OnBrand '16: 5 lessons to succeed in a brand new era

By Nicolas Deskos | 20 October 2016

Last week, hundreds of marketers descended on Amsterdam’s Beurs van Berlage for OnBrand ’16. The one-day event featured a diverse selection of keynotes and breakout sessions covering everything from virtual reality to growth hacking, branding with live events to scaling a global brand. Marketing directors, brand strategists and communications experts all shared their insights on how to succeed in a new era of branding. Here are some of the key takeaways from Europe’s leading branding conference:

The branding process should include more experimentation to reduce risk

Even in 2016, brands are still guilty of relying on the tried and tested ways of marketing and advertising to attract and retain consumers. As Ashley Vinson, Twitter’s Head of Brand Strategy said, “We have to evolve our thinking and stop doing things like it’s the 1950s.” With a wealth of measurement tools at our disposal, marketers have the opportunity to test and alter digital campaigns in real time, for maximum impact. According to Growth Tribe’s Head of Growth and Co-founder, David Arnoux, “Marketers should be held to the same level of quality as developers.” In other words, marketers should possess the same technical abilities as developers, or use the tools that allow them to take a more scientific approach to marketing.

David Arnoux also added that activation and retention are the most important metrics to measure: “Acquiring users is growth hacking for babies. What’s really hard is activating and retaining them, making sure they have a great first user experience, they understand what you’re selling, and they actually come back.” And when you look at some of the most successful companies in recent years, such as Airbnb, Uber, Pinterest, and Tinder, what do they all have in common? They all embraced a process of rapid experimentation to develop their products. At the end of the day, if you don’t find out what your customers want and love then you’ll never build a successful brand.

You’re never too small to make an impact

Purpose-driven marketing was a hot topic during OnBrand ’16, and rightly so. In recent years, we’ve seen a rise of businesses with a very clear social good agenda or a clear mission of why they’re in business. “Enterprises and companies have a social responsibility to be a force for good”, said Jens Kok, Marketing Executive at Dopper. But the road to change can be a long and challenging one. “You can only work on what people know when it comes to marketing. If people are not aware that slavery is going on in the value chain of cocoa today then you have to tell that story,” said Henk Jan Beltman, Tony Chocolonely’s Chief Chocolate Officer, the brand on a mission to achieve 100% slave-free chocolate.

The company’s vision is certainly an ambitious one, one that involves a change in mindset from all players in the chocolate industry, from farmers to local governments, from large chocolate companies to chocolate consumers. According to Henk Jan Beltman, the power of the Tony’s brand is that the chocolate has a purpose and a meaningful story. Not only is the chocolate unequally divided to reflect the inequality of the value chain, but the brand story is printed on every single bar. “We want to set an example from bean to bar that it is possible to be the fastest growing chocolate company. We want to make an impact, show people that they can do the same, set an example and show the big guys the right route to take.”

Making an impact in culture is a successful commercial equation for brands

In a complex comms landscape, brands need more than advertising dollars to articulate their purpose, they need to live it. As Simon Summerscales, 72andSunny’s Director of Communication Strategy, highlighted in his talk, the most successful brands no longer market to the world, but behave in the world. Using two of the agency’s clients, AXE and Smirnoff, as case study examples, Simon Summerscales showed how making an impact in culture can make you relevant and change how people see your brand.

“The Smirnoff brand was suffering a real crisis of confidence, which is amazing for the number one spirit brand in the world”, said Summerscales. The category was being dominated by the blue labels, which all communicated a sense of exclusivity, but Smirnoff has always been the brand for everybody. The agency’s “We’re Open” campaign, which celebrates the LGBT subculture of Voguing, repositioned Smirnoff as a vibrant and open brand at the cutting edge of contemporary culture.

But it’s not just the big brands that can make an impact in culture. In today’s landscape, impact starts with focused, smaller communities. “Influence is far more complicated and desegregated than ever before. It's not all about numbers, it's about relationships and communities,” said Summerscales.

A brand is no longer what we tell the consumer it is, it's what consumers tell each other it is

Our next lesson, inspired by a quote from Scott Cook, was another big talking point during OnBrand ’16. Speaking on the main stage in the morning, LinkedIn’s Marcel Molenaar pointed out that: “The brand is no longer a property that solely belongs to you. Other people give meaning and value to your brand.” While this change in consumer behavior has made it difficult for brands to position themselves strategically, brands still have the power to influence the conversation by being authentic, human, and facilitating meaningful interactions between brand and consumer. This is true for I amsterdam whose entire brand is created by the voice of the people. “The inhabitants, the visitors and the businesses are the Amsterdam brand”, said Geerte Udo, I amsterdam’s Director of Marketing.

The brand experience goes beyond digital

With all the talk about digital touchpoints, online channels and virtual reality, it’s easy to forget that brands still have a huge opportunity in the offline world. “Using experience to connect with people and pull them away from the traditional mediums of marketing is integral for growth. Brand experience offers a cut through the noise and creates a deeper connection, a meaningful, loyal connection between brands and people”, said Simon Hatter, SET Amsterdam’s Executive Creative Director. Showing the agency’s work for Nike and Spotify, Hatter highlighted how brand experiences can break down the wall between brand and consumer as they focus less on the transaction and more on the interaction. “Despite the huge world of digital, it’s nice to see people coming together and being intrigued by something in the real world.”

You can never have the perfect profile on LinkedIn

In the most eye-opening revelation of the day, LinkedIn’s Marcel Molenaar admitted during his talk that your profile strength bar will never be complete. This is a quite a fitting end to this OnBrand ’16 recap, because as branding professionals and marketers we have to accept that the industry is evolving at a frightening pace and nothing will ever be perfect or complete. The best we can do is experiment, listen to people, and continuously innovate to succeed in a brand new era.

Nicolas Deskos
When he's not cycling around Amsterdam, Nicolas is curating OnBrand events and writing frank, no-nonsense articles on branding and marketing trends. Coming soon to an event near you.