Someday in the not-so-distant future, branding as we now know it will be thought of as “so 20th century.” Here are six trends that are reshaping our ideas of branding.

Consumers Are the Creative Directors Now

Brands that create a process of discovery drive passion and ownership of the brand. Consumers like being the creative director and feeling in control of shaping the products and brand. Born from consumers’ desire to differentiate themselves from the mass market, this trend toward customization will continue to grow with the flexibility and efficiencies offered by technology at home and in manufacturing.

At Timberland’s Bootstudio, you can “build a boot as original as you are” (even add your own monogram). Nike ID lets customers control the look of 27 footwear styles and view their final creation from five different angles.

Lab21 takes customization to new heights by creating individually formulated skin-care products based on your DNA. Customers take an at-home DNA test and answer a questionnaire about the health of their skin. LAB21’s SkinProfiler System then creates a custom formula (with your name on the label) to treat specific conditions.

Cynicism Raises the Bar for Authenticity

With consumer cynicism about marketing at an all-time high, brands must cultivate authenticity on a level never demanded before now. Consumers are smart, resourceful and savvy. If your brand doesn’t deliver on all its promises, or if it fails to speak to a consumer’s specific, personal needs, your brand will become irrelevant, or worse, a pariah.

The company behind the brand is now also expected to behave authentically and demonstrate an active alignment with consumers’ values. This demand will shift marketers away from advertising and direct mail, which are more suspect in consumers’ minds, and toward brand messages conveyed via trusted, impartial third-party sources. We’ll see an increase in brands using the more transparent channels of public relations, sponsorships, niche interaction, word-of-mouth or “buzz” and blogs to deliver more apparently unbiased brand communications.

Don’t Waste My Time

In a 2004 Redbook magazine poll of 1000 women, a majority actually preferred time over money. In our info-saturated, multi-tasking lives, time is the new currency.

Consumers now look to companies, media and marketers to provide information filters to edit the mass of data and communicate only relevant information to a specific consumer.

Amazon.com’s highly developed preferences filtering keeps track of your interests, making recommendations based on your ever-growing profile, providing product reviews and daily updating a customized list of the newest and coolest products customers are buying—essentially creating a personal shopper to save you time. And it does all this in six different languages, with the appropriate cultural insights for each!

Humanization of Technology

The mind-bending advancements of the Web and computer technology have infiltrated every aspect of our lives faster than we can assimilate the changes.

Successful brands will humanize technology by delivering a brand experience wherein the technology is transparent to the consumer.

Hewlett-Packard leads the pack with their “you + HP” consumer-brand campaign focused on taking the hassle out of digital photography. Visually fun, full of creative energy and real-life scenarios, their ads devote minimal space to showing actual product. Instead, they go to the heart of image-making: documenting, sharing, making memories through “radically simple picture-making technology that puts you in control of the entire process.” And they back up their claim with thorough, easy-to-navigate product support on their Web site.

From Multi-Channel to Uni-Channel

Increasingly, consumers will be less aware of separate marketing channels. Instead, all experiences of brand communications will be perceived as one all-encompassing, 360-degree channel. Any and every aspect of communications in our lives—cell and landline phones, libraries and research, bill-paying, satellite TV, GPS navigation, entertainment, travel, financial transactions, shopping, fitness and health monitoring—will be available from anywhere at any time. Brands can prepare now by investing in creating a consistent and integrated customer experience across today’s existing communications channels.

JCPenney understands how to fully leverage multiple-channel synergy. Their stores, catalog, Web site and advertising interrelate across all channels: enter your zip code on jcpenney.com and browse your local JCPenney store’s sales flyer or download coupons. Items purchased through any channel can be returned or exchanged via any other channel. At every touch-point of the brand, the consumer finds a consistent experience.

Trends in Trending

While attending the 9th Annual Future Trends Conference, it struck me that one scenario in particular was not addressed more fully: the fact that the aging Baby Boomers are completely redefining the terms “old” and “aging.”

With the average American living about 30 years longer than he did 100 years ago, what’s considered “old”—or for that matter, “middle-aged”? If the brands in these consumers’ lives rely on stereotypical notions of older as an un-cool, has-been demographic, they’ll perish.

Marketers have historically looked to the 18- to 24-year-old crowd for inspiration and indicators of future trends. I’d challenge brand stewards to explore the dynamic, trend-setting potential of the Baby Boomer powerhouse.

MARY BROWN is president of Imago Creative, a strategic
marketing and design firm specializing in building
brand relationships with women 35+.
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