Traditional brand positioning is dead. That’s the conclusion WE Communications’ international president Alan VanderMolen draws from the firm’s new research, which focuses on “Brands in Motion” and looks at the ways in which external factors ranging from consumer expectations to technological advances impact brand perceptions.

“Brand positioning became dead when social media became mainstream,” says VanderMolen. “Positioning suggests a fixed destination. Brand motion reflects the realities of acceleration, disruption, dislocation and the exponential expectations of your customers. Brand motion is built from the truth that neither your brand, your customers, nor anything in your environment is static.”

In a presentation designed around the new research, VanderMolen suggests a number of factors that are driving accelerated motion in the current business environment:

  • The regulatory environment, which today has additional complexities, compliments of Brexit, a new American administration, and regulatory tensions between North America, Asia, and Continental Europe., as well as the challenge of regulators unable to keep pace with the accelerated environment, for example “sharing economy”;
  • Economics: “We’re inundated with a mix of leading indicators, lagging indicators and government spends on both, which leaves business in the precarious position of balancing data against best guess”;
  • Competition: “It’s not just about your direct competitors, but the competition you didn’t see coming and their impact on your industry, your business model, and your customer base”;
  • Stakeholder desires: “You are now in a position to balance short term reactions against long term stability, both are necessary”;
  • Organizational culture: Quoting management guru Peter Drucker: “Organizational culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner”;
  • Cultural Zeitgeist: “The impact of culture and prevailing norms of the moment have put businesses and brands in a position where they must have their fingers on the pulse of “so called” acceptability in real time”;
  • Crisis: “You know it’s going to happen, you’ve seen it happen to others, however rarely are you prepared when one hits you.”

Says Melissa Waggener Zorkin, CEO of WE Communications: “Brands need to ask themselves critical questions: Are you propelling your brand? Is something or someone else propelling your brand? Or is it both?”

To understand how brand perceptions shift in such a complex environment, WE asked consumers and business-to-business decision-makers in the US, the UK and China a series of questions about sectors and individual brands within those sectors, focusing on 10 rational drivers (including executive behavior, innovation, intent to purchase, financial performance, industry leadership, quality, responsibility and value) and 10 emotional drivers: (including customer experience, love/hate, overall impression, social impact, buzz, life impact, and shared values).

The resulting data allowed WE to see where brands fall across four quadrants.

Those that score high in both emotional and rational drivers are “Movers,” brands or categories that have found the right balance of emotion and rational connections. They’ve learned to harness their own motion and the motion around them, but have to keep pushing and continue to find what’s next. While the firm doesn’t identify specific brands in each quadrant, VanderMolen says many technology brands are currently in this quadrant.

Brands that score high in rational drivers but low in emotional drivers are “Defenders.” They may be selling commodity products or highly functional products, or be part of highly regulated industries. “Many companies that fall here might be satisfied with being a Defender,” says WE. “But due to low emotional connection, they risk losing customer support in times of crisis. If they want to shift, they need to start engaging with consumers and finding the love.”  

Low rational and high emotional scores fell into the “Agitators” quadrant. These brands are often driving change in their categories—home technology is prevalent here—turning consumers onto new possibilities through high experience and engagement. “They have to prove accessibility and everyday benefit to lend credibility to their brand/category,” the agency says.

Finally, a “Survivor” scores low in both emotional and rational drivers. These brands have either just pulled through a significant challenge or are on the precipice of a crisis. “They need to get laser focused on how to turn motion into an advantage for them—be ready to move fast to reach people on a rational and emotional level to move their brand to a leading spot in the industry—or risk becoming irrelevant.”

In addition to providing a diagnostic look at where brands find themselves, the Brands in Motion research—which VanderMolen says can be customized cost-effectively for specific clients—also provides a diagnostic, suggesting which drivers companies need to emphasize in their marketing and public relations activities in order to move in the desired direction.

And the research found four broad realities that can provide actionable insight for marketers:

  • First, stability is an element of motion. “Despite all the rapid change at the environmental level, there is a high number of consumers that believe brands are capable of providing stability in uncertain times: 62% of respondents in China, 42% in the UK, and 48% in the US said they believed brands can absolutely provide stability—creating a huge opportunity for brands to step up and offer new value to customers as a stabilizing force.:
  • Second, cutting edge is transcendent. “The WE study also found a high correlation between brands that are viewed as cutting edge, also being loved versus hated, seen as out for the common good versus doing harm, and viewed as a pleasure versus a misery to do business with. This connection strongly suggests that being cutting edge—whether enabled by technology or inspired by it—leads to positive brand outcomes in areas that transcend product.”
  • Third, the “Unilever effect”: “Across all three markets, half or more of surveyed consumers said they placed a balance on brands delivering not only highly effective, high-functional benefit products and services but also taking an active position on issues that provide long-term social value. Consumers increasingly expect brands to take a stand on important issues, especially if in direct conflict to their core values as an organization. This is almost equally weighted in purchase decisions.”  
  • And fourth, “love you today, shame you tomorrow”: “Out of all eight categories surveyed across China, UK and the US, two out of three people said they loved the industry; however, nine out of 10 people said they would gladly join in public shaming of that industry if it stepped out of line. Brands today must build stronger emotional connections with consumers to keep customer loyalty—especially in times of crisis.”

VanderMolen’s advice: “Stop obsessing over your position and start focusing on your motion. Where are you in all of this?  Where are your stakeholders? Are you driving the motion or stuck in the passenger seat letting it drive you? If you think the environment around you is shifting fast, the media ecosystem is shifting even faster. How consumers are absorbing—or being turned off by—your messages is a key piece of taking control of your own motion. Use this to your advantage to create stories for your brand that move as quickly as the forces around you.”