Making sense of this fast-evolving interactive world

At last the New Year is well under way and business is getting back up to speed. I don't know what it was this year but it's taken more time for things to get going, despite the fact we've got lots of work on at Rufus Leonard. In the UK the weather has probably not helped. Even with a little snow, the whole country seems to grind to a halt – and this year we've had quite a bit more than a little.

Having said that business is gathering momentum, the thing I find most remarkable about 2010 is that despite the constant drip-drip of negative news about the economic situation – for over two years now – there seems to be a surprising level of confidence in the air. I hope that this isn't just the misplaced optimism of a New Year; in my experience if you're optimistic, you can achieve incredible things. And that's just what's needed now, so, I, for one, will be doing all I can to keep spirits up.

A new year gives you a great excuse to pick up the phone. So I've been having conversations with a number of my clients about the 12 months in prospect. They've raised the usual start-of-year question: 'what's the most important thing to focus on this year?' In the previous years, my answers would differ widely depending on the type of organisation and its core market. But this year, I believe there's an overwhelming driver for all businesses irrespective of industry: it's building trust.

There's no doubt in my mind that the financial meltdown of 2008/9 struck deep into the heart of financial services organisations worldwide. And it has left shareholders and customers at best disappointed, and at worst extremely angry and militant in their views… and their willingness to express them in public. This poses a significant – and ongoing – challenge for brands, in terms of not only reactive news management, but even how to communicate news that's good for consumers, against a backdrop of genuine disaffection.

Shareholders and consumers simply aren't willing to let businesses carry on in their old ways, and this sentiment is no longer confined to the financial services sector. So there's now a real opportunity for organisations of all shapes and sizes – from small entrepreneurial firms to government behemoths – to become more transparent and honest, and make a virtue of it.

So far, brands have responded by harking back to the good old days of wholesomeness, running campaigns that reflect their heritage and longevity. The message is clear: your grandmother and mother trusted us, and so should you. From washing powder brands to bakers to retailers, everyone's suddenly at it. But it needs to go much further, and soon.

Take, for instance, the monumental increase in activity across all social media platforms. In the early part of the 21st century, there are few places to hide for those brands that don't deliver on their promises or attempt to bamboozle consumers with over-inflated claims and bombastic language. (There's been quite a bit of that in Dubai, over the years…)

Social media – and the freedom of expression that comes with it – is a good thing, too, because we now live in a world where brands want to make and sustain deep and meaningful connections with consumers. I suppose they always have, but now they find themselves in a world where the fundamental rules of engagement have changed… and are changing all the time. Social media offers a phenomenal opportunity for connected brands to reach out and interact with consumers on a wholly new, totally transparent level.

So put yourself in a major brand manager's shoes. He's faced with a world which never stops, where opinions are easier than ever to share, where the web can fit in your pocket and shareholders [and voters] can stop boardroom bonuses. And that's just the start. Prepare for more across the next 12 months.

The brand manager's challenge for 2010 is to start by getting his bearings, adjusting to the new reality, reaching out and building trust, pronto. What brands want more than ever is to make sense of this full-on, fast-evolving, highly interactive world. But making sense of it right now is a very big ask. For a start, it takes deep and informed understanding, not only of branding and digital media, which for me are key, but the entire communications mix. And crucially, it will take the ability to master these disparate activities to give your brand the intelligence and muscle to connect, evolve and thrive in the connected, honest decade ahead.

Do we have good reason to be optimistic about both brand openness and the state of the economy? Yes, but then I am a glass-half-full type of man. l just hope I feel the same by the middle of February…

 

The author is Chief Executive of Rufus Leonard in London and Dubai. The views expressed are his own.

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