Brand Strategist

Curiosity Matters

An Exploration of Branding, Design and Cultural Trends

How Brands Are Built In The Digital Age

How Brands Are Built in the digital age
How Brands Are Built in the digital age

This winter, I applied to the Admap Prize 2014 through WARC on how brands are built in the digital age and was shortlisted. Here's my entry and thoughts on building brands in the digital age.

Approximately two to three times a week, I purchase my morning coffee at a charming French café that’s slightly out of the way on my morning commute. I allow myself this small luxury, despite owning all the necessary requirements for home-brewing. The moment I step into this café, I am magically transported from the realities of fast-paced New York City to every American’s romantic notion of Paris. Furthering this illusion, I am surrounded by elegant French expats energetically catching up after dropping their children off at the Lycée Français, ordering their cafés and croissants.

As I approach the register, the refined Scottish barista, Andrew, greets me with a familiar hello and how are you, already knowing my usual order. I am not just a customer, but am the mayor (according to FourSquare). And this café is not just a caffeine and gluten–dispensing establishment, but a well-curated experience. Every employee, cake, cup and decoration has been specifically chosen to appeal to a particular customer. Impeccable service and friendly employees engage customers, while goodies like imported French treats delight them. It’s no surprise that I am not their only loyal customer.

Frank Rose points out in The Art of Immersion that “[The Internet] is the first medium that can act like all media—it can be text, or audio, or video, or all of the above. It is nonlinear … inherently participatory … constantly encouraging you to comment, to contribute, to join in. And it is immersive.” (1)

The Internet is not just immersive, but mimics real life, in-person experiences. It can replace the music we hear as we walk into an establishment; the patterns, textures and colors specifically chosen to tell a story about that store; the stories and information the sales clerk tells us about their products. It can even substitute how employees interact with customers with a virtual “How can I help you?” through Twitter. As brands show up in our social network feeds, the line between “Would I like to buy this product?” and “Do I want to have a relationship with this brand?” has blurred.

As marketers, we are tasked with understanding how our brands should behave in the digital age—with wondering how to unlock the magic formula, the right amount of customer data with the appropriate social channels and mobile apps. But what if there is no magic formula? What if succeeding in the digital age, regardless of the customer or location requires a different attitude from brands, one that involves genuinely caring about their customers to create a unique, branded experience. Digital technology enables brands to infuse genuine human touch in all communication points - a two-way conversation and personalization that mirrors the types of in-person interactions that have dominated seller/customer relationships throughout history.

Be Where Your Customer Is

“May I help you” begins with actually being there. An establishment carefully picks their location to cater to a specific clientele—to fill an unmet need. Although businesses are developed with the intent of making a profit, successful brands are also closely tied with delivering a solution to an unmet need – either through their location or actual products. For my favorite café, the owners may have seen an opportunity to give French expats a place to connect over an establishment that reminded them of home. For Warby Parker, a brand initially established online, their approach is no different, seeing an opportunity to give customers affordable glasses with the convenience of online shopping. Most importantly, both establishments carefully picked their location based on their customer’s needs, whether it’s choosing a particular neighborhood or deciding on an online distribution platform. Brands who care about their customers’ needs and behaviors or even care about continuing to grow, have an obligation to constantly track where their customer wants to purchase their products and serve those unmet needs.


Tesco famously catered to the buying needs of their customers when they created a “virtual store” in a Korean subway, allowing busy customers to conveniently scan products using smartphone-enabled QR codes. Kate Spade did something similar, creating a 24-hour virtual store in front of a few New York City empty storefronts, allowing customers to purchase products via the window screen and have it delivered within an hour. While the focus of these examples are often on the technology used, at the heart of these executions was a recognition by these companies that they could use technology to better serve their customers’ needs.

Anticipate Customer Needs Beyond Main Purchase

A brand that genuinely cares about their customer delivers what they say they will deliver, and understands exactly what their customer values and needs. At a basic level, a person entering a coffee shop might value impeccable customer service and delicious pastries, but nowadays, a caffeine junkie might also seek reliable Wi-Fi. My favorite coffee shop offers free Wi-Fi, a service that has delighted Starbucks’ customers for years.

By anticipating and catering to customers’ needs, brands are building their reputation one customer at a time. In the digital age, reputation is critical –the shareable nature of social can cause one bad Yelp review to go viral. A quick Google search can make it easy to tell which companies genuinely care about their customers and which companies one suspects are only focused on short term gain. In fact, the only types of companies that have survived despite bad reputations are those that customers have had no choice in supporting—from cable to health insurance. But even those are seeing a decline in sales as alternatives become available. Even brands that compete on price, most famously Amazon, work to ensure quality customer service and products, showing they care about their customers’ needs.

Provide Tools That Aid In Purchase and Decision Process 

At its core, what a customer seeks in a product is unlikely to change with the introduction of new technology. Even purely digital brands, built in the digital age, like Facebook have revolved first and foremost around the needs of their users. Apple understood that buying expensive electronics requires extensive research and the assurance that the product will continue to work. Consequently they have built their brand on excellent customer service that they have extended to online tools. With banks, people value security and customer service. In person, that might mean money held in a secure vault and helpful, well-dressed clerks at bank locations. In the digital space, that could translate to 24-7 online chat access, a user-focused mobile app and online, informative content. Citi has a history of using technology to serve their customers’ needs—first with the introduction of ATMs, and most recently with a mobile app that allows customers to scan checks into their accounts. Nike sells the promise of fitness whether through their athletic gear, mobile apps, FuelBand or even in-person athletic events.

Fill An Emotional Need

Millennials, as a consumer group, are particularly important for brands to understand in the digital age, since they are the demographic most likely to be heavy consumers of digital technology. In December 2013, The New York Times published an opinion piece called Millennial Searchers, noting the ways in which Millennials seek meaning and purpose in their lives. For them, it is no longer enough to purchase something that will give them a fleeting sense of happiness—they seek more meaning in their purchases. Across categories, we see older brands tying themselves to a bigger purpose – showing they care about bigger issues and using social to spread that purpose. From IBM’s Smarter Planet to Dove’s Real Beauty, each seeks to convey that their products help fulfill a bigger mission. On the flip side, brands built within the digital age started with a genuine purpose: TOMS’s Buy A Pair, Give A Pair campaign was based on the premise of philanthropy, allowing the average person to be a philanthropist. Warby Parker followed suit. For younger brands, especially those appealing to Millennials, what you do as a company is more important than what you say because it helps establish you as being genuinely focused on customers. Each brand helps customers fill an emotional need with their purchase.

Establish A Customer-First Internal Culture

It has never been more important to ensure that at the heart of your brand, you care about customers. Digital technology has pulled away the curtain that marketing previously created around brands. Each communication and customer touch point becomes an opportunity for everyone to see how a brand treats their customer. Brands like United (Breaks Guitars), JPMorgan (Ask JP Morgan) and have learned that infusing a customer-focused culture is critical in maintaining the reputation of the company. On the flip side, companies with excellent customer experiences, such as Apple, Virgin America or Zappos, have grown in the digital age. In fact, their success is often attributed to a strong company culture. Employee and in-person experiences have the potential to represent the brand, and interactions can easily go digital through an online review or public Tweet.

Deliver Something Unexpected

A brand that truly cares will add that little bit of delight, fulfilling a human desire and want. It’s asking how your day is in a way that makes you feel special. Carefully wrapping your purchase. It’s the décor that provides a mini escape to Paris. Or the music that puts you in a better mood. It’s an employee that goes above and beyond for their customer—remembers their order, ensures a particular product is in stock. Or the particularly knowledgeable store clerk, who, like a good friend, gives you an honest opinion as to why you shouldn’t buy something in their store.


For the online experience, decor can be translated into a well designed website that takes you to another place as you browse during your lunch break. A busy shelf of curated objects can be turned into a Pinterest board meant as visual eye candy, as in Anthroplogie’s merchandising. It could be having a well-designed e-commerce site that allows customers to browse thoroughly and uninterrupted before purchasing. It’s the technology a company can harness to predict what a customer wants based on their interactions. Or six-second how-to Vine videos bringing out fantasies of DYI home improvement. Brands can even create physical spaces to cater to customers’ desires.


In December 2013, Samsung created a pop-up experience store in New York’s Soho. Customers were treated to free coffee, and cupcakes while enjoying a space to relax during the busy shopping season. In the digital age, what may once have been a local stunt can now be shared instantly and globally through ones social feed, allowing everyone to see how a brand caters to the desires of their customers.

Facilitate Two-Way Conversations

Two-way interactions can be built with a brand over time through social media—an exchange never achieved through traditional advertising. A barista can facilitate conversations between like-minded customers, playing host or even matchmaker. Social media communities can be built and nurtured by community managers with no direct intention to sell products, only a direct intent to care about their customers’ desire for community.


Appeal to Our Emotions

Traditional advertising plays a critical role in adding to people’s desires and wants. Now that a Google search (ZMOT) has taken over the role of conveying detailed product benefits and reviews, traditional advertising, more than ever, is a place to tell a compelling story. Budweiser’s “Puppy Love”—a heartwarming story of love between a dog and a horse—was voted one of the most popular ads of the Super Bowl in 2014. As viewers, we may not understand how the commercial fit into the product, but our hearts were filled with warmth as we viewed it. Popular viral ads of 2013 were likely to tickle our emotions - illuminating bigger issues that we are too afraid to discuss like (Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches), pure distractions (Evian’s Baby & Me), make us laugh (Kmart’s “Ship My Pants) or make us cry out of joy (GoPro’s Fireman Saves Kitten). Ads that “go viral” are emotive, story-driven, funny and genuinely entertaining—all qualities that compel us to share so that we can fulfill our desire to connect with others, using them as conversational fodder.

While print ads are still a place to inform people about product benefits, they’ve also always been a place to inspire. Just as people have always cut out print ads and posted them in their spaces to inspire, we can now “pin” and share visuals created by brands. A traditional print ad might be more product-focused, whereas brands can now create inspirational, shareable online images with quotes or content that touches on that hidden desire of constant self-improvement.

Regardless of the medium or execution, every point of communication for a brand is connected and conveys whether or not a brand genuinely cares about their customers. For brands with exciting products and strong, customer-focused values, there is a world of opportunity in the digital age. But for brands with a weak product that is not customer-focused, succeeding in the digital age will be an uphill battle.

To the naked eye, it appears that digital technology has revolutionized our universe. It has changed how we communicate and how we interact with each other, with ourselves and even with brands. But ultimately it has brought humanity and a new sense of intimacy back into our lives that brands can now tap into. It’s that human touch, that feeling that a brand genuinely cares, brought to us through a personalized Facebook exchange, a convenient mobile purchase or inspiring branded content. After decades of impersonal, mass marketing, digital technology finally enables brands to reach across the counter—warmly shaking their customers’ hands.