Imagining the Future of Branding
In previous essays, I wrote about possible futures of social networking and media, in a near future so near that it could be the present itself. I used a 2×2 matrix with likely/ unlikely scenarios on the X-axis and negative/ positive scenarios on the Y-axis, leading to four scenarios. I said that the likely/ negative quadrant is the default, as our world seems to devolve into chaos, when left to its own devices; if we reach out for our better selves, we might create a better world, in the likely/ positive quadrant; if we are lucky, we might even exceed our expectations and approach the unlikely/ positive quadrant; and if we are unlucky, we might mess things up, and find ourselves in the unlikely/ negative quadrant. This week, I’ll use the same 2×2 matrix to imagine four possible futures of branding, like before, in a near future so near that it could be the present itself.
The Likely/ Negative Future
In a world with infinitely short attention spans, infinitely fragmented media channels and infinite perfectly undifferentiated brand choices, effective branding has become an almost impossible exercise. After decades of fighting against opt-out data sharing and virus-like tracking cookies, people have given up on the idea of privacy and embraced their granularly quantified, aggressively gamified and fully public selves. Armed with big data, brands have rushed forth to fill hitherto sacred spaces in people’s lives with personalized, location relevant, time sensitive ads, going beyond TVs, tablets and mobile phones to automobile control panels, eyewear display screens and wearable bio-sensors. Instead of blocking endless streams of competing ads, filtering out spam, or prioritizing what’s relevant, people have grown to treat ads as ambient noise, which cancels itself out, resolves itself into a non-intrusive, if unattractive background. Surrounded by screens, in their homes, out on the streets, and on their own bodies, people have developed a symptom called screen blindness, forcing marketers to invest billions of R&D dollars in the next frontier of neurobranding, which promises to insert ads directly into the neural connections in the brain.
The Likely/ Positive Future
As screen blindness grows to epidemic proportions, it undermines the productivity of millions of knowledge workers, and even threatens to trigger a global recession. Panicked governments, multinationals and civil society organizations come together to create a new multilateral agreement called the Paris Protocol and cut advertising spends to 25% of pre- screen blindness levels, with immediate effect. As marketers cut down on advertising, they refocus their budgets on creating compelling branded transmedia experiences; commission artists to create branded movies, music, art and literature; and reimagine their brands as entertainment franchises and cultural memes. All marketing begins to look like entertainment marketing: brand trailers attract people to the brand entertainment franchise, and, if they fall in love with the brand transmedia experience, they become hardcore fans who immerse themselves into the brand culture, subscribe to receive updates on upcoming brand experiences and buy brand artifacts to flaunt their brand fandom. The boundaries between media, brands and agencies blur as brands buy media companies, media companies start their own brand experience consultancies and agencies create their own brand experience franchises.
The Unlikely/ Positive Future
Marketers realize that people are more likely to remix and share cultural memes that are part of the public commons, and decide to release their brand transmedia experiences under an Experience Commons license. Some marketers even go beyond and open-source their brands, so that any activist, artists or entrepreneur anywhere in the world could apply to use the brand for their cause, art or venture, as long as they meet the brand guidelines. The most authentic projects are accepted as part of the brand’s official canon, while others are treated as non-canonical forks. While most marketers retain the veto on what is accepted as canonical, and set strong guidelines for how non-canonical forks represent themselves (BrandX, independently curated brand experiences), some marketers leave such decisions to their brand custodians, who are often passionate volunteers from the brand community. The revenue from brand experiences and artifacts are divided amongst the creators of the canonical projects, based on their contribution to strengthening the brand meme.
The Unlikely/ Negative Future
Over time, with the help of new advances in neuromarketing, some brand memes become so strong that they begin to look like religions, with their own creation myths and sacred texts, their own pantheons of Gods and Goddesses, their own rituals and pilgrimages, and their own power-hungry leaders and fanatic fringes. Devotees of the most powerful brand religions begin to not only look down upon others, but even exclude them from social, economic and political opportunities. As bigger brand religions create conversion, exclusion and persecution campaigns, smaller brand memes face the choice of dying, going underground or consolidating with other endangered brand memes. Soon, neighborhoods and even nation states begin to divide themselves into homogenous brand religions and custodians of competing brand religions begin to battle each other for political positions. As the majority brand religions use state power to disenfranchise minority brand religions, the minorities begin to demand their own separate states and create underground guerrilla marketing armies to fight state propaganda. All over the world, brand coups are organized and brand regimes are overthrown. When the dust settles, the world is divided into two warring brand superpowers with empire building tendencies and a coalition of brand states struggling to maintain their independence.
Like in my previous essays on possible futures of social networking and media, the present contains the seeds for all these possible futures. Stephen Baker has written how big data can be used to manipulate us. Kirk Cheyfitz believes that all brand marketing will look like film marketing. Martin Lindstorm calls neuromarketing the next frontier in marketing and compares cult brands, especially Apple, to religious cults. Alex Bogusky has created an open-source brand called Common. It’s up to use to choose one possible future over another. Let’s aim for the Unlikely/ Positive future of open source brands.