The future brands: what is the role of the marketer?

Reimagining business models for 2030: EasyJet could become Europe's leading train company providing high-comfort, jet-speed rail travel Photograph: Alamy

This article was originally published by The Guardian

Brand owners don't tend to look very far ahead. An eight-quarter cycle or maybe a three-year strategy is usually as far as they go.

Current innovation is overwhelmingly incremental, often based on consumer insights that are based only on past behaviour. Good ideas are often shelved, as they don't fit neatly into an established category or mainstream mind-set. The more stretching ones that make it into research and testing risk being dismissed by consumers who naturally stick with the familiar.

But when ideas do make it through this precarious process, what happens? The vast majority of them don't survive: statistics range from a 75% to 95% failure rate. Something in this system of fast-paced incrementalism is broken. Could it be a lack of foresight or confidence? Or both?

With little evidence of brands bringing their long-term future to life, last year we embarked on an experimental journey. We took six well-known brands and imagined what they'd be like in 2030. EasyJet becomes Europe's leading train company providing high-comfort, jet-speed rail travel; Argos pioneers an affordable, fully-equipped home leasing system; Primark leads the way in digitally curated, closed-loop, fast fashion; Morrisons abandons out of town stores to revolutionise the high street; and Rio Tinto is the world leader in above-ground mining, re-grading and repurposing metals and plastics. By 2030 business models have switched their focus from ownership and planned obsolescence to access and convenience.

Over the past year, these concepts have sparked a number of interesting conversations and projects with marketers, many of whom are itching to look further ahead than their current pipeline and beyond their current business models. Here are a handful of things we've learnt along the way:

Foresight is not a distraction

Suggesting a brand should consider its role in 2030 feels like a big risk. It could distract from short-term decision-making, from getting on with the day job. A marketer risks being accused of being 'too blue-sky'.

But in reality, knowing where a brand is heading and why, gives marketers the ability to plan and innovate with confidence. Much of the current focus on "brand purpose" reflects a desire to have a goal that can guide coherent activities with a clear sense of direction.

A simple articulation of a brand's future solves multiple problems

Business strategy, brand strategy, design, sustainability, R&D and innovation are often very separate areas of work for businesses. The one year strategies don't always add up to the five year strategies. R&D often lapses into pushing technology, rather than solving problems. And rarely do we see any correlation between brand strategy and sustainability strategy.

A long-term brand vision goes a long way. One that multiple parties have contributed to creating goes even further. A creative, visually compelling articulation of a brand's future direction gives everyone something to aim for and an incentive to collaborate.

Marketers want to leave a positive legacy

The role of a marketer is not usually a long one. In a decade they can work across several brands and hop between various categories. Many of them, like politicians, are under pressure to focus on short-term, achievable quick-wins. Then they move on and start over.

But not all. We've encountered plenty of brand managers and directors out there who want to use their brief time on a brand to establish a lasting legacy. Leaving a healthy innovation pipeline and long-term brand strategy that extends beyond incremental gain.

Business model innovation is a brand opportunity

It's not easy for companies to invest in business model innovation. It's a headache for them. It can't be done half-heartedly and it forces them to at least explore, if not extend, the boundaries of their company. Sustainability professionals talk a lot about business models and the need for new ones. Because brands aren't unsustainable, but business models can be. If you want a brand to create value in the long-term then it needs to be decoupled from a specific business model and stretched into new areas.

It makes complete sense for brands to drive this kind of innovation, as they are defined by the needs they address and the benefits they offer – not by their current products or services.

Taking the time to look ahead a decade or two may not be easy for marketing teams, but we've yet to find any who are disappointed once they've done it. At best it unearths a significant number of opportunities for the brand and a renewed sense of direction and purpose – at worst it stimulates debate. And a healthy dose of debate is still a shade better than the monotony of incrementalism.


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