The Columbia Center on Global Brand Leadership’s BRITE conference is a perennial favorite of ours. We enjoy the wide array of topics presented by industry experts and thought leaders, and our fifth year at the conference did not disappoint.
This year’s themes were Trust, Data, and Purpose. Across industries, the proliferation of business data presents new opportunities and new challenges. Amidst a deluge of information, companies may find it difficult root out the data that really matters. BRITE attendees hoped to glean some insight and practical tools from industry leaders on using data to create and maintain a unique and sustainable brand presence. These are our takeaways:
Trust in data collection and distribution is as hot a topic as ever. Regina Flores Mir discussed how public pressure is pushing social platforms like Facebook and Twitter to be more accountable, and questioned whether the age of unregulated social media is over. She advocated for a "Data Selfie", which allows individuals to see their own data traces and understand what machine learning algorithms are predicting based on their behavior.
New developments incorporating the blockchain may help address some of these trust challenges. Ethereum’s co-founder Joseph Lubin joined Phil Gomes from Edelman, Samantha Radocchia of Better Kinds, and Columbia Business School’s Matthew Quint to outline how blockchain is already changing the internet. As Joe Lubin put it, the internet is ‘broken’ in many ways in regards to identity, but blockchain represents an opportunity for self-sovereignty. They called blockchain an opportunity for a "digital truth".
As we continue to build smarter machines, can we trust them? Bernd Schmitt’s talk on robots becoming humans (androids) and humans becoming robots (cyborgs) surely left us wondering what could possibly come next. He revealed results from a large study of consumer perceptions of "social robots" already being developed for a variety of services like healthcare, retail, and education. Here’s an intriguing nugget; participants in a study who were falsely told that a picture of a real person was a robot liked it less than the participants who were told the photo was a real person. It turns out that as a robot becomes more human-like, it becomes more likeable until it reaches what Bernd called the “Uncanny Valley” where likeability suddenly dips. If a robot is too lifelike, people will dislike it. Similarly, learning that a human has been technologically enhanced tends to make other people like them less. These research findings not only provide valuable insight on how to market this technology as trustworthy to the public, but prompt more philosophical questions about what it means to be human and how we define human nature.
Whether you’re building an excellent customer service experience (like Zappos and Warby Parker), or using multisensory features (like Costco’s tasters at every turn; or Sephora’s invitation to customers to sample any product), Adrianne Shapira explained that you can’t forget the COI: the Cost of Ignoring. She was referring to the danger of forgetting to leverage data and analytics to both guide and support all of these efforts.
Steven Rosenblatt, President of Foursquare and David Rogers, faculty member of Columbia Business School homed in on one facet of data, by discussing the crucial role of location data in understanding consumers. With so much talk about the data that is collected from our internet and mobile activity, we forget that 90% of activity actually happens in the physical world. Companies are starting to recognize that, as Rosenblatt puts it, "Where you go says a lot about where you are and what you’re passionate about."
A panel on the future of retail suggested that providing a memorable and meaningful experience to customers maybe the best strategy for competing with online retail. Eurazeo Brand’s Managing Director Adrianne Shapira, Revlon’s Serge Jureidini, Mark Cohen, Director of Retail Strategies at Sears, and Experiential Advertising Group’s David Polinchock were all generally in agreement that, with the right branding and connection to consumers, physical retail stores still offer an experience that can’t be paralleled online.
As brands compete for consumers’ attention, they must make use of data intelligently. "Context has been replaced by speed and volume," explained NPR’s Peter Weingard. Data may go far, but it is emotion that often ends up being the most effective branding tool. New York Public Radio’s Chief Marketing Officer, Peter Weingard attributed NPR’s success to its dedication to engaging listeners. “New Yorkers listen to us because we listen to them”, he explained.
What better way to bring the focus back to our humanity than to talk about the ways that companies are finding to bring people together for positive impact? Driving home BRITE’s theme of Purpose was a discussion on meaning and resilience, led by Lisa Honig Buksbaum. An alumnus of Columbia Business School, she founded Soaring Words, an organization for children and families struggling with serious illnesses. Her foundation empowers individuals to take an active role in their self-healing process, and provides an array of resources for people in need. She was joined by Bruce Pashko of Johnson & Johnson’s and Jess Bruckner WeWork. The group gave advice on how others can start philanthropic initiatives at their own companies. Lisa cited storytelling as a highly effective tool in building support but also stressed the importance of producing empirical data to enable management support and funding.
Data can broaden a brand’s reach, but must also be used to create a personal and impactful experience. We are not robots (yet), and we seek tactile, sensual experiences that digital capabilities like online retail just can’t mimic. Data can help brands to truly get to know customers without sacrificing individual privacy or organizational integrity. The BRITE Conference gave us a lot to think about, and we at PLASTARC look forward to incorporating the intersections of branding, experience, and data into our own user experience work.