What a difference a year makes. As we bid farewell to 2019 and prepare to enter a new decade, what is top of mind for leading branding experts? To gather insights, we spoke with leaders across our global offices. Whether it is brands taking a stance on hot-button issues, or states across the US preparing for stringent privacy laws to a surge in experiential retail, the one commonality is how listening to your customer remains to be the best starting point for brand building.



Shifting from neutral to taking a stance

It will be challenging in 2020 for high-profile brands to sidestep hot button issues. Consumers are holding brands to stringent behavioral standards. As we enter an election year, we will see more brands not only take a stance on topics like sustainability, gun control and inequality, but applying their resources, skills, and talent to addressing issues, others are not. Winners will successfully align societal-citizenship, their own brand purpose and the values of their customers.

Howard Belk, co-CEO + Chief Creative Officer


Leading with brand authenticity now more than ever

We live in a world where consumers are increasingly skeptical about the breakdown between what organizations say and what they do—and they’re not shy in expressing their dissatisfaction (in words and dollars!) with just a few clicks on their preferred device. In this environment, a significant opportunity is afforded to brands that lead with authenticity, that is, align their promises and their actions. Basic stuff, like promising only what they can deliver—or not saying or doing anything that the CEOs wouldn’t be ashamed to tell their respective grandmothers. Authenticity in brand building, pure and simple, has moved from business hygiene to an opportunity for real differentiation for those willing to embrace it. And the reward is enhanced brand equity, customer loyalty, and marketplace differentiation. Tried-and-tested brands such as Ben and Jerrys, Newman’s Own and Burt’s Bees remind us of this every day.

David Srere, co-CEO + Chief Strategy Officer


Prioritizing bravery as a differentiator 

In our unpredictable and unstable world, bravery is no longer the purview of caped crusaders. I believe bravery is an essential though rarely explored capability–one that all brand leaders will need to develop in 2020. Prioritizing bravery challenges leaders to seek out unproven solutions to familiar problems; be the lone voice, advocating what is right for the brand, its customers and the planet; or exemplify humanity by committing to inclusive marketing. A conscious focus on bravery is what our brands and our society need most right now.

Margaret Molloy, Chief Marketing Officer


Brands adapting to a new age of privacy

2020 will likely bring data privacy laws to more states across the US, in the same fashion as the California Consumer Privacy Act and Europe’s GDPR. It will become much harder for brands to track marketing effectiveness and ROI by leveraging their customer data and individual online data, which only a few years ago was the breakthrough in linking marketing to sales. So, 2020 will be the year of brands figuring out how to get out of a new Dark Age of privacy. Ultimately, the ones that have earned trust and demonstrate the value of customers sharing their data with them will come out ahead. In the meantime, traditional opted-in market research could have a resurgence.

Brian Rafferty, Global Director, Business Analytics + Insights


The emergence of new social clubs for brand building

While some platforms like the recently-announced Cocoon have been designed to capitalize on this impulse, they’re hardly the first. Slack, which still maintains it’s an Enterprise tool, has seen adoption as a private chat tool, especially for networks based around shared interests (e.g. alumni networks, or professional interests). The rise of email newsletters, too, represents an impulse towards communication, but a retreat from public publishing platforms like Medium. The common thread here is a desire for deeper connection, and a sense of community. Implicitly, it’s also a rejection of brands: people are looking for somewhere they can be left alone.

–James Barnes, Associate Director, Experience Design


Speaking with purpose across all touchpoints 

Our roiling political and cultural environment presents an opportunity for brands to define, or redefine, a clear, compelling brand purpose. A purpose that comes from within, so that it helps shape communications, across touchpoints, that resonate with target audiences. Think Southwest, for example: its communications almost always reflect the brand’s commitment (and aspiration) “to become the world’s most loved, most flown, and most profitable airline.” The louder and more discordant the noise around us, the greater the need for brands to express themselves with clear intent. Starting with purpose is the simplest, most powerful way to do so.

–Billy Kingsland, Group Director, Brand Communication


Old school meets new school: A rise in experiential retail

Whether they’re brick-and-mortar or online, more retail brands will realize that “experience” is a key emotional driver when it comes to attracting emerging demographics. The ability to enjoy a shared experience with friends, and see, feel and touch products in a curated setting will overshadow the convenience of grab-and-go. From Macy’s colorful, narrative-driven retail concept, “Story,” to Toys “R” Us focusing on smaller stores with immersive experiences, like interactive toy demonstrations, the brands that will succeed in the future will not only evolve to meet customers’ desires but also trigger emotional connections with shoppers.

–Leesa Wytock, Group Director, Experience


Simplifying messages in real-time

An essential tool in employee engagement will be a purposeful evolution in how we serve and consume information on a daily basis. The majority of people are already tethered to their smartphones, so it is only natural to refine knowledge into quick, bite-sized pieces versus having employees thumb through long-winded documents. It’s our job to unlock ways that serve content that will be useful and applicable to a diverse workforce, whether it’s those working remotely, gig economy workers, or a growing inter-generational workforce comprised of Millennials and Gen Z-ers.

–Kerry Held, Strategy Director, Employee Engagement


A more sophisticated approach to brand governance

Brand governance will remain a major focus for clients in 2020 and beyond. The trick with managing a brand is that it’s not a one-size-fits all proposition. From caring for organizational brand fluency, distinct compliance requirements, risk management responsibilities, all the way to influencing employee culture—different types of organizations across unique industries have specific brand governance model needs. Brand building teams need to stay ahead of the curve in a landscape of channels and activation opportunities that are evolving at a fast clip. They need to remain in the driver’s seat when it comes to the way their brand comes to life in market, but also to foster strong, trust-based relationships across their organizations. The challenge is to find the balance in their role as supporter, influencer and collaborator

Lauren Thebault, Director, Activation



Retaining existing names in healthcare M&A

As healthcare companies continue to attempt to cut costs and provide a better customer experience, the pace of M&A activity will continue in the coming year. Which prompts the eventual question: What does the new combined brand stand for and what does the new company call itself? Up until now, we have observed a tendency toward “new company, new name.” But in 2020, healthcare leaders should consider exploring the retention and extension of one of their existing brands during M&A. This demands deeper research of brand equity and stretch of both entities. Hopefully, this will lead to more companies retaining one of the existing names, refreshing their brand story, and giving the brand new, expanded life.

Aaron Hall, Group Director, Naming



Japanese brands will go for the gold in 2020

Seizing an upcoming Olympic opportunity, many Japanese companies are preparing to introduce–or even reintroduce–themselves to the world to seek fresh growth. In 2020 Japanese brands seeking success on a global stage will focus on leadership commitment, bringing global perspectives to the table and taking a broader view of the power of brand building. However, savvy brands will not merely spend big dollars on the Olympics to drive long-term ROI. Successful global businesses drive consistent experiences that are as powerful to a person in Japan as in Silicon Valley. Smart brands will utilize the Olympics as a stepping stone in achieving that vision.

Jason Cieslak, President, Pacific Rim


A fresh focus on adjacent audiences

As our attention becomes more fragmented, people are seeking communities they can belong to. Savvy brands will take note. Peloton Interactive, the home fitness company, has an active and engaged 200,000+ Facebook group. But the company doesn’t limit the closed group to its customers – it allows anyone to join, ask questions and be part of the conversation. Just recently, a 64-year-old woman posted that she and her husband are looking at buying a bike although neither have taken a spin class and the husband has arthritis and bursitis. Within four hours, there were more than 50 comments from people with advice, encouragement and similar ailments. Brands that sell a community to be a part of, contribute to, and learn from, are the ones sure to stand the test of time.

–Gina Kim, Group Director, Brand Communication


Brands will co-author user experiences

While 2019 saw a rise of co-promotion (e.g. Lyft and ADT partnered to help riders contact security if they don’t feel safe, Mastercard talked about their work behind Apple Pay, etc.), 2020 will see a rise in experience co-authoring. Brands will take a merger approach to these experiences, bringing together not just their logos, but truly defining what it means to talk, act and think as a partnership. The result being both brands sharing in the benefit and shouldering the responsibilities of the experience–and a more seamless user experience.

Jenna Isken, Associate Director, Experience


Empathy as the cornerstone for innovation and experience

In 2020, we will see the world’s top brands shifting gears to focus on empathy as a differentiator. As organizations realize that empathy drives hard outcomes and is the cornerstone of meaningful customer experiences, it will no longer be seen as only a soft skill. Seeing something different than our own view, learning from another’s perspective, stimulates innovation. Experience is amplified by seeing and hearing the activity around us, relating to the people we serve. Empathy is a driving force of human connection building trust, fostering loyalty and delighting customers. In order to create memorable brand experiences and customer relationships, brands need to start with the heart. Leaders will be chartered to embrace an empathy-led leadership style resulting in improved employee engagement, inspiring a more motivated and connected organization, ultimately a brand’s pathway to success.

–Shana Orth, Group Director, Account Management 



The intersection of government and brands

China’s macro-economic environment will be tested over the next year, and in turn, brands too will face their own unique challenges. For example, the financial and automobile sectors in China are in a state of flux with ongoing adjustments and reshuffling. But the Chinese government is encouraging and supporting brand development, and large state-owned and central enterprises have also begun to understand the importance of brand-building. I am looking forward to seeing how the government and brands can partner to weather the shifting landscape. With more brands recognizing the value of simplicity, there’s ample opportunity to embrace and apply the philosophy as a means of driving the customer experience.

Johnson Gu, General Manager + Executive Creative Director 



The ABCs of 2020

I see an ABC for 2020, where each will be equally impactful internally and externally to business––in fact those lines will increasingly erode. AI impact will continue by changing how organisations run and manage their own and their customers experiences. B Corp brands will become more and more prevalent as they seek clarification to demonstrate authentic commitment to a purpose-led strategy and culture. Chat will take centre stage, when instead of talking at the world a measure of a successful brand will be how they can make the world talk.

Philip Davies, President, EMEA


Bold choices will build stronger loyalty

Throughout this decade, transparency moved from aspiration to expectation. Brands that have mastered it conquered the last ten years. Clear terminology, genuine promises, and refreshing surprises people easily “get,” have been the signatures of a great brand experience. But now that people aren’t fighting the battle of understanding, they focus increasingly on what you say. Winning brands will have to make bold choices to stand for (or against) something. Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign is a poster child. What some might call controversial Nike calls a win — and so does their bottom line. Great brands are following suit. Think HSBC UK’s “We Are Not an Island” campaign — a slap in the face to Brexiteers. The British military is calling out the positivity of “snowflakes,” “selfie addicts,” and “Me Me Me Millennials” in an effort to join their ranks. Many brands are afraid of the backlash for taking a bold stance, but it’s becoming key to success. Keeping your loyal customers fanatical pays bigger dividends than trying to please everyone. Just ask the British Army. Despite the criticism from conservative and liberal hardliners, their applications have doubled.

–Nick Miller, Senior Strategy Director