The future of brands is the future
We like to think of brands as shortcuts -or gateways - that show us the way, help us filter through the hundreds of products and services we come into contact with every day.
This happens more prominently in the market, when we buy things. But even politics, culture, social, and religion follow similar logics. For hundreds of years, we have used brands as compasses to interpret reality and guide our choices.
How exactly does this work?
What do brands tell us to make us choose them?
We will try to answer these questions by tracing the history of one brand, Nike. Why Nike specifically?
- Because it is a brand we all know;
- Because it is 50 years old, old enough to analyze how it has changed over time;
- Because Shoe Dog, Phil Knight's bestseller, finally answered to the objections of those who reject Nike as a role model, saying "Nike is Nike, we will never be at that level." Knight's Nike is the story of an accountant, who, driven by a great passion for running and running shoes, begins to import Onitsuka Tiger shoes into the United States, selling them straight from the trunk of his Plymouth. All of us could be Knight, and all of our companies could be the next Nike.
Running shoes, we were saying. The first Nike shoes are essentially that: the Cortez, and especially the later models with the iconic Waffle sole, or even the first Tailwind with the innovative Air technology, are "technical" shoes, made with the aim of being lighter and better performing than other running shoes available at the time.
The brand speaks a technical language, the language of functionality and features.
What it is telling us is:
Choose me, because there is nothing technically superior in the world for running.
Those were the late 1970s, and this approach was enough to sell shoes.
But then came economic stagnation, inflation, rising cost of money: markets stalled and companies were forced to increase their competitiveness.
This is how the golden years of advertising began, which for Nike meant one thing above all: the association with super testimonial Michael Jordan, dated 1984. For the company, and for the brand, that was the beginning of a new era.
The shoes disappear from the ads, and with them go all the technical details and feature descriptions, to leave room for Michael and the lifestyle narrative he represented.
The brand was telling us:
Choose me and you can be like Michael Jordan.
The products promised to bring us into a circle of people who shared the same status. By buying and wearing them, we were doing a self-labeling operation: that is, we were adopting a certain lifestyle, which we use to define ourselves in the eyes of the world.
To better understand the difference between these two brand ideas, we can review an iconic Sprite commercial from 1995.
Grant Hill is playing basketball on a small court and a group of boys are watching him. At one point, the NBA champion takes a sip of Sprite. The message to the kids watching him (in and out of the commercial) seems crystal clear: "If we drink Sprite too, we can play basketball like Grant Hill!"
Actually, the epilogue of the commercial and the famous claim that closes it state the exact opposite: "Image is nothing, thirst is everything. Listen to your thirst."
In a world now intoxicated by image culture, Sprite seems to suggest that the only possible response is "let's go back," to the age of features, in which products best meet a physical/functional need of ours (quenching our thirst) and brands serve to remind us exactly this (pick me because if you're thirsty there's nothing technically superior in the world).
Nike, however, went in a different direction.
It was 2006, when the Nike+ was launched: a small device that plugs into the soles of shoes to track the performance of the athlete wearing them, communicating it to the connected iPod or iPhone.
It was a revolution, not only because brought technology - and software in particular - inside a pair of shoes, but because it completely changed the brand’s meaning and message.
Nike finally abandoned the eras of functionality and aspiration and entered the terrain of transformation:
Choose me and you can be a better athlete.
This terrain has one major difference from the previous ones: the time dimension. Feature and aspiration had to do with the present, while transformation propels us into the future.
Simon Sinek will forgive me for manipulating his Start With Why by adding a piece, "When." Truth is that the time dimension is too important and, at the same time, too undervalued by most organizations in building their brands.
In fact, Sinek knows this very well and talks about it in his book Infinite Game, in which he urges companies to project themselves into the distant future by pursuing their just cause, the reason they exist.
But the future Nike talks about, the future of transformative brands, has only partially to do with the future of the company; rather, it is the future of people.
Nike continually delivers brand messages that have to do with building our future:
- In its mission statement, it reminds us that "anyone who has a body, is an athlete”;
- In this campaigns, it prompts us to rediscover and pursue the greatness that is within us;
- It supports us with products, applications and services, to help us improve as sportsmen;
- It reminds us that, as athletes, we are part of a global movement whose ambition is to redefine the old canons of sport;
- It makes us realize that our lives and our commitment can go beyond sports, to embrace political and social causes.
It takes us on a journey of self-discovery, showing us "places" and possibilities we did not think we could get to.
Thinking about the future
The brands of the future are built with the future in mind; since our lives are a journey in search of new centers of meaning, we will pay more attention to those brands that will help us discover who we are and in what directions we can go.
It will be worthwhile to follow and talk about those values that can make people take a step toward self-discovery.
The era of purpose-driven brands, which has the sole effect of filling corporate missions and corporate websites with words that are as important as they are now deprived of their original meaning - innovation, sustainability, diversity, inclusion, value, community... - will eventually end - I hope sooner rather than later https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rD-XFcmvGuc. Talking about all this only serves to align the brand with the present, pandering to stakeholders who want to see certain words written in social budgets, or as menu items on websites.
Future brands will be built around provocative, revealing, differentiating, and even divisive value centers. We will return to compete, not to be better than others, but to be different. We will ask ourselves, "Can we make people care about something other than what they care about now?" We will no longer be obsessed with telling people about ourselves: we will make people see something about them that they do not yet know. That is why they will either love us or hate us.
Just like Nike: you either love it or hate it.
What is certain, quoting another milestone in branding and advertising, is that when faced with such brands, we cannot remain indifferent. Because only those who have the courage to imagine the future, can truly build it.