News & Views

Opinion / The Quiet Revolution

by Contagious Contributor

Peter Walshe, Global BrandZ Strategic Director at Kantar Millward Brown, on how non-tech brands are adopting the traits of their technology counterparts to survive and thrive

The dominance of technology in everyday life is endlessly evident. This was reflected in the 2017 BrandZ ranking of the Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands. The ‘Fearsome Five’ (Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook) took the first five places, while technology-related brands contributed more than half of the total brand value of the Top 100.

But in the midst of this technology love-in, the BrandZ report showed an anomaly. The fastest rising brand was Adidas (which increased its brand value by 58%). That’s right, the German footwear manufacturer, first registered nearly 70 years ago, showed the greatest increase in brand value in percentage terms.

On closer inspection, this is less of a surprise than it might seem at first. As well as proactively reaching new – and often all-important younger audiences through social media, Adidas has adopted technology to increase its appeal and relevance to consumers, for example introducing 3D printing to produce its footwear.

Innovation is the key

While technology has enabled these customer-focused initiatives, it is not the technology per se that has driven the success of the brand; rather it is its desire to innovate. Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook are not fearsome because they are technology companies – they are fearsome because they have innovation in their DNA.

Silicon Valley may dominate rankings and headlines, but digging below the surface reveals a quiet revolution by brands that have taken the innovation challenge to heart and used the technology at their fingertips to deliver on this mindset.

How to enhance the customer experience

Hungry customers at Domino’s Pizza (ranked by BrandZ as the seventh most valuable fast food brand) have, for some time, been able to track the progress of their pizza; now placing the order is as easy as sending an emoji via text message.

Similarly, in many branches around the world, Starbucks customers can pre-order their drinks using an app, as well as via Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa.

ASOS, the online fashion retailer, is trialling a chatbot over the Christmas shopping period that helps shoppers in the UK and France select gifts.

Meanwhile, Adidas is not standing still; an AI shopping app personalises the shopping experience based on the style and behaviour of every customer.

Even luxury brands that, on the surface, eschew overt technology to maintain creativity and exclusivity are not immune. Gucci has redesigned fashions and stores – not with a tech approach, but aided by technology. This has enabled a responsive supply chain, cutting lead times. Online, Gucci’s ecommerce site has been designed to reflect its runways, with each ready-to-wear look sold as pieces of the outfit that appeared on the catwalk; its luxury brand status is maintained, but Gucci has adapted for an audience that expects the convenience offered by digital.

And of course, Google is never one to be left behind. In partnership with Levi’s it has developed a high tech jacket that lets consumers call and text, navigate and play music via an interactive touchpad, powered by its Jacquard wearable technology, woven into the sleeve. Although in its relative infancy, it is a glimpse of a future without screens.

These are all examples of how brands are adopting technology to refresh their leadership in consumers’ minds. Adidas is a shoe – but by embracing tech-based innovation it has generated talking points and differentiated itself from its competitors.

Technology is also critical for communicating what is different and meaningful about the brand. Consumers are more reachable thanks to digital technology such as online and mobile advertising (with data enabling unprecedented opportunities for personalisation) and social media; they also expect brands to connect with them in this way. And it’s not just communications that are tech-driven; few people these days make a purchase without researching it first online.

So far, so good. Technology continues to rejuvenate mature products and markets.

Brand difference extends beyond tech adoption

But in the headlong rush for technical innovation (currently playing out with AR, VR, AI experiments, etc) is there a risk that we will reach ‘peak tech’? As technology becomes an integral part of the experience for all brands, it will be more difficult to create the impression of being ahead of the game. In other words, the ‘tech advantage’ becomes less and less attainable because everyone is using it.

The casualty of this nil-sum game is uniqueness and brand personality.

However, strong brands are resilient – they will look to the next advantage. Take, for example, the ‘craft beer revolution’, which can be regarded as an antidote to the automated dominance – and resulting homogenisation of the big breweries. Consumers are voting with their feet for unique products with personality.

For all the advantages and excitement offered by technology, there’s no substitute for brand difference.