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This has been hard to write. We usually put the trends report on our internal project list sometime at the start of Q4 each year and look forward to taking some time to THINK about our industry. In years past, we’ve had to work hard to narrow down our list of trends to watch for the coming year just to keep the word count in check. This year has been… different. We’ve all sat and stared at blinking cursors on blank pages until we’re now up against our self-imposed deadline. We’re staring down the last few weeks of the year and aren’t exactly sure what to say… except for the fact that we know precisely the themes that keep running through our heads, the issues that have both fundamentally changed the way we work and that keep us up at night. We’ve just been hesitant to go there, to cross that line, to put ourselves out there in a way that, as an agency, we usually don’t do.
We live in a changed world. Many of us are struggling with a sort of reality dysmorphia as we see messaging from the very top of society issued day-after-day with the express intent to divide, deride, and deflect. You never know what the next push notification on your phone might herald: a collapse in national policy, a scandal that decimates someone’s career (often rightly so), the rise or fall of an iconic brand, or a tragedy of unfathomable proportion. These aren’t just changing times; they are trying times. Anyone who claims to have maintained solid footing is either not paying attention, lying, or steadfastly committed to an excellent coping strategy.
The turbulence of 2017 has overshadowed much of what we do as communicators. It’s impossible to achieve effective communication without awareness of the environment you are in (good fortune and charm notwithstanding). However, never before has the climate of our nation seeped so much into our ethos as a communications agency. It’s honestly a new day.
This forecast is our vision of what the future holds. In the past, we’ve provided commentary about shifts in photography, logo design, and marketing strategies. Instead, this year we are going to talk about how what is happening in our society is changing how we work. Our words are joined by the thoughts of industry leaders from across the spectrum. Their voices are here to provide a more in-depth look at how the work of communications is evolving. For their time and contribution, we humbly say: thank you.
We think it’s probably safe to say that the world is waiting for 2018 to begin. So, too, perhaps is the field of communications - an industry battered by constant agitation over the last two years. From the meteoric rise of fake news and a forceful retrograde in the class of the national discourse, the way the world communicates takes in content, and forms relationships with brands is changing. In this forecast, we will explore what we perceive to be the environmental factors, and trends, in four areas: Branding, Web Design, Social Media, and Public Relations. We join our thoughts by those of professionals from various sectors, including public libraries, information architecture, branding, and so on. Take for example the reflections of Erin Kolb (see right), a Librarian increasingly charged with helping her constituents determine what information is indeed real and what is not. A question that a great many of us grapple with every day, and that, in these strange times, brand strategists are also called to help resolve.
"The Library’s Facebook account hit a major milestone in 2017 when we posted an infograph titled “How to Spot Fake News.” The post reached nearly 8,300 people and was shared over 100 times. Incredible numbers for our small, rural community and it far exceeds any other post by the Library. Ever. The overwhelming response reminds me that I have the awesome task of sharing tools and resources to help individuals determine good information from bad. Moreover, there seems to be a real need and appreciation for those tools. So how do you spot fake news? Consider your source, ask if the author is credible, check the publication date and your own biases, read beyond a clickbait headline, review supporting sources, consult fact-checking sites and ask an expert – like your local librarian!"
- Erin Kolb, Adult Services Librarian at Lewiston City Library, Lewiston, ID
The old model of accepting employment and climbing the ladder at someone else’s pace is falling out of fashion, and quite frankly, so be it. For the third consecutive year, new business formation is on the rise in the United States. Whether people see an opportunity to provide a solution on their own, or they’re interested in having increased control over their livelihood, entrepreneurship is rising, once again reaching pre-recession levels. Immigrants to the United States make up the lion’s share of new entrepreneurs. They bring with them new ideas and perspectives that expand what’s available in the marketplace and our culture.
However, within a matter of two years or less many of those brands will disappear from the marketplace. Being a boss isn’t for the meek. New businesses have the challenge of standing out in a market flooded with talent and being heard despite a cacophony of tweets, Instagram stories, and contentious news cycles. You never know when another business will be swept under by the next digitally sourced riptide.
The rate at which new brands rise and fall has contributed to the increased commodification of design. Quick service design studios, or outlets that provide ready-made brands for nominal prices, are more available than ever and they’ve hollowed visual design of the forethought, strategy, and empathy that more robust agencies pour into them. The works of armchair professionals and industry enthusiasts outfitted with nothing but a laptop and a creative cloud subscription will not last. These people are diluting an industry that is meant to elevate the value of the messaging and experiences humans encounter in their everyday life. And, yet, time and again we meet business owners who, tempted by shortcut solutions, find themselves left with a brand design that is hardly unique, let alone functional in today's market. As long as this persists, there is a danger in our new economy that we are creating a generation of nothing but throwaway brands.
The brands that figure out how to differentiate themselves from the rest are the ones that will survive and thrive. They have the daunting (and exhilarating) task of positioning their product or service as more useful than the rest, while also creating a brand that stands out in the marketplace. We live in a time when the market is teeming with talent, and much of the struggle in finding success is just figuring one’s own unique selling proposition. However it is that rising brands achieve this, long-time brand strategist and agency founder, Dan Antonelli, believes disruptive branding/marketing is their best path forward in our current marketplace.
Commitment to design and inclusivity will ensure that new brands thrive. As brand designers and strategists, inclusivity is a cause we are well-suited to take up. We can create visual identities, construct messaging, and devise strategies; strategies that can either include and uplift, or separate and segregate. The technology is there to move either tactic forward - for better or worse. It’s up to us to be sure it’s used for the good of the brands we serve, and the communities they inhabit, engage with and enable.
Research shows that brands that privilege design find success. The Design Management Institute produces what is known as the Design Value Index, measuring the performance of the "most innovative companies in the world" against those that do not invest in or see the value of design and design thinking. These companies all share one thing in common: profitability. Simply put: results show that over the last ten years "design-led companies" have maintained a significant stock market advantage, outperforming the S&P by an extraordinary 228%.
We’re not just talking about visual design here, either. We are talking about using customer insights to make strategic decisions about business processes, policies, product creation, and then, yes, the visual identity that wraps all of that into a presentable package. There is a reason you feel inspired to purchase from Starbucks, or Apple, or Amazon. Mainly, it’s because they’ve created experiences worth pursuing and products worthy of your time and money.
Branding has always been about creating experiences, and in our current state of turbulence, this is perhaps truer than ever. The brands that produce moments of solace, clarity, and positivity, will have an enormous impact in 2018.
"As the marketplace gets more and more cluttered from various advertising approached, the small businesses who truly embrace the idea of disruptive branding will benefit the most from their competitors lack of vision. When you consider how poor most small business brands are, the opportunity to disrupt the space with innovative brands remains the best chance to truly stand out in their space. Brands that personify a positive brand promise will give those businesses a distinct advantage over their competitors, whose brands speak to a neutral or negative brand promise. More and more small businesses are better understanding that consistency at every touchpoint is another way to compete with the big boys with bigger marketing budgets. Additionally, we see a shift in small business clients who have achieved success despite poor branding, looking to elevate their image, and finally understanding that even greater success could be attained with the right brand messaging."
- Dan Antonelli, President and Chief Creative Officer at KickCharge® Creative
We are still far from the day when we won’t find a phone in our hands or a computer in front of us. However, it’s safe to say that the rise of assistive technologies such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are changing the way we search for information, order a ride, and even get our groceries. Voice search, virtual assistants, and artificial intelligence shift the game in a big way. There was a hot minute when brands could build a beautiful website and declare their work done. The game is changing.
The game of creating ever-increasing gobs of meaningless content to trip search engine algorithms is also shifting dramatically. Brands have to utilize their websites more responsibly, and with a clear understanding of their value as access points for their businesses in an expansive, sometimes dark, and chaotic web of information.
Structured data and the idea of a semantic web is nothing new, but voice search (by way of the Siris and Alexas of the world) places fresh impetus on prioritizing the information architecture of a website over visual design. As Robert Wong, from Google’s Creative Lab, has said: “The best results don’t show up on a web page, they show up in people’s lives.” How brand strategists and web designers use structured data to ensure that customers intersect with their brand is key. This is search engine optimization to the max. It’s no longer enough to compete to make on the first page of search engine results; now it’s important to reach “position zero.” It’s about being the one answer that a Siri or Alexa offers a customer while they’re on the move and thinking about how they might need a product or service you have to offer. Because of this, the design of a website’s data will be what is of value in 2018.
If the commodification of design has left the marketplace with throwaway brands, then the commodification of web design and SEO has led to the creation of useless mini-sites that mostly play host to stock photography and a few generically positive words about a brand. As the use of voice-enabled searches increase and other brands ramp up their information architecture game, businesses that choose to treat building a website as if it was as simple as an Amazon Prime order will fall to the wayside. They simply won’t appear on search engine results pages or as the result of a voice query. Fare. Thee. Well.
Brands must still view their website as one of the few places in the world where they get to share their story exactly as they wish to tell it. A website is where a brand can make a story of itself. It can become a hero in its tale about vanquishing poor products or speak to the joys and benefits of its services. Websites are and will remain constant brand ambassadors. A well-designed site can be left to interact with potential customers while the humans that make the brand are free to spend their time moving the bar forward in other ways. The content that enables websites, and the content the user sees when visiting, has a remarkable impact on how brands are perceived. When brand strategists conceptualize sites, they have a responsibility to see them as part of the broader brand experience. For your brand, as with the web, everything is connected.
"In the recent past, users who had difficulties using a website or completing a task online would blame themselves. But a lot has changed as our communal tech-savvy has increased – customers and digital audiences now attribute frustrations back to the brand that owns the site. In the online world, user happiness matters, and businesses are noticing.
It’s imperative that companies become more open to context-based, qualitative information about how people are interacting with their digital products and interfaces. Questions like, “What are our users looking for?” and, “How do we make it easier for them to access the information/products we have?” are going to be more common. As a result, user research and testing are going to continue to see a surge in interest. While quantitative methods will continue to provide important data for businesses, contextual user feedback is going to gather steam in 2018."
- Samantha Raddatz, Founder and Chief Information Architect, Logic Department
For years the warning about social media has been that we are all, consciously (or perhaps unconsciously) creating our own personalized echo chambers. That’s still an issue, but today one could argue that the chief concern is that social media platforms have become pressure cookers in which society seems to be battling about the direction of our cultural soul. In this period of turbulence, brands should engage on social media platforms with clear intention. As a technology, social media platforms aren’t merely distribution platforms, they’re rapid archivers, and once something has been published it’s captured, one way or another. Of all the platforms, Twitter seems to be the place where the past sweeps back to bite brands the most. And yet there is no space where the simple idea of pragmatism is as disregarded as on Twitter. The platform isn’t without hope, but as long as its loudest user is left unchecked, it will continue to be a haven for the most deplorable among us. Worse, it will continue to be home to their bots - horrible, twisted manifestations of code that seem to exist only to deride and discourage. Is this really how we want to utilize the vast potential of social media?
Despite the wild west atmosphere, something powerful has emerged from social media: the #metoo campaign. Anyone who doubts the power of social media (and there is a growing chorus of voices, even from within), needs only to look to this movement to see that, at a minimum, social media is a powerful communications device. The #metoo campaign is profound, and will undoubtedly be studied for years to come, as it is tearing generational chauvinism and sexual harassment straight out of the ground. We can only hope it will make its mark at the very highest order of society.The campaign has been so successful that Time Magazine named the Times Person of the Year “The Silence Breakers,” featuring a group of women, from various walks of life, who have brazenly taken up the mantle of calling out sexual harassment and assault. Society is changing, for better or worse, and social media is becoming the place where both fuel for change, and resistance to it, thrive.
Geoffrey Colon of Microsoft understands that our over-amplified culture produces a detrimental amount of digital noise. He believes that disruption can come when brands understand how to differentiate themselves from their competitors and offer something of distinct value. Brands that offer a reprieve from the current dystopian standard will thrive. Businesses that act with intent to deliver a consistent experience across platforms, and implement tools, and messaging that provide users with a level of care that seems to be fading quickly from the marketplace will soar. 2018 will see the rise of brand bots that are embedded in social media platforms, including within their messenger services. These bots will be able to provide a sort of controlled brand experience that tailors itself to the user's actions with a simple “if this then that” protocol. The idea isn’t to supplant humans but facilitate the beginning of the user journey with a sort of brand concierge. This is what botting for good will look like.
"Information overload takes many forms: data pollution, share bait, click bait, manipulated outrage and participatory propaganda.
Attention is now treated like a commodity more than a human emotion. This opens up citizens to fake outrage which helps spread information even though many think their protest is helpful it is harmful. It generates more attention to certain personalities or media sites who thrive off the traffic revenue. What this means for business is when they think of who their competition is they wrongly assume it is other businesses. That was the case in a read-only era with limited media channels but in our read/write/remix world everyone is now competition.
Competition for your attention.
This means as a business you must design for education and partnership in collaboration with your customers. To simply sell? It's a road to nowhere. Why? Because there's millions of others vying for your attention and everyone is selling. However, few are truly leading.Those that lead in this era will be those who differentiate themselves from everybody else. In the past a fast follower could survive because it could draft off a market leader and swallow everyone else who didn't like the market leader. Now there are hundreds of fast followers and thus it is necessary to not be fast and look the same as everyone else but slow and different."
- Geoffrey Colon, Sr. Marketing Communications Designer, Microsoft
We are living in this upside down time where design itself has become a commodity, how we interact with brands through technology is rapidly evolving, and the level of noise just keeps growing. Brands have to disrupt these trends by adopting inspired visual identities backed by solid messaging and values. They need to think about how to communicate effectively through technology. They need to cut through the noise, not contribute to it. In short, a public relations mindset benefits every brand. Those that are succeeding are already interweaving design thinking and strategic communications. They realize that there is value and impact in every brand interaction, and that curating their actions to create consistent, useful experiences is the key to being valuable in consumer’s modern lives.
As an agency, we recognized this a few years ago and have been increasingly bringing public relations services online since. We had to do this for our clients. Positioning a brand’s message and advising one of their actions is more important than the visual identity we create, or the website we build for them. Brands today require a solid reputation built on positive experiences to survive and thrive. It won’t matter if they have the best product or service if they deliver poor customer experience and build their product in less-than-savory conditions they will fail - undoubtedly.
Consistency of experience is a message we try to drive home in almost every interaction we have with our clients. Brands that strive to create pleasant experiences in their brick and mortar stores, should have a digital equivalent online. The same goes for brands that take stands on environmental issues. If you publish messaging about prioritizing sustainability (in an environmental sense), your products and services should be developed and delivered with those sentiments in mind. This is common sense. However, we are here to drive it home - again and again - because time is proving that these things are under the microscope like never before, and no brand is going unchecked and/or unchallenged.
Managing a reputation is constant work. We have unprecedented access to information communication technologies, but for all the good that brings us, it’s a double entendre. The potential to sink a brand with a misguided tweet or accidental story post is high. Too high. In 2018 and onward we’ll see brands of all stripes utilizing a mix of agency-moderated social media strategies with raw, spontaneous - but intentional - content. When you want to call it public relations for brands, communications consulting, or just highly curated (read moderated) content marketing, this sort of intermediated communication from brand, to agency, to the planet, is going to be the new norm.
The more that brand strategist and designers take into account how every aspect of the brand is connected, the more responsible and effective branding will be. Our hypermediated world allows for a new sort of fluidity in life in which we rapidly toggle between analog and digital experiences, and in which one informs the other. As brand designers we have an opportunity to create for both experiences, to create strategies so that each inform and enrich the other, and to remove frictions along the way. It’s an exciting time to create the ecosystems that each brand operates within.
"We love that there’s been a shift back to specialization over the past few years - articulating your company’s distinct style, identifying and narrowing your niche, and going deep. There will always be businesses who wait for a thought leader or “tastemaker” to dictate what is desirable and then design around it, but we’re interested in those who are flourishing by staying in their own lane. We certainly see this in the world of photography and graphic design. Rather than trying to please the masses by playing it safe and watering down their ideas and designs, we are drawn to those who honor their own vision and celebrate it. We are excited to let our creativity explode in 2018 and hope to attract those who want to be a part of it."
- Joey Rheem, Owner, Penchant Styled
If you made it through this report, we encourage you to indulge in the cocktail of your choice. For all the time we spent deriding 2017 as a year of uncultured chaos, we hope it was also clear that through the disruption we believe brands, and people, found new ground to galvanize together for positive experiences. 2018 will be a year in which experiential communications takes a bold step forward. In many ways it already has. The granular details that we would normally cover about how brands create their own experiences aren’t so much what matters, but rather how they make those experiences useful to their audiences. The future is about emotive branding and useful experiences because everything else is truly noise and if 2017 made anything clear it’s that noise doesn’t create anything of substance.