to respond to consumers. Consumer conversations, product customization and synergetic experiences are the key to brand success in future times.
Social branding only confirms the phenomenon that there exists a relationship between brands and the consumers and the domains of social marketing only makes this relationship more engagement, enduring dynamic and involving.
(The writer is Head - Marketing Department, SP Jain Institute of Management and Research, Mumbai.)