When I went to the BRITE ‘12 (Bands, Innovation and Technology) conference last week, I expected the usual warnings about how social media is radically changing our lives, and, in particular, the rules of branding. Brands need to be tweeting and friending consumers…OR ELSE! After all, the tagline of the conference was “How technology and innovation are transforming the ways that companies build and sustain great brands.”
BRITE didn’t disappoint. The one-and-a-half day event held forums on everything from “big data” to “augmented reality,” to the importance of social media in Middle Eastern revolutions. BRITE even revealed why a robot won Jeopardy! It made me realize how powerful social media has become and think about how there’s more data out there than marketers know what to do with. It also reinforced my feeling that A.I. is kind of creepy.
But has any of this really fundamentally changed branding all that much? Maybe not. Here are some of the takeaways I gathered from the conference:
Lead with purpose
I was surprised that one of the most talked about brands at the conference wasn’t Facebook or Google or even Apple, but Patagonia—a company founded by a mountain climber long before our thoughts were confined to 140 characters and shared with 1,400 of our closest friends.
Patagonia is not admired for its tech savvy or its volume of fans, followers, likes, re-tweets or subscribers. It’s admired for its authenticity and genuine dedication to its purpose, which is to “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Admittedly, it’s easier to donate 1% of gross sales to environment conservation charities when the company is not accountable to shareholders. But it’s certainly not the only brand successfully leading with purpose. Apple, for example, ran their “Think Different” campaign 15 years ago, but this purpose still drives the innovation behind their product development and design.
It was fitting that the conference was kicked off by Bob Garfield’s talk, “The Human Element,” about the importance of trust. Although communications and media platforms have evolved, powerful brands have always been authentic brands. That fact hasn’t changed. Actually, it’s more critical than ever to be authentic now that customers are demanding transparency and brands have nowhere to hide. A perfect example of this is Patagonia’s Common Threads Initiative where the company encourages customers to buy less of its product. While the MBA side of me is trying to justify this with some sort of cost-benefit analysis (But they’re not in the business of not selling stuff!), the human side knows intuitively that it’s right because it’s authentic. That’s just who they are.
So maybe technology and innovation aren’t actually changing the rules of branding after all, but rather making the same rules that brands have always lived by that much more important. Yes, the tools have changed, and they’ll keep changing faster than ever (anyone using Pinterest?). But it would serve brands well to step away from the popularity contest. Remember who you are and what you stand for, and embody that in everything you do. Even when tweeting.
Ling Liu is an associate strategist for the Siegel+Gale New York office.