In search of the Brand Utopia

Deloitte Digital – Semi Permanent Sydney 2022

The role that brands play in society is so constantly shifting that to try and pin it down would be an exercise in futility itself. Tricky to get right and disastrous to get wrong, creating that inimitable bond between commercial entity and hyper-individualistic consumers is rife with opportunities and threats. But does the brand utopia exist? And if so, how do we find it for ourselves?

At Semi Permanent Aoteroa, we partnered with Deloitte Digital to unpack the future brand utopia, assembling an on-stage discussion between a set of experts each with wildly different ideas about how brands can find their own place in the world without overstepping the boundary lines of what consumers want from them. 

Starting with information

It’s always good to start at the beginning, and for Google head of human centered innovation and strategy, Hector Ouilhet, the brand utopia starts with information. Hector offered a definition of a brand as the packaging of information, as well as a brief history lesson in how information (and therefore brands) have changed over time: from subjective (myths) to objective (science); from primitive (cave paintings) to immersive (mixed media); and from rational (few to few) to relational (many to many). He describes the next generation of consumers as people who experience love, heartbreak, bullying, employment, and socialisation entirely online. And in turn a new brand environment that completely differs from everything that has come before it.  

It’s not just facts, but feelings; not just empirical, but experiential; not just the truth, but your truth; not just believability, but relatability; and not just authoritative, but authentic.”

Hector Ouilhet — Head of Human Centred Innovation and Strategy, Google

The engagement business

For Deloitte Digital’s Dan Wright (Chief Creative Officer) and Ahmad Salim (Partner and Managing Director), the brand utopia exists as the culmination of a limitless series of interactions with virtually no start and end point. But within the infinity, a few“simple, stupid” truths exist: 
1) People notice things they haven't seen before.
2) People are attracted to interesting things. 
3) People participate in the things that line up with what matters to them.
Essentially, they back the idea of brand as a series of engagements—every customer interaction, phone conversations, piece of packaging, social media post, and employee review—that can make or break how people feel about your brand at any one time. The key then, is to see a brand as a business strategy rather than a marketing strategy. Deloitte Digital work with thousands of businesses on digital transformation: building new systems and realising long-term ambitions in a shorter timeframe. And what they’ve found is that the decisions you make as a business have a 1:1 impact on your brand: To create a brand utopia means to create a real world one, too. 

"We go from sales opportunities to engagement opportunities, we go from being data-driven to creating data-enabled experiences; the‘build it and they will come’ mentality to‘lets build it with them’ mentality. Then you get to go from being a category player to a category disrupter.”

Dan Wright — Deloitte Digital 

Of course, there are examples of this working incredibly (Patagonia bestowing their company to planet earth), and examples of it tanking a business (a single cheese sandwich from Fyre Festival), but what they all point to is factors beyond the usual branding suspects as having the most powerful impact on how it operates thereafter. 
Lucy Blakiston — Semi Permanent Aotearoa 2022
Lucy Blakiston

You should really care about it 

Lucy Blakiston spent years building a successful media empire(the aptly named‘Shit You Should Care About’) and has Harry Styles to thank for it. Growing up in the shadow of her brother’s Tour de France obsession, she learnt to focus a similar energy into a One Direction fandom, unwittingly building a blueprint (out of fan-pages, blogs, and social communities) that she would later use to co-create an accessible news channel on Instagram years later. Now with over 3 million followers and a multiverse of podcasts, channels, and partnerships, she’s been largely co-credited with a new generation of broadcasters helping get young people engaged in current affairs. 

"I never thoughts my skills as a fangirl could go on a CV."  

Lucy Blakiston — Founder, Shit You Should Care About

In Lucy’s own words, the brand utopia is authenticity — to create something you yourself would want to engage in before expecting anyone else to do the same; to turn money down as a business strategy; to set short term goals, and abide by the principles your audience hold you too; and to do it all without trying too hard to be professional. Its atypical of what is expected, but that’s entirely the cause of it’s success. 

“We put our creativity and our happiness before content because if the audience can feel we’re not vibing it, they won’t believe that we’re telling them what they should be caring bout.”

Lucy Blakiston — Founder, Shit You Should Care About

As our panel merged three alternating visions of the brand utopia—where commercial activity and community good come together—moderator Shantel Wetherall questioned the difference between how things were and in what direction they were going. 
"The discrepancy between messaging and behaviour is over,” says Ahmad. “You can't project a social good on one side and bank on the money over on the other side." 
Lucy points to the success of ‘Shit you Should Care About’ as a testament to the seismic shift in what constitutes a brand in the first place."Whether it's a good or bad thing, everyone does have a platform. I got to build a business. But everyone can own their voice on any platform they choose."
"Fundamentally, it's a human need to be loved, to eat, to relate, and that's been since the beginning of time, adds Hector. “What's changed is that because the role of technology anyone can say whatever they want whenever they want, to whoever they want, at any time they choose, We have an exponential capability to express what's in our head, so we need to manage that." 

Separating the real from the unreal 

It’s not new for branding to be used as a workaround for nefarious practices. Propaganda is rife from both commercial and political interests; sports-washing(using global sporting events to build goodwill against problematic causes) will likely be the word of the year; and consumers have become savvy to the idea that plastic straws won’t offset oil refineries. But might the brand utopia be a place where audiences see through the message before it has a change to do its damage? 
“I think we’re getting to a point where people will just be able to tell intrinsically,” says Ahmad. “There are more touch points and they’re becoming more varied and consistent. If employees aren’t happy you hear about it; if suppliers aren’t happy you hear about it; and people’s instincts open up to that.” 
“We're seeing a shift from state institutions across to brands onto how they tackle some of the world's biggest problems,” adds Dan. “There's an expectation that brands will pick up the slack, which is scary. It’s hinting at the privatisation of democracy, but it does give the user power over the companies they support.” 
But being a good brand does not mean you can’t make money as well. "There's so much evidence out there that if you want to improve the world, it needs to be profitable to someone,” adds Dan. “Profit and purpose are the cycle that drives growth." 
Future State Panel — Semi Permanent Aotearoa 2022

Finding purpose 

Which then begs the other question: does every brand and every individual need to reach such a lofty purpose? Ahmad mentions that brands love to use Patagonia as their furthermost north star, but should they have to? Surely a purpose can be as small as your niche, or as large as your ambition" [The word purpose] gets a bad wrap. If you’re offering value to a community, that is purpose. If you know exactly what drives you and you do it with impunity, that’s purpose.” 
“Every brand or almost any person with a platform feels like on every issue on a lot of issues,” says Lucy, pointing to recent social justice campaigns as areas where people feel more compelled to speak than to listen—occasionally to their detriment. “You don't have to be everything to everyone in order to be purposeful,” adds Shantel. 
“Brands are wrappers of information in the same way people are,” says Hector. “If it resonates with you deeply, the best way to do it is to find a shared purpose. The abundance of connection we have nowadays is extraordinary. Connecting at the purpose is hard to quantify but it is the correct approach.” 

The future utopia

And then as we look towards the future, brands will need to look outward and into their own version of utopia. For Ahmad and Dan, that’s in creating work with a the longest possible lasting impact; for Lucy, it’s in the spirit of activating(and being challenged) by a new generation of engaged consumers; and for Hector, it’s to inspire his child to understand that the world is bigger than what she can see in front of her. 
As Dan says in his final response, “Don’t just do what you love, do what you believe in.”