We are living at a time where technology is advancing much quicker than brands and designers can keep up with. For the first time ever, brands are being forced to react to technological developments, rather than lead or develop in tandem with them. This is because the latest technology is challenging the very notion that brands are primarily visual entities. Instead, we’re being steered towards an exciting yet unchartered territory: invisible brands.
If you start at design school today you learn a visual way of communicating: logos, identities, photography, colour schemes, typography. In the past, we would use these visual means to push brands forward: new visual concepts, changing logos and showing the future in a visual way, like the daring 2012 London Olympics logo did. But technology is now taking us beyond visual brands. For example, brand loyalty is now influenced far more by the experience a brand provides, rather than how it looks. Take Uber for example. Meanwhile, the success of Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri have opened up the world of a purely audio branded experience – which presents some exciting opportunities, as well as daunting challenges, for brands.
The opportunities of audio
If you ask Alexa to buy you some water, Alexa will probably get you the brand that Amazon have the best deal with, unless you specify exactly what brand you want. Similarly, with the development of fully automated homes becoming a reality, consumers will have to be pretty brand loyal to ensure that your digital assistant orders a particular brand of product or choses a particular service provider. In this kind of audio consumer world, how a brand sounds and how it exists and communicates in an audio environment is far more important than how it looks, and it’s through audio that brands can continue to connect to consumers as technology shifts. A complex sonic identity will get more and more important as we can talk to brands, have branded music banks and, as the navigation system screens in our cars get smaller and smaller, why not have jingles for a coffeshop or gas station along your route?
Stubb’s BBQ sauce is a fun example of a brand dipping their toe in the world of invisible branding. They’ve developed the Alexa skill ‘Ask Stubb’. Once downloaded, consumers can ask Alexa for recipes from the founder, listen to his favourite tunes, get cooking tips and tricks, and importantly order more sauce at any time. It doesn’t take a branding genius to realise the advantage that this gives Stubb’s over competitors who don’t have an audio presence.
Don’t get me wrong, I think brands will always need a visual element. After all, how a product looks once it’s arrived in our homes is still crucial. But as consumer habits shift away from the screen, audio is becoming more and more important when it comes to informing consumers’ buying decisions.
While a world of invisible brands opens up new opportunities to engage with consumers, there are also some potential threats to brands. Whatever digital assistant consumers use to order their shopping or control their home can potentially take big decisions on their behalf, such as chose which energy company they use.
If Nest, or any other smart applications that regulates your thermostat, could talk and propose better deals, which energy company will it suggest? Will it know that an environmental conscious offer is more important to me than saving money? This ‘cutting out’ of direct communication with the brands in question could happen across all product categories, resulting in a monopoly where a small few brands will take more and more of the consumers’ bandwidth.
Some experts have even proposed that audio assistants like Alexa will mark the end of brands. But I believe it could trigger the opposite and open up a whole new way for brands to communicate with consumers. Brand loyalty will be the key factor and brands will have to start thinking right now how to create experiences and exist in the world of invisible brands.
It’s down to agencies to discover the best ways for individual brands to exist in this new environment. Crucially, we need to start thinking about brands in many more dimensions than we do currently, and do this with an understanding of how technology can connect with consumers beyond visual means. The future lies in working out how to harness, tailor and customise this technology for the benefit of brands. To lead the way where technology is heading, instead of chasing after it.
The evolution of branding will mean to consider all touchpoints, all technologies. At the moment, I don’t think enough of the industry is fully aware of the opportunities that invisible branding can offer. The agencies that can offer a full package completely aligned with the latest advancements in technology, will be the ones that survive.