Brands are products of their media. Jingles and slogans were all the rage at the time of radio. Print prioritized photography and logos. TV launched the 30-second spot. Mass media separated brand identity from its execution, which in a time of templated channels and messages, didn’t matter so much. A company could give its brand identity guideline to someone in advertising, and expect that the typeface, logo, format or image was going to be applied correctly.
But modern brands don’t hand off the attributes of their brand identity to media. Instead, they build their identity in their networks, one experience at the time. Modern brands are identity networks. They are less about the company that created products and services, and more about the individual who buys them.
A network does for 21st-century brand communication what the TV did for the 20th, and print did for the 19th: it conveys brand identity in a tangible form. It shows us the organizing mode of communication. In the 19th century, it was the identity of a family business; in the 20th, it was the corporate identity. Now it is the identity of the consumer.
Newcomers like Goop, Glossier, Lululemon or luggage brand Away have launched identity networks. Thanks to their extreme proximity to their customers, they were able to create a shared identity, sensibility and intriguing story. In the process, they built businesses that are meaningful and that people love to talk about. In retrospect, each pursued one or more directions below.
1. Develop the narrative. It is not hard to know what to expect from Net-a-Porter, which sees itself as “Fashion that Delivers.” Net-a-Porter created a strong and compelling brand narrative, precisely because it does not obsessively control it. Rather, it allows partners, editors, collaborators and fans to shape and perform its narrative by interacting with the brand and each other.
2. Create a feedback loop. Premium apparel brand Everlane launched a private Instagram account, @EverlaneStudio, in addition to its public one. This iterative approach to merchandise design enables Everlane to sell products that its customers want and are willing to pay the full price for.
3. Invest in the intimate community of fans. To differentiate in a market defined by networks is to have a strong, personal and deep-rooted bond around your audience’s passion points. LA-based fashion brand Anine Bing revolves around the singular identity of its founder — but also around identities around all of those who share the same aesthetic sensibility, lifestyle and taste.
4. Define your role in culture. Brand identities are often tied to a founder (Disney), a provenance (General Mills) or an experience (Coca-Cola, Nike). They are built by a handful of advertising agencies, consultancies and design firms. The resulting, vertically-integrated brand-media complex is decidedly anti-network. The pitfall of this model is consumer indifference, cultural isolation and lack of influence. At the same time, there are newcomer brands that are convincingly modern because they communicate through cultural exchange. Luxury fashion brand Gucci’s memes have worked because they enforce the web’s social mythology; they are unexpected, inherent to their network, and aligned with the internet values of scrappiness, remixing and sharing.
To stay relevant in the age of networks, which diminish the traditional role of connecting products and consumers, brands need to start piggybacking on the identity of those with whom they want to connect. Then, they need to augment through content, intimate community management, feedback loops, and convincing cultural narratives.
In the past, the competitive edge was achieved through amassing scale, vertical integration and increasing corporate marketing budgets. Today, this isn’t how the brands grow. If the 20th century was the age of the brand-media complex, the 21st century is the age of a creative network.
This article was originally featured in AdAge.