5 simple rules for creating a digital-first brand in 2021

Category: Strategy & Insights
08 Jun 2021
Read time: 7 MIN
Written By
Kate Pfeil

Whether we like it or not, the pandemic gave the whole world a crash course in digital living. 4.6 billion of us now turn to our screens to shop, exercise, socialise, learn, work, read, be entertained…the list goes on. With average daily screen time rising above 8 hours, and millions planning to work remotely well into the future, we can say with certainty that the virtual experience is no longer a trend, it’s a lifestyle.

The impact for brands is thrilling. With a world of tech-savvy people actively looking for ways to be engaged online there is endless opportunity to use the power of digital activations to connect to our audiences. Brands are experienced much differently than they ever have been in the past. No longer just our product and service providers, they’re now our entertainers. Our educators. Our partners. Our change-makers. 

Take Cadbury.

In a collaboration with London-based media agency VCCP, Cadbury used Google Street View to ‘create a pandemic-friendly virtual Easter egg hunt’, using the Worldwide Hide platform, through which participants could hide a virtual egg anywhere on earth for someone they love to find. Brilliant idea, brilliantly executed. They made it look so easy.



But activating your brand online isn’t easy at all. The digital world can be big and scary, and though it presents a million opportunities to do something new, people today also demand something authentic - so where do you start?

Start with your strategy

It might seem obvious, but you really do need to start by having a bulletproof brand strategy. Without one, you’re at risk of perpetually chasing the something new without remembering the something authentic. This is an easy way to spend millions of marketing budget on one-off activations that add little to no long-term value to your brand.

The issue with brand strategy in today’s world is that, though the way we experience brands has seismically and irreversibly shifted, the way we create them hasn’t. Traditional ‘analog’ brand strategy methods and processes – like this brand onion model that has been floating around since the 90s –still dominate an increasingly-digital landscape. Not that smart thinking ever goes out of style, but sticking to an historic script means we’re failing to take advantage of the new realms of possibility that digital has ushered in.

Conventional processes also usually dictate ‘brand strategy first, digital and UX strategy second’. This set up often results in a clunky handover between two entirely separate teams, involving a lot of awkward retrofitting that can create a confused brand. If brands are experienced, shared, and lived virtually, then we need to approach them with a multi-disciplinary lens - with a collaborative cross-section of people from strategy, creative, digital and UX teams - right from the beginning.

So, we’ve put together our five biggest rules for creating a digital-first brand strategy to help you make your brand fit for purpose in 2021.

1. Marie Kondo your Brand Strategy

First things first, let’s talk about what shouldn’t be in your brand strategy. I’m a firm believer that jargon and over-complication have made themselves far too comfortable in the world of strategy. It’s not uncommon to see a single brand strategy document peppered with infinite layers of overlapping terms such as ‘purpose’, ‘promise’, ‘proposition’ and a hundred other p-words that sound official but often obscure what we really mean.

This was less of an issue in a non-digital world when communications had to go through a series of checks and balances before they made their way into the world; however, the nature of digital has led to “shifting authorities”, says expert Nils Jensen. “Traditional company figures such as CEOs and spokespeople are losing authority whereas subject-matter experts, peers and employees are considered substantially more trustworthy. They now have a voice, which can potentially reach millions of people in a split second.”

And if you hand over a dry, 20-page brand strategy document stuffed with overlapping jargon to ten individual employees, I guarantee you that each of them will latch onto something different, and express the brand in their own unique way. The result? A brand that fails to show up consistently or coherently online.

So - strip it out. Cut the jargon. If it doesn’t spark common understanding, toss it out. Peel back the layers of the brand onion and get to the heart of what you stand for to help your team activate your brand in the right way online.

2. Figure out your Big Unifying Idea 

Your Big Unifying Idea is this ‘heart’ of what you do, and the single most important ingredient in your brand strategy. Your Big Unifying Idea should be relevant to your audiences (based on a clear need), distinct in your competitive space (something no one else is delivering on), credible for your brand to deliver on (but that you can deliver on), and inspiring for people internally (a catalyst for new ideas). For brands who need to understand where they fit in the market, this Big Unifying Idea could be written as a classic positioning statement. For brands who are driven by a shared ethos and vision, it could be written as a purpose statement. Whatever it ends up being called in your brand strategy document, the main point here is that there should only be one of these Big Ideas.

It used to be that a brand’s Big Idea could be rooted in its specific offer, but the beauty (and challenge) of digital is that it allows (and demands) you to activate your brand in endless ways online. The most iconic brands carve out Big Unifying Ideas that transcend any individual part of their product or offer to give themselves license to restlessly experiment and tap into new opportunities. 

Take Johnnie Walker.

A brand whose Big Unifying Idea around personal progress (‘Keep Walking’) has been around for over 200 years, Johnnie Walker has hit headlines countless times in the past few years for their ability to reimagine the idea over and over again to make it relevant in changing contexts, while still retaining the authenticity and uniqueness that makes them, them.

#TheTravellingBillboard campaign in India was ‘a celebratory personification of the brand’s spirit, the striding man, aimed at encouraging fans to get out and explore the world’ (yes, this was pre-Covid). Launched in partnership with 150 social media influencers plus an Instagram filter that captures User-Generated Content, the campaign captured live journeys to some of India’s most exotic and remote locations and succeeded in capitalising on the massive trend in social media travel to boost brand engagement online.

Johnnie Walker Billboard Advert

#TheTravellingBillboard Campaign for Johnnie Walker

Luxury British retailer Selfridges follows a similar strategy successfully. 

Although the luxury market ‘has traditionally been a category rooted in the physical, from exceptional customer service to handcrafted products and opulent store design’, (Stylus) ‘approximately half of all luxury purchases will be digitally enabled thanks to new technologies along the value chain, and online interactions will influence nearly all luxury purchases.’ (Forbes)

Defining their Big Unifying Ideas as ‘more than a shop - a social centre powered by imagination, curiosity and creativity’ Selfridges is free to pursue any kind of digital activation that supports that statement. Its Yellow Kitchen Instagram channel, Google+ #beautyproject initiative, and partnership with online second-hand retailer Depop are all examples of digital activations that, while disparate in style and purpose, work together to help Selfridges cement a unique long-term position in the market and keep things fresh, interesting and exciting by tapping into the capabilities of different online platforms

Selfridges Store with yellow sign 'Let's Change The Way We Shop'

Both brands prove just how important the strength of flexibility, experimentation, spontaneity and playfulness are in a digital world. Novelty and the unexpected attracts eyeballs and engagement, which ultimately drives conversion. Figuring out a Big Unifying Idea that transcends any individual part of your offer will be the best springboard for new ideas moving forward that bridge the gap between something new and something authentic.

3. Don’t be boring 

‘Like people, brands without personalities are boring.’

If there’s one thing we absolutely don’t have time for online, it’s boring. “Certainly, a brand story must be meaningful, but it’s the way in which a brand communicates that truly sets the brand apart, makes it instantly recognisable and creates an emotional connection”, writes Arek Dvornechuck at Medium. And, according to a research institute’s two-year study of 100,000 retail customers, “emotionally connected customers have a 306 percent higher lifetime value”.

Brands now behave a little less like corporations and a little more like people when speaking online: they are content creators, educators and entertainers with their own social media accounts and vlogs. And, as with the humans we choose to surround ourselves with, they should have a cracking personality. 

Mattel made this shift quite literally, by making Barbie her own Instagram page and stacking up a staggering 2.1M followers in the process. Traditionally a brand that prided itself on Barbie as a blank canvas on which little girls and boys could project their own dreams, crafting the doll a distinct personality – entrepreneurial, mindful, friendly – for the first time, similar to a real world influencer, allows the brand to forge a connection with a whole new generation of children.

Barbie Instagram PageBarbie Instagram 2

Barbie is not the only example of a brand confident enough to carve out a brave online persona. Even Apple – arguably the most sophisticated tech brand on the planet – has a playful, bold and evocative brand personality. Steve Job defines Apple’s personality as “non-corporate, artistic, sophisticated and creative.” This manifests itself in the likes of an AirPod Pro video ad that I’ve replayed more than a dozen times and website copy so engaging that it manages to make learning about iPhone 12 accessories entertaining.

The goal with brand personality is to cut through the billions of pieces of digital content in the virtual world in order to grab the ever-fleeting audience attention (which has officially dropped to a time-span of eight seconds), so think big and don’t be afraid to be a little weird.

It’s also important to acknowledge that, like people, brands should behave differently on different channels. On LinkedIn, we’ll be a little more buttoned up than on Snapchat. Our Instagrams will likely take a slightly different tone than our emails. After you define your distinct personality, putting loose guidelines around how your tone, look and feel changes across channels will help you create a holistic brand experience in a digital environment that’s appropriate and engaging.

4. Define values you actually plan on living

Generic values are in-actionable values. 

Gone are the days where it’s optional for brands to partake in important global issues. Social media, mounting frustration and distrust in the public sector and the growth of collective action means that we’re relying on brands to become platforms that speak up, and take real action to make the world a better, fairer and more inclusive place. 

But, as Victoria Cook from Mindshare correctly warns, “whatever you do, it has to fit with your brand identity, because if it doesn’t consumers will react to that really quickly and not believe you”. 

She’s right. A quick Google search of ‘brands in trouble for purpose-washing’ (or if you’re Gen Z – ‘woke-washing’) quickly surfaces thousands of tweets, posts and articles such as the two below, which demonstrate just how ‘navigating the waters of social advocacy is far more difficult for brands than many want to acknowledge, and that the price of getting it wrong can be extreme.’ (HBR)

Amazon News Tweet about Black Lives Matter Movement

We’ve realised that talk is cheap, and brands who post on social media without actually doing anything are full of it. So how do you use your digital platform to activate your brand in the right way, simultaneously empowering your organisation to help build a better world while safeguarding itself from purpose-washing? It starts with having non-generic, genuine values that reflect the real culture you’ve created and the beliefs you stand for. Using these values to decide on and define the types of causes you relate to and issues you want to speak up on will help you focus your efforts and resources while starting to shield you from perceived inauthenticity.

Airbnb’s mission (we believe in a world where people can belong anywhere) plus their four core values - Champion the Mission, Be a Host, Embrace the Adventure, Be a Cereal Entrepreneur - are rooted in the very early days of Airbnb. Unmistakably ‘them’, these values help Airbnb weigh in on important issues in a manner that feels honest and true. It helps them decide which initiatives to invest in (such as Project Lighthouse, which aims to uncover, measure and overcome discrimination) and it helps them communicate why – and how – they help, authentically.

AirBnB Core Values

Let’s be clear - your values can’t do your work for you. But in a digital world where brands have to act and react quickly, a strong ethos that really does reflect the beating heart of your organisation is a critical ingredient of your strategy. Defining what makes you tick also helps perpetuate the kind of culture that will create activations to span the life of your organisation.

5. Bring the experience to life ‘phygitally’

Now that you have your Big Unifying Idea, non-boring personality and non-generic values, you can start to think about how that might start to come to life as a brand experience both offline and online. Come up with a few Experience Principles that outline how your brand should make people feel across physical and digital (‘phygital’) channels. These Experience Principles usually take the form of three to four big pillars that describe how the brand makes people feel throughout their journey.

The way we explore, discover, shop and share is no longer a linear process in which we rigidly follow the phases of a funnel set out by marketeers. People jump seamlessly between platforms and encounter new brands on new channels and via new communities every day. Having this set of principles will help your brand show up consistently in the world, wherever it’s met by your audiences. 

The One & Only experience 

Luxury hospitality brand One&Only’s Big Unifying Idea (we take you where few will ever go) non-boring personality (adventurous, exclusive, in-the-moment) and non-generic values (We Create Joy Philosophy anchored by five key behaviours - warmth, empathy, anticipation, precision and creativity) set the tone for a holistic and emotive experience for every audience across their individual customer journey. Whether I’m a honeymooner or a family of four, I feel instantly immersed in the One&Only way of life, wherever and whenever I encounter the brand online or offline. 

The One&Only Experience

Prada’s VR win

Having Experience Principles can also help you harness the power of emerging technologies (AR, VR, Holograms…) to immerse your audiences in a specific brand feeling online. 

In June 2020, Prada Virtual Reality refocused on capturing fans of the brand at home with an immersive VR experience available on YouTube VR and VEER, which took them on a trip to locations including Tokyo, New York and Milan and allowed them to get up close to the Spring 2020 collection in a fun, whimsical and very ‘Prada’ way (WGSN).

Prada Catwalk VR

The biggest temptation when it comes to digital is chasing the cool, new and shiny technologies that end up costing you big without adding much real long-term value to your brand. Having clear Experience Principles that tell you how you should be making people feel at every touchpoint can help you direct your attention to the right tools and avoid flushing market budget down the toilet.

In summary: our 5 simple rules for creating a good digital-first strategy

The digital world is an exciting place, and your brand strategy has to work harder than ever to be the spark that sets off a billion new ideas, a filter to evaluate them, a safeguard from perceived in-authenticity and an anchor to help you define a long-term market position.

We need to start thinking differently about how we create strategy so that it liberates – rather than constricts – users, the people with the most potential to make it a powerful differentiator in a digital age.

Go Marie Kondo and cut the clutter.
Nail one Big Unifying Idea to underpin your strategy.
Define a non-boring personality.
And values you actually plan on living.
Create phygital experience principles.

Stress test your strategy before sign-off through brainstorming and ideation with a cross section of your company (creatives, UX-ers, strategists, copywriters, product teams). If it's easy to use your strategy as a springboard for new ideas that feel relevant to your audiences, distinct in the space, and credible for your brand to deliver on in a digital world, you’re probably onto something good. 

If you’re met with silence, dead air and head scratching, then speak to Matter Of Form. It might be worth revisiting the drawing board.

If you'd like to discuss how we partner with timeless luxury brands to provide brand strategy, digital experience design and innovation consultancy, please get in touch via hello@matterofform.com to arrange a time to speak with our team of consultants.

Published by Kate Pfeil

Senior Strategist

Kate is interested in understanding how brands can best carve out meaningful roles in our culture. A strategist with experience across a stretch of sectors, including hospitality, finance and telecommunications, she is always on the hunt for fresh perspectives and insights to bring to new conversations.

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