How to ‘Botify’ Your Brand and Save It From Becoming Irrelevant

Legacy companies that do so often see a sizeable shift in ROI

In an increasingly digital world, perhaps relying on bots could be what brands need to grow. Getty Images
Headshot of Ben Lamm

Web-only brands (often referred to as digitally native vertical brands, or DNVB) are the subject of a lot of controversy. On one hand, we’ve seen impressive exits for companies like Bonobos, but on the other hand, there has been a steady parade of failures in the subscription box sub-category of web-only brands. Birchbox is among the more notable failures, but MoviePass is by far the more entertaining and audacious.

While many in that space scramble to tweak the business model, I think they’re missing the point. If meteoric growth is the goal, the existing models have been working just fine. They have a profitability problem in the long run, but that doesn’t mean you should pass up insane growth rates. Internet Retailer reported this year that the top 75 DNVB’s were growing three times faster than traditional ecommerce. Not 3 percent—three times faster.

You can do wonky analysis about vertically integrated value chains, and you can tabulate the costs and benefits of single-channel sales. If you feel the need to take a forensic look at the business models, go for it. But if you’re looking for real learnings, all you should care about is the growth rate and what made it possible. These companies are running circles around their industry peers because they know how to acquire and keep customers. The formula is pretty simple: design a sexy brand, build a digital infrastructure from scratch and use it to deliver a sticky digital-savvy customer experience.

When large legacy brands launch their first bot, they typically see a fundamental shift in the way their brand is experienced by customers. DNVB’s create that effect in every facet of their operation. It’s built in from the ground up.

That puts legacy competitors in a tough spot, with a lot of tough choices to be made.

Kill your darlings

William Faulkner was famously quoted as saying, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” I’d argue that advice is better suited for business than writing.

Botifying your brand doesn’t mean “digital transformation.” It means embracing a digital-first culture inside your organization and expressing it at every touchpoint with customers.

The whole reason legacy brands die slowly is because they pour all their resources and energy into preserving their existing lines of business. However, there are only so many times you can give a dying business CPR. A better choice would be to euthanize your legacy brand, business and investments early and often. And no, your logo doesn’t get to stick around in the process just because you’ve had it for 20 years. Don’t take my word for it—there’s data to prove that your logo is losing you money.

Get rid of your terrible brand if needed. Change your name; throw out your legacy tech. Kill the lines of business that distract you from your future. Growth is business, and business is growth. Anything else is dead weight.

That’s the first step in “botifying” your brand. Get rid of the stuff that tells your customers you’re a sloth in unicorn clothing.

Free your data—at least little

Clint Boulton recently profiled a huge batch of data analysis success stories featuring companies like Shell, TD Bank and Dr. Pepper Snapple group. For the data poor legacy brands out there, it probably reads as a litany of reasons why they’re struggling to compete.

Here’s the funny thing, though. In all my years in the technology business, I’ve never come across a company that truly failed at counting their cash. When it comes to literal dollars and cents, every business embraces data. Then you shift your focus to customer experience or support, and suddenly few people in those departments know where the data is or what they’re supposed to do with it.

Great brands start with vision, creativity and artistry, but that really is just the starting point. The brands that go on to survive the next few decades will be the ones fueled by data. Not coincidentally, bots and other forms of artificial intelligence run on data.

If you want to botify your brand, you must be able to capture, store and manipulate data to create customer experiences. Engaging your customers online mandates that your company’s data strategy comes out of lockdown mode. Today the CISO (chief information security officer) has near-complete control over virtually every technology purchase. Increasingly, the CISO doesn’t event report into the CIO anymore. Gartner pegs cybersecurity spending at almost $100 million this year, with more growth ahead.

There’s no doubt security is critical, but buying into the cybersecurity-industrial complex is a bigger risk than you might realize. The TJX Companies are doing fine. In fact, they’re heading into their 23rd straight year of sales gains, despite a historic breach. Target stock is considered a bargain buy right now, and holiday sales look just fine. Even Equifax is still kicking.

These are a few of the most historic, egregious examples of security nightmares. Meanwhile, your data science team can’t help you grow because their hands are tied behind their backs. You need to give your data teams some wiggle room and ample budget to operate. They need to be able to do the math. If your chief counsel and CISO start freaking out, ask them what they’d prefer: a 1.7 percent increase in data risks or a modest severance package when the company goes belly-up.

A digital-first culture

The going rate for a 30-second ad during the last Super Bowl went for $5 million. As those ads reliably and predictably get panned by critics and the general public alike, they still get the green light from chief executives. At some point, we need to acknowledge that the 30-second Super Bowl spot is the Hail Mary of dying brands. Meanwhile, modestly priced and strategic technology purchases go through a procurement torture ritual that dehumanizes partners and results in stasis.

Botifying your brand doesn’t mean “digital transformation.” It means embracing a digital-first culture inside your organization and expressing it at every touchpoint with customers. The internet is full of risks and dark corners; there’s no avoiding that fundamental truth. But you still have to loosen up. Consumers expect convenience, engagement and delight when they go online. You can’t create those experiences if you don’t take some risks and try new things.

To botify your brand, you need to reframe your relationship with technology. Have some fun with it, take a flyer on a wonderful new technology, approve a digital campaign that applies artificial intelligence in a novel way. Botifying your brand is the cheapest way to turn your brand into a phenomenal experience. You should manage the risks and make smart choices along the way. Just remember that your customer is telling you what they want, and they don’t just want the right product. They want experiences.


@federallamm Ben Lamm is co-founder and chairman of Hypergiant. (Disclosure: Adweek’s parent company, Beringer Capital, is a minority investor in Hypergiant.) He is also a member of the Adweek Advisory Board.
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