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the future of planning

Earning brands a role in the world means championing more voices in the room

Edelman's EMEA CSO advocates for a broader approach to brand planning, placing emphasis on the importance of representing diverse voices

By Jay Gallagher

So much of the way we build and design brands depends on the gaze of a single stakeholder – the consumer, and that means that it’s become an industry truism that the role of the planner is to be the voice – champion even – of the consumer in the room. But, with all the overlapping and intersecting audiences, influences and interventions, that no longer seems to be adequate. The number of groups who can make a brand successful or not continues to increase. Consumers, yes, but consumers as influencers, or activists. Employees, who are also campaigners; investors who are key opinion leaders, and policymakers who are consumer champions. And that’s just this week. Next week the intersections and overlaps will be more intense and more complex to navigate.

So, I’d suggest that the future planner should see themselves more as the voice of the whole interested community, and at different times the focus within that community will shift as the task shifts. From consumer to stakeholder to employee and back again. But at no time should we lose sight of the multiplicity of audience and their expectations of business and brands. Those expectations call for different types of brand relationships, and different types of communication. A key part of the value planning can bring in the future will be to map and define this community, bringing order to its chaos, ensuring the brands we guard acknowledge, understand and serve the whole ecosystem.

Navigating all of this calls for the same core skills which have always underpinned the planner role: empathy, curiosity, synthesis, and simplification. But in the spirit of “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed” as the complexity of this landscape increases, here are a few things we should expect to see more of:

Discipline overlap: The brand and corporate communication disciplines tessellate, if not explicitly overlap. They certainly share their audience, and their media space. We’ve all seen brand spaces hi-jacked by some reference to the travails of its corporate owners – whether fair or not. Planners need to understand all the interlocking disciplines to ensure that the work we are helping to shape doesn’t run afoul of other aspects of the brand or corporate expression. We’ve had 15 years of thinking in terms of paid, owned and earned channels, this feels imminent as the next evolution.

Holistic brand design: The resolute focus on the consumer alone can lead us to build brands made of 20 layers of description and definition through a very narrow lens, ignoring the inconvenient world outside. Well, the communities of audiences are looking, and they see and share whether your ‘playful’ brand value is matched by your ‘playful’ supply chain policies, or if your “everyone welcome” positioning is really your employees experience. We can’t keep them separate and any disconnect will quickly render as fiction our brand worlds which describe the brand only as we would like it to be. Leaving them inauthentic, and therefore, useless.

The end to ownership: So many planning conversations are rooted in what a brand can own. The truth is that in this complex, interconnected landscape, there’s not that much room for brands to ‘own’ a territory, subject or issue. And there aren’t many people looking for more brand ownership in the world. It’s brand building through annexation. A better question is always, where can we be uniquely valuable. Where can we take tangible action? Not in a worthy ‘show me your purpose’ way - fortunately we’re moving past that particular canard - but towards one where our understanding of what makes us valuable goes beyond assertions like “we own the Friday night.” Because we probably don’t, and at least some, if not all, of the people probably don’t want us to. And if we’re really honest with ourselves, we never did own it anyway.

Lastly, you can’t push your brand at people, and one of the key words in the planners’ armoury needs to be ‘permission’. What will our community, of all types, let us be for them? We can’t inflict our role in our world on them. It’s like when children are playing a game, and they tell everyone in the vicinity the role they will take: “You’re the baddy, and you own the shop, and I’m the football player”. That’s cute, but it’s make-believe. People will play the role they want to play, not what the brand tells them, and either accept or reject the role you presume to play in their daily life. Our role as planners is to figure out how we can earn a trusted and credible space in their worlds, whether they’re consumers, investors, employees, or activists, or all of the above.

They’re all our audiences now. Let’s make sure we’re their voice in the room.

Jay Gallagher is the EMEA chief strategy officer at Edelman


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