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6 brand trends to watch in 2018

boardFrom the development of creative experiences to the rise in purpose and transparency in brand strategy, here is what’s to come for retail brands this year.

Brands will become more autonomous

2018 will be the year of execution. Technology has enabled seamless and thoughtful integration into a customer’s life like never before, and more brands will take an automated life of their own this year.

We’ll see brands automate commerce by leveraging concise data and artificial intelligence to personalise, customise, geo-target and forecast. Applications include useful chatbots with memorable personalities (very few have done this right so far), facial and image recognition, voice-activated devices, robotics, real-time analytics and natural language processing.

To minimise the risks associated when you ‘let go’, brands must have a strong and solid foundation. Beyond the logo and style guide, what is a brand’s raison d’être? What is their purpose, character and difference?

The best approach is to aim for small automated wins that are meaningful to the customer before gravitating towards rapid transformation.

Brand purpose will guide business strategy

Everything you do should mean something. Across the last year, we’ve seen retailers funnel investment into their corporate social responsibilities and initiatives to give back. This year, we’ll see more brands defining and refining their brand purpose and placing it at the heart of their business strategy.

A strong purpose identifies future aspirations of the company, and allows every single day-to-day interaction to align (including CSR and cause marketing). It’s a strategic approach that merges the brand into the business. Not only does it make it easier for a brand to plan for a better tomorrow, but choosing initiatives or issues that are a natural extension of the brand will allow it to remain relevant. Just remember, a brand purpose will define you moving forward – so you have to be able to own it.

A strong brand purpose also connects to the right audience. Fifty per cent of customers solely buy from brands they believe in and feel good about supporting. Employees, suppliers and partners want to work with businesses they align with. Brands that don’t resonate or mean anything will simply drop off their radar.

Brands experiences and content will take on new forms

More brands will skip empty promises and instead create unique and transformational experiences that speak directly to their customer and who they want to become.

For the last decade, spend on experiences over things has steadily increased. In particular, millennials prefer to spend 78 per cent of their money on experiences.

John Lewis offers a fully furnished in-store apartment

When customers are in a relaxed state and they can watch, listen, touch, see and feel your brand, they connect on a deeper level and are more likely to purchase. An example is British retailer John Lewis creating the The Residence, a fully furnished in-store apartment at its Oxford Street flagship store. Customers can spend an exclusive night in the space, and receive an hour of shopping time. They can also request to host a private John Lewis dinner party. There is a reason that some of the world’s most successful brands, such as Airbnb, Virgin and Google, bring their most valued customers together every year.

More brands will act in unexpected, surprising and different ways this year. Experiences and content will be created with shareability, virality, and exclusivity in mind. Think of the Louis Vuitton and Jeff Koons collaboration for The Masters Collection.

We’ll also see new forms of personalised content produced, as brands design solely for digital and interactive devices. Last year was about branded content, this year we’ll see more branded audio, film and augmented reality.

Using platforms such as Facebook Watch (US only) and YouTube Red to stream, brands will lure viewers away from traditional media channels. Amazon is also soon to join as one of the main platforms.

Transparency will be one of the most valuable currencies

Those who tell it as it is, will reap the rewards. Trust in brands has diminished in recent times, and transparency and authenticity is crucial to any brand’s survival. Everything a brand says or does is under scrutiny and they have never had to work harder to earn trust. It’s good news for customers.

For the first time, this year we’ll see brands integrate trust building and reputation strategies into their marketing, where internal culture and customers become part of the brand and radical transparency is shown across all channels. Brands leading the way include Apple and Rebecca Minkoff; both of their CEOs recently issued open and honest apologies in relation to poor customer experiences delivered at the end of 2017.

Micro-influencers are also on the rise, as they speak to the customer’s need for transparency and relatableness in the brands they buy from. They have now overtaken celebrity and top-tier influencers, and their rapid growth is not set to slow anytime soon. Business leaders and entrepreneurs keen to share their personal journeys are also included in this mix. Whether in an informal manner, or scaled up to include personal videographers, producers and editors, open visibility has tremendous benefits when the intent and strategy is right. Richard Branson and his multi-channel presence is a fantastic example of this.

Businessman drawing social media connection scheme on glass windThe rise of BFF marketing

Attention is scarce; we’re overwhelmed with content, opinions, recommendations and reviews. To cut-through, customers must think of a brand as a friend – someone they see value in, can trust and relate to.

Audiences used to be defined in broad categories such as target markets and demographic segments, but as shopping behaviour becomes more complex and decision fatigue sets in, a different approach is needed.

Brands will invest more into individualising their approach, and aim to adopt a single customer view across all platforms. How? By intimately knowing their customers’ buying behaviour, lifetime value, and understanding changing sentiments, emotions and experiences.

In order to act as a good friend would, predictive and interactive marketing will lead the way. The first anticipates future needs and the second encourages two-way conversation. Brands will garner more feedback from their customers than ever before. By identifying their high value shoppers, ambassadors or ‘tribe leaders’, brands will co-create with them to create products and services that are wanted and needed.

Brands will also spend more on strengthening their relationship with current customers, over acquiring new ones. An Australian retailer recently increased their retention by five per cent, and subsequently saw a 75 per cent increase in profitability.  The financial benefits speak for themselves.

Gender stereotyping is out

We’ve seen brand perspectives transform across the last few years, but this is the year that they will really accelerate.

One brand leading the way is Unilever. In 2016, it called out to the industry asking brands to rethink how men, women and children are portrayed in the media. Alibaba, Facebook and Google jumped on board late 2017, and this year the UK-based Advertising Standards Association is set to introduce rules around gender stereotyping.

Female-founded empires will also have resounding success, as customers feel part of a community that extends beyond the product. They are buying into female empowerment, entrepreneurship and the journey.

It’s crucial that brands use advertising and marketing platforms to celebrate our diverse culture and shape a positive future for not only their customers, but for future generations to come.

Emma Sharley is a brand and marketing consultant, co-founder of mobile shopping app, ShopYou, lecturer at General Assembly and advisory board member for IFAB.

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