How to build brand relevance in the connected economy

The challenge of retaining brand relevancy and how organisations are adapting their organisational structures have been called into question by some leading industry journals.

First off, digital leadership academy L2 suggests the way brands are being built is being reshaped, in part due to consumers’ digital habits bypassing brands completely and opting for the likes of Amazon and Google to satisfy their needs and requirements as the tools of discovery.

Couple this with the second point by Convince and Convert – a strategic marketing organisation working with global brands – that the organisational marketing chart is broken.

Both points are converging to highlight the need for more brands to start making tougher decisions in order to safeguard their very futures; and that it’s the customer taking centre stage and orchestrating how a company should operate if it wants to keep and appeal to its users as well as retain relevancy.

It’s the brands that have moved the customer to the centre of their strategies who are now leading the way and this article will feature a few examples of how and what they are doing. It’s been a long journey for the customer to become the heartbeat of what and how an organisation in the connected economy operates.

The journey to the connected economy

Let’s rewind back to the start of the industrial revolution. It was a time when processes, physical labor and sheer output were the key drivers for the success of companies.

At this time, it was the companies that held the upper hand. They could create (and get away with) average products, there was not a need to invest time and effort in understanding what the customer’s thinking was and there was no demand or attention given by their employees to feedback suggestions or product enhancements; after all there was no alternative and little competition.

The industrial revolution was a period that provided a platform for high growth and high reach; it was the perfect platform for multi-national companies to build a global footprint simply by “buying up” as much advertising space as possible through the limited broadcast channels available to reach the customer eg TV, radio, billboards. The odds were stacked against the 'startup' trying to cause change and disrupt markets or indeed the consumer wanting an alternative product or to receive better customer service.

Employees were expected to 'follow the manual', be compliant and fit into the cog of the organisation; creativity, connection and initiative were not needed and certainly not seen as an asset.

What we're seeing today is the birth of 'globalisation 3.0', defined by the shifting of power from the organisation to individuals. In his book The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman claimed that the industrial-era organisation is being replaced by more connected organisations who are open to collaboration, building external relationships in globalised markets and listening to their audience, their users.

Moving from the industrial revolution

The move from the industrial revolution to globalisation 3.0 has been a wake-up call to those brands needing and wanting to adapt to this new era – the era of the customer. Brian Solis, principal analyst at Altimeter Group, stated that “over 40% of the companies that were at the top of the Fortune 500 in 2000 were no longer there in 2010”.

The barrier to enter markets has been eradicated, largely thanks to the explosion in technology providing routes for individuals to connect, build business models and begin to challenge age-old markets ripe for disruption.

It’s also seen a shift in the power moving from brands to consumers and the acceleration of the decline in brand loyalty. Thanks to technology, consumers are switching allegiances to different brands simply by appraising brand relevancy, ethics, customer service and offering that added value and personalised service.

Author Steven Van Belleghem says that transparency is essential for brand survival. That’s not just in how and what a brand states as its corporate social responsibility but what should be at its foundation: “Treating customers well, treating employees well and doing good for society."

But the challenge for many organisations is adapting their internal structures, processes and the hiring of employees that can challenge company structures and open the organisation's eyes to the user. This is not a task that can or should be siloed to a specific department; it needs buy-in and understanding right across the organisation.

Adapting to such market changes is emphasised by Tim Wu, author of The Master Switch, who refers to two types of innovation: "Sustaining Innovation: improvements that are making products and services better or Disruptive Innovation: threatening to displace a product altogether [ie mobile phone replacing the traditional landline]."

Survival skills for the connected economy

Organisations are no longer looking for employees to follow a manual, rather there is a need for employees to take initiative, to identify new opportunities, to be collaborating within the company and externally and to be willing to adapt their skillsets and apply a 'forever learning' culture through regular training and development.

Founders of inbound marketing company Hubspot, Dharmesh Shah and Brian Halligan, suggest the types of skills required from employees now focus on the DARC model:

  • D – Hire Digital Citizens – People that can understand the online environment and can display a working knowledge.
  • A – Hire for Analytics – Understanding of digital trends and have a curious and analytical approach.
  • R – Hire for Web Reach – Can display examples of how passionate they are on a subject area through promoting online, perhaps their hobby or interest through a blog or social media.
  • C – Hire Content Creators – The importance of good content on a website can be a key USP over your competition so look to hire someone with good writing skills and more importantly can write for the web to engage with users.

Is the organisational chart still fit for purpose?

Starting with the consumer and working back to the internal functions of the business should help address the need for divisions in departments and teams and the roles and processes in place, identifying whether they are really benefiting and supporting consumer interaction.

Here are some great examples of organisations putting the customer at the centre of their strategies in many different ways:

Hilton Hotels social media

Operates as @hiltonsuggests, providing helpful advice to Twitter followers on its portfolio of hotels across cities. The brand interacts with anyone using Twitter looking for advice on where to go, stay or eat at a restaurant, regardless of whether they are a Hilton Hotels customer or not. Its whole strategy is around offering advice to anyone posting a tweet and looking for general advice.

Zappos

Zappos has replaced its hierarchical model and introduced a new operating model abiding by the concept of 'holacracy', a self-governing system where there are no job titles and no managers. Coupled with the fact that Zappos prides itself on success largely attributed to its customer-first approach.

Amazon

The online retailer is famous for innovation and setting the benchmark as to how to build a successful brand online. One of the secret ingredients behind its success is “acting like a startup” – Amazon creates “two pizza teams” (ie six to 10 people that you could feed two pizzas) which are small innovative teams brought together across the organisational hierarchies and silos and tasked to focus on a single key business metric in order to drive improvement for the end user, the customer.

Threadless

The US based T-shirt retailer has built a global reputation from a startup history by differentiating itself from the other many thousand t-shirt retailers by putting the customer at the centre of its entire organisation... literally.

To help create idea for T-shirt designs, Threadless encourages its users to submit their own designs and Threadless members vote on which designs they like the best.

The barrier to enter many markets has been eradicated. Staying relevant in large part goes hand in hand with keeping your customers happy, engaged and being made to feel valued.

Organisations need to assess their structures and hierarchies to ensure there is flexibility in their customer-first approach by seeking innovation, feedback and insights from their customer base if they’re keen to retain brand loyalty.

Empowering your employees through upskilling and developing a 'digital' culture and skillset will help to build and communicate directly with your customer base and to help bridge the gap between company and customer.

Simon Swan is head of digital marketing at the Met Office and is writing in a personal capacity. Follow him on Twitter @swanny_s

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