The brand and audience that make together, stay together

Daniel Harris, service design director at Fjord, on how brands will increasingly let their audiences help shape 2014.

Daniel Harris

Brands used to be control freaks. But now users have high expectations for a more humanised relationship with their products and services, putting them in the command seat. With this in mind, brands are slowly giving up control of their image, their story, and have strategically become more open about their tactics. This is a trend that’s been building for the last three years: people harnessing social media to praise or shame a brand. In the past, we’ve seen organisations address this by using social media as a customer service channel by engaging in conversation directly with users or for crowdsourcing ideas to create new or improved services or products.

Now, however, brands need to relinquish their control in a new way by being part of and driving the conversation, while reacting more nimbly. This type of approach must be baked into the organisation and across all the touchpoints. This agility and empathy must be incorporated through service design, listening to users for authentic understanding and providing just-in time resources that surprise and delight people — must be present in every interaction.

Brands are beginning to decentralise their communications and outreach, by building robust customer ambassador programs. Facebook asks tech savvy users to hack their system. They’ve offered over $1M to hackers that would otherwise be hacking against them, to do it in their favour by finding security breaches. Not only are these ways to incorporate brilliant and creative super users into the core of the brand, but it also reminds users that organizations are run by people, not just technology.

Another way to relinquish control is to allow users to navigate both product and services in a way that fits their natural behaviour. Nordstrom is a pioneer in this space when they bridged the gap between e-commerce and their brick-and-mortar shops. Realising that customers don’t shop by channel, they have a holistic inventory that checks warehouses and other nearby stores to see what product is available and allows in-store returns for online purchases. Their system mirrors a digital lifestyle—one that has fluid boundaries between off and online behaviour. This method showcases an empathy and understanding for users that creates an authentic, almost peer-to-peer, relationship between users and brands.          

Within this service design trend we’ll see companies embrace brand inclusion or co-production even more this year, by stepping forward and building platforms that empower their people to create their own products, the services that surround them, and community. People will be in control of their own experiences, but in a way that still feels unique to the brand.

Yes, this year’s buzz trend was brands learning to become more dynamic storytellers, but now they have to be better facilitators of their users’ stories. A prime example is Microsoft’s newly launched project, called MSFQT. They’re asking cultural curators to fill their interactive platform and event venues, with creative culture—anything from fashion and music to digital and performance art. Users are defining their own experience on the platform, both online and off, with Microsoft supporting them with design and technology. It helps promote a perception that Microsoft is creative, supportive, and instrumental in cultivating culture that is shaping the world.

The interactive nature of digital turns centrally controlled structures like traditional branding on its head, as most brand interactions are now primarily through digital channels. People want products and services from brands that deliver value and align with their values. That means mishaps are taken more personally and the feedback loop is rapid.

Brands should focus on ownable interactions, creating experiences that are true to the brand’s values and pillars. It’s less about focusing on customer-facing tools and partnerships and more about truly understanding what value your brand can bring to people and designing services that incorporate this.

The brands that stand out in 2014, will be those that design service platforms for participation and catalysts for development – think open APIs, remix-able tools and highly collaborative partnerships with people who have a trusted relationship with their networks.

Daniel Harris is service design director at Fjord

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