The Future of Branding Is Now

I was in Cannes the other week. Not too bad, I guess. One night at an event hosted by a media company, I had a brief conversation where I was asked one of the questions I get asked at these sorts of things, where I am the “interactive guy” amongst the “ad guys.” Usually this question is “What’s next?” which I mostly take as an icebreaker. But this time it was phrased slightly differently. This dude was smart, and I was talking to him about being in the future business — doing the new thing right now, and attempting to be capable of doing the new thing five years from now, which necessitates a certain open-endedness to your world view and business model. He asked me, “Isn’t it more difficult today to see what’s coming one or five years out than it has been in the past?” This was an awesome question because the answer is definitely NO!

It was more difficult before to predict what was coming next. Five to 10 years ago it was a massive struggle to validate what the Internet was good for, and the people that took it very seriously in the early days of online marketing were wildly experimental, and hoping that collectively our efforts would lead us and the industry to a place of, for lack of a better term, validation. Mostly because we really think the Internet is the best thing ever and is world-changing and exciting and, goddamn, how come everyone else doesn’t think so too? We spent years wondering why everyone was not as excited as we were, how come agencies and brands weren’t ditching TV campaigns in favor of the obviously more exciting online campaigns, new things that our audience actually loves and seeks out and shares? Gosh.

Well, it’s finally happened, more or less. The Internet is not an experiment anymore. The reason it’s official is not even our industry’s doing; it’s our audience’s. The Internet is most definitely integrated into our audience’s daily lives in a meaningful and, more importantly, subtle way. It is normal. Your mom Googles. We’ve moved from making online work that was a novelty — totally appropriate when the medium itself was a novelty — to work that acknowledges that the Internet is for everyone and that people love it, need it and use it in a million different significant ways.

The brands that have historically achieved the most permanence are the giant ones that can afford to have an ad in a medium that hits your eyes once or more a day every day. The branding (hopefully) accumulates over time, but the messages themselves are disposable, mostly randomly distributed and, as a result, strictly temporary. These old media are temporary. Brands, however, are permanent. The good news is that, in the Internet, we finally have a medium that’s permanent.

On to the future! It’s actually easy to figure out what to do now, to draw a map. So easy. Here it is: Now is the time to start doing work online that sticks around for a really long time, to see the Internet as the one constant in a brand’s life, to realize that every action a brand takes will exist forever online, that it is in fact the foundation of every bit of communication and strategy your brand or client does. It’s time to step up and be proper agents for your brand, and build a modern, tangible future for it.

I’ve been thinking about “agencies” a lot lately, and what that means. The agency-client relationship is like a marriage: to shepherd the brand for the long term, through thick and thin, in sickness and in health, to take the long road to building something that will last. That’s what every brand really wants: some promise of the future, help with sticking around, keeping customers, getting bigger and better. But the means of communication have been temporary.

Any media-based advertising is hella expensive to keep in front of people’s eyes, and everyone’s always refreshing the ads and worrying about the short-term effectiveness because it’s all so very expensive — so expensive to keep that spot running on air, that ad in print, that billboard up. And so fickle, because brands have been existing in fits and starts in these temporary media. No wonder CMOs freak out and quit after 18 months. No wonder brands switch agencies at the drop of a hat.

The Internet is the solution to all this. If you build something meaningful — be it entertainment or utility or community or a nice brochure — and successfully connect the brand with its audience, you’ve made something that works for you rather than against you. We should make our big-picture decisions for a brand online with the idea that what we’re making needs to work for a really long time, with a central strategy that will be the heart of the brand, and that everything stems from that.

There will still be a need for campaigns of all sorts — to remind our audience that the brand exists, to get someone’s attention, to announce a new product or endeavor — but what nobody had before was anything concrete to associate with the notion of “brand value.” That’s been a bullshit term that you had to pay researchers a bunch of money to turn into a PowerPoint presentation to prove that it’s true; there was not a real thing out there that was the living, breathing “brand.”

But guess what? We’ve got that now: It’s on the Internet.

Benjamin Palmer is CEO of The Barbarian Group.