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Branding 4.0 and the Age of Hyper Customization

By: Rob Wallace
Tel: (212) 755-2903
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Brand identity and package design has entered into its 4th generation. And in this next phase, the brand will never again have the same message to the 100 million consumers. It will offer 100 million "on-brand" messages customized to each individual consumer. To trace this progress, its relevant to understand how branding evolved from its onset.

Branding 1.0- the Open Market

For as long as marketing has been around, brands have been the filter through which the consumer engages with the product. But branding and brands are relatively new in this progression. From the dawn of commerce in the open market, there were no brands. Consumers wanted products. They'd go from stall to stall in the open market and hand-select each vegetable, each cut of meat, each individual piece of pottery. Yes, specific tradesman became trusted to provide the best products and therefore the "retailer brand" was born. Examples of pottery brand marks go back to pre-history in 10,000 BC. But by enlarge, consumers did not want brands; they wanted products. And this engagement lasted for thousands of years.

Branding 2.0- the Artisan Meets the Grocer

Brands were truly born in the early Renaissance in the mid 1300's when artisans began creating their own "signature products" and retailers began featuring more than just one version of each product.

But for traditional consumables, the true next steps in branding was ushered in with the age of the grocer the early 1600's. The grocer was king. Consumers rarely selected their products. Rather, they brought their list to the counter, and the grocer (or his children) would run between the shelves, the cellar and behind the counter to measure out a pound of flour or cut a slab of butter. In this environment, the products had no identities, no brands. Flour was flour. But if branding was born, it was born here in the relationship between the consumer and the grocer. The grocer would play a large part in selecting the products that would delight each specific consumer. And soon grocers became trusted advocate through which the consumer engaged with their products. In this, branding's second-generation consumers still did not want brands, they wanted a relationship with a trusted advocate, the grocer.

Branding 3.0, the Supermarket

It was not until 1916, relatively recent in the context of history, that the self-select supermarket was born. And here for the first time, the consumer was engaged with their products exclusively through the filter of the brand. Branding grew quickly with generic products quickly being replaced with the distinctive brand experiences that we know today.

Now over 100 years into this evolution, the supermarket experience is virtually ubiquitous across every free market culture on the globe. Cruising the "miles of aisles" to shop for our products is a behavior as consistent across the US as it is in China. With the exception of the language on the packaging, the supermarket experience is almost identical. And now, the brand is king.

But this phase of branding is rapidly changing. The proliferation of brands has created a "sea of sameness" and caused what Barry Schwartz refers to as the "paradox of choice"1 . Consumers no longer want choice. We want our specific brands, and we have trained ourselves to quickly scan between the 48,000 brands in the average supermarket (or the +100 thousand brands on-line) to find just those 10 or 15 brands that we have affinity with.

This active disengagement with brands ushers in the next generation of branding where consumers no longer want brands, they want THEIR brands and nothing else. And it coincides with the next generation of consumers who want to have every experience customized to their specific needs. This desire to simplify the shopping experience and engage directly with affinity brands is driving the dawn of branding's next generation.

Branding 4.0: Hyper Customized Brand Experiences

The internet age has met branding head on. And it will radically redefine branding forever. Now through Amazon, Peapod, Fresh Direct, StyleSeek and many other ecommerce venues, consumers can shop for their brands on-line and quickly /simply replace the products in their pantries. But what does this mean for branding? How do you launch a brand into this cacophony of noise? How do we capture competitive brand loyalists? How do brands re-engage consumers and create affinity?

Big data provides some of these answers. Now a marketer has a very specific knowledge of each of their consumer's individual buying habits and perhaps their desires. Analyzing their past purchases, we know what each consumers preferences are, and many brands are already responding to them. Soon, brand identities can become custom tailored to these individual desires. And again the brand will never again speak with one image or one message to the millions but quite possibly have a million customized and "on-brand" messages and identities.

Staying On-Brand and Still Customizing the Experience

The biggest traps that brands can easily fall into are either not responding to their consumers' demands OR responding too dramatically to them and denigrating their brand's integrity in the process. Brands need to be authentic. They need to represent a very specific experience to a very specific someone. That experience quickly erodes if the brands tries to be everything to everyone.

Likewise, a brand cannot wantonly turn itself over to the myriad of consumer desires allowing it to represent "off brand" messages. At its core, the brand needs to be authentic and elements of its core visual mnemonics need to remain consistent. For example, base brand Coca-Cola will always be red and use its signature Spenserian script logo. And yet, this and every brand's consistent essence there is a most masculine and most feminine execution of that brand experience. There is a most traditional and most contemporary execution, a most playful and most sophisticated, a most adult and a most all-family articulation of that same "on-brand" message. Consumers are already demanding that our brands speak to them as individuals, addressing their unique needs and perceptions.

Initial Executions of this Emerging Movement

You see this starting already with the Share a Coke campaign, Goldfish My Way, and Heineken customization projects2 where you can add a picture of your family on the package for specific birthday parties or your can have a message added to one of 10 package designs that you can choose from. But these are the expected innovations that occur at the onset of any trend. In our vision this is not going to be a trend but a tectonic shift in the way that consumers demand that brands behave, literally ushering in the next generation of branding.

Soon consumers will each see a very different initial package design on-line based in their prior purchase behavior. But even that level of customization is still too directed and limiting. We consumers want to create our own brand identity reflecting their own desired brand experience.

What if we give consumers the controls? What if - like sliders on an equalizer- consumers could select the "power level" of each of 10 to 12 parameters and see their own creation live as they evolve it. Consumers could select their own articulation of the brand identity specific to both who they are and each specific product usage experience. Why should they want it to change every time? Well because sometimes we bring a bottle of wine to an elegant dinner party and the next day we bring that same bottle of wine to a tail gate. Shouldn't the experience be different to match each of these very different consumers and at the same time be specific to every one of these occasions? This what we call Hyper Customization.

Print and Production Feasibility and the Design Algorithm

The technology is already in place to allow this level of hyper customization. Digital label and carton printing is well underway that will allow these customized identities to be produced at a relatively low cost.

But still, someone needs to create all the artwork. How can the brand afford to have 100m labels? In our vision, designers will develop identities for all of the most extreme on-brand experiences; the most masculine, the most feminine etc. And then these individual design elements will be programed into a design algorithm so that endless variations can be produced exceptionally cost effectively.

Now we turn to the consumer to design their own version of the on-brand message. Again, these tools will be confided to only those extreme articulations of the brand message. Anything beyond these parameter s will be deemed as "off-brand" and will not be permitted. Allowing consumers to mix and match between numerous variables will generate hundreds of thousands if not millions of unique combinations of individual brand identities that are still "on-brand".

The Role of the Designer as Brand identity Architect and Curator

Early in the digital development of design, a well-known phrase was coined, "the music is not in the piano". The same expression is relevant here. Even though consumers have the tools to customized their brand experience, it does not mean that all of these articulations might look good. For example, it well might be that 27% masculine, 74% premium, 12% all family and 41% urbane might look like a dog. Designers will not only set the parameters of the "play ground"-again preventing any combination of elements to stray "off brand", but they will also become brand identity curators of all these articulations. They will pull out those "dogs'- never allowing their brand to be expressed in a less than appropriate light.

But then again, there is another time honored phrase that we must acknowledged, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Maybe some of these "dogs" that we designers might reject could be masterful creations to the consumers who developed them. It's a philosophical question that brand owners and designers will need to wrestle with. But again brands will respond to this and all other challenges in a way that reflects the brand persona. Coke may want to be more consistent where Pepsi will allow more exploration. It's another component of branding that we as design thought leaders want to participate in evolving.

Building Brand Affinity and Driving ROI

As proven in the past, we know that just because technology allows us to do something and consumers want the opportunity to explore, does not mean that every brand should take the bait. However, when we collectively meet this opportunity head on, we can determine what value it provides each brand and how it should best respond, if at all. Would consumers be willing to bear the incremental cost of production? Would they pay more for the chance to engage with their brands like never before? It's a testable proposition and the answers may be different for every category and every brand within it.

Our guess is that for many brands, the answer will be "you bet". Here again is another profit generator of those courageous brands who get out in front of this emerging opportunity and make it part of their true dialog with their individual consumers.

Branding 4.0 is a brave new world and "fortune favors the bold". We look forward to studying which brands define this bandwagon, which then jump on it, how they shape their experience around their consumers, and how they claim the profit that can result from this quest.

Rob Wallace, has unique expertise in Trademark, Trade Dress, Copyright, Brand Identity and Package Design Infringement. For 35+ years, Rob ran one of the nation's top Brand Identity Strategy and Package Design Resources providing global branding expertise to Fortune 500 companies in virtually all CPG categories. His clients include P&G, Nestle, Pepsico, Unilever, Kraft, Colgate, The Home Depot, Brown-Foreman, Novartis, J&J and more than 50 market leading companies.

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