The job of brand strategy expands from telling the brand story to building the brand system, argues R/GA's Tom Morton in an essay for the Future of Strategy 2019.

Any list of leading brands shows how many of today’s most valuable brands are ecosystems. 

They come to life in their interface and innovation. They take user data to expand their services. Their ultimate aim is to turn customers into members. They do have a purpose and a narrative, they just bake it into their design as much as they share it in their communication.

Only three companies have ever achieved a valuation of a trillion dollars: Amazon, Apple and Microsoft. All are ecosystems. Most other entities aspiring to twelve-zero status, from Disney to Nike, are following a similar connected playbook. As Jeff Bezos says: “In the old world, you devoted 30% of your time to building a great service and 70% of your time to shouting about it. In the new world, that inverts.” Their businesses and their brands are entwined in their experience.

And if experience is the new high ground for brands, experience strategists are the new brand guardians. That expanded role brings added responsibilities.

The job of brand strategy expands from telling the brand story to building the brand system.

As the names suggest, User Experience and Human-Centred Design start with the person on the receiving end of the brand. That’s important. User behaviour and needs continue to unlock opportunities. Service transfer is a reality of life. People compare the user-friendliness of one brand against all the other brands they use: is it as curated as Netflix, is it as effortless as Uber? A bad experience is both a reason for an existing user to jump ship, and for a new competitor to take business.

But human-centred design alone can miss the powerful nuances of the brand. It misses the difference that distinguishes brands – we should expect a Disney service to behave differently from an HBO service.  It risks becoming the service equivalent of a wind tunnel, from where every brand emerges frictionless but indistinguishable. And while it might serve the existing user who is already in front of the brand, it forgets to attract the new user who will drive growth.

The strategist who leads the experience needs to factor in the role of the brand. Purist design thinking filters ideas on Desirability, Feasibility and Viability: do users want it, is it technically possible, is there a business case? We need to add a brand filter that distils what is authentic to the experience. And if we want the experience to propagate the brand to more people, we need to add a cultural filter to see what real-world trends and conversations the experience relates to.

Brand story and brand system aren’t opposing forces. Just as brand stories need a system of media to house and distribute them, brand systems need a brand story to inspire and distinguish them. We can’t decouple brand thinking from experience thinking. The people we design for have technical expectations – like how seamless the experience should be and how they can access it – and brand expectations – like what experience the brand can authentically offer them. We have to work with both in mind to deliver a meaningful experience.

Design sets the terms of experience

The digital world has turned experience designers and strategists into accidental ethicists.

User behaviour and data are the building blocks of digital experience, and they are not inherently good. The same concepts of Nudges and System One Thinking that inspire a healthy eating program can inspire an addictive game or a sinister political campaign. If we believe that brands only endure when they serve people, strategists need to take some responsibility for the ethics of brand experience.

Are we working with or against people’s best instincts? “The Attention Merchants”’ author, Professor Tim Wu, explains that design sets the terms of any digital experience.

Picking up the responsibility for factoring in brand story to the brand system, and factoring an ethical dimension into the brand experience will make better strategists. It will also make better brands.

Future of Strategy 2019

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