Shake off the shackles

The rise of the digital world – mass computing, the internet, and social media – will keep pushing branding in particular and marketing in general towards a strategy that focuses on building deeper, one-to-one relationships with their target audience, where brands have to have a strong positioning-differentiation. That is a fairly obvious principle to most of us. However, what is yet to become obvious to most is the fact that, in this era of booming digital and social media, a strong positioning-differentiation is no longer enough.

Brands of the future will need to shift their directions to accommodate a much more profound brand positioning and engagement strategy. One that is more collaborative, culturally aware, and defined for a creative society. An approach that recognises and acts upon the basis of audiences being recognised as human beings with bigger needs to serve.

Unfortunately many companies are falling foul due to their lack of willingness to change and reluctance to accept the transformations driven by digital. They remain frozen by fear of breaking the cycle of “We have a history of showing good results with the resources and specialised knowledge we have internally” or “we’ve always done it this way”. And why? Simple – the conditions changed but their mind-sets didn’t. In fact, many keep shifting away from meeting customer needs towards the ‘better good’ of internal goals, losing sight of the true purpose of driving customer value.

Turning the brand ‘outside-in’

These powerful forces (internet, technology, social…) are forcing companies to shift from an ‘inside-out’ strategy that relies upon internal orientation to ‘outside-in’ thinking, where customer trends and insight work as a guide to brand development and brand strategies in general. And here the key to brand success is ensuring that your brand doesn’t fall into the trap of complacency.

In their book “Strategy from the Outside-In”, George S. Day and Christine Moorman called these two paradigms the two paths to strategy, where the ‘inside-out’ approach is guided by the belief that the inner strengths and capabilities of the organisation will make the organisation prevail. While the ‘outside-in’ is instead guided by the belief that customers value creation, and that customer orientation and experiences are the keys to success.

Although these are in fact two existing paths to strategy, even ‘legacy brands’ like Heinz and Amazon have embraced change and keep working towards the future by constantly adopting ‘outside-in’ approaches to their brand strategies:

Heinz – despite its 142-year history, Heinz continues to stay relevant and look towards a next generation of consumers by implementing social and digital strategies that build brand advocates and ultimately emotional engagement.

Amazon – having started as an online bookshop, Amazon keep putting themselves in their customer’s shoes and constantly ask what else their customer base need/want. The result is the evolution of their brand, their expansion into other business areas such as the Kindle, their cloud computing and web services and their massive online retailing of products outside their initial offering.

It would probably be fair to say that an ‘outside-in’ approach would require significant structural changes that go beyond a branding transformation and that is not an option for many brands. However, if you really look at the principle of Amazon and Heinz’s ‘outside-in’ approaches, you quickly realise that what they do is very simple – they put the customer at the heart of everything.

Instead of dwelling on what core capabilities their brands stand for, they asked, “Who are our customers and what do they need?” The result is a continued focus on customers’ needs that ultimately allows them to leverage their brands to seize opportunities in other areas. After all, customers buy the expectation of benefits they will receive from building a relationship with your brand. By applying an ‘outside-in’ brand strategy, you’re changing your focus and entering into a collaborative relationship with the customer.

Let’s have a look at some of the fundamental differences between ‘inside-out’ and ‘outside-in’ thinking:

‘Outside-in’ thinking is becoming more important as the fusion between social and marketing technology and design-oriented thinking continues to evolve. As someone pointed out, “social computing, enterprise mobility and personalisation will provide customer insights from a multitude of touch points”, meaning that customer understanding will deepen, pushing brands to evolve to more personalised engagements (Forbes, 2014).

Remember, your brand is the most powerful asset your marketing AND business has. And, in an increasingly complex and competitive marketing environment, overcoming a legacy approach is imperative.

Getting the answers you need to any branding project relies on knowing the right questions to ask in the first place. Start exploring your brand now.