Does the algorithm kill branding?
Relevance is part of the jargon of branding. It refers to the ability of certain brands to matter to us, to mean something in our lives, to be able to cross those powerful filters that we have developed in order not to see what we don’t care about and to surrender to the emotional connection that they propose to us.
One of the greatest dangers that haunt us all with the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the making, and not just the brands, is to no longer be relevant. That what we offer no longer matters is something we cannot afford either as people or as brands. We have already seen whole sectors disappear that accelerated disruptive innovations made obsolete in record times. Or reinventing themselves at a fast pace in order to survive. And the trend is exponential.
What can we do to be relevant in such a volatile and uncertain environment?
I think the first thing is to never forget the foundation. Build a strong brand identity. Verbalize its essence. Your beliefs. Your operating system. Your fixed image in a moving world. If we don’t know who we are, we will never know if we are doing it right.
The second thing is to start reflecting on how things work today and observe our own behaviour when we actively search for something on the web.
We are likely to look directly for a brand. I’m not looking for tea, I’m looking for Yogi Tea, I’m not looking for vitamins, I’m looking for Solaray’s Spectro. Google then tells us on which website we can buy the cheapest and what the user rating is. Although in an offline environment we might not look at the price, here the comparison is inevitable. No one sane would be willing to pay more for exactly the same thing. At the click of a button, your brand will most likely cease to be premium and will be competing for price with itself. Competing for price is the day-to-day business of online shops. Amazon has imposed that logic in e-commerce as Uber has done in mobility. In the end, the low cost has been taking over everything.
Or maybe we look directly for a product, put AA batteries. The brand matters little to us. If the price is right, the reviews and the delivery time are within our expectations, we may not need anything else. What the algorithm has selected for us is sufficient, even if we have never heard of that brand.
Is the algorithm more powerful than a thoroughly built brand positioning like Duracell’s over the years?
Does the algorithm kill branding?
But what exactly is the algorithm?
The algorithm is what gives meaning to the vast amount of data that certain companies handle. It is the one that scores, classifies, and recommends. The one that predicts our responses and controls our behaviour.
An algorithm is something as simple as a sequence of instructions that converts an input into a different output. For example, a simple recipe is an algorithm. As with religions, it is a matter of faith, they allow us to obtain results without understanding absolutely nothing of what we are doing. Moreover, it usually works with a partner with no criteria of its own, but capable of following millions of instructions per second, the blessed computer.
In surveillance capitalism, algorithms surround us. All the time we are interacting with them. We are not aware of the extent to which they decide what we like and what we don’t like. What’s more, they think for us. They filter the information we have access to and that which is hidden from us and that which we will never be able to understand (but who votes for them?!); what interests us and what does not; the videos we watch, the books we read, the products we buy, the blogs that seduce us, the guys we flirt with, the music we listen to, the series we enjoy, the friends we talk to, the brands we buy… few things are left today outside their omniscient tentacles. There are even algorithms capable of imitating your voice and supplanting your identity.
Although they can’t (yet) compete with a properly built brand experience, it’s clear that in some cases we don’t need it. We look. We find. We scan the reviews. We compare prices and we buy. Or the algorithm and retargeting takes care of reminding us that we have to buy again or decide to buy.
And Google is the king of the algorithm. Omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent. It is the new god as caricatured by Carissa Véliz in her book Privacy is Power.
It is dangerous when this same behaviour is applied to significant purchases. The other day a colleague told me how he had bought a replica of an iconic piece of furniture in an unknown website that offered the same at a cheaper price. He still does not know if it was a good decision, the small print said that he will have to wait three months for delivery…
The algorithm is not (yet) able to predict also those moments when we are willing to pay more. We pay more for peace of mind, for knowing that we will get our money back if there is a problem, for the comfort of having a heavy piece of furniture delivered to our home and left assembled and placed, or for the confidence that the perceived quality is the real one. If the brand has built up a positive image in your mind and heart over the years it will benefit from the so-called “exposure effect”: we tend to develop a preference for what we already know. And no matter how much the trend is towards acceleration, building a notorious brand will always be a long-term commitment.
But relevance goes beyond trust, notoriety or price. It has more to do with how the brand makes you feel. Think, for example, of the pride produced by brands that position themselves from their dna with those causes they believe to be just. With those that adopt a policy of total transparency like Everlane . Those that actively seek to take care of people and the planet like Fairphone. Those that fight against fake news like Newtral.
At a time when we have lost confidence in institutions, we expect much more from brands. They should understand once and for all that they have to make things easy for us, forget about perverse practices that only favour their bottom line and are killing the planet. Such as programmed obsolescence or single-use plastics. Or getting addicted to instant gratification, permanent novelty or social networks to turn the intimacy we share so blithely into the data that feeds the algorithms.