By Dina FaourProfessor of Advertising at The American University in Dubai, Middle East Design Educators Association (MEDEA) Vice President and International Advertising Association UAE (IAAUAE) Board Member

Brand identity is brand identity.

No matter how you look at it. The principles never change. Platforms, channels, strategies and tactics do (change), however, and greatly so. Today, I am asked to write to you about how brands must integrate in the digital reality; my advice is no, they absolutely must NOT. Before we move forward, allow me to define what I mean by this digital integration. 

Based strictly on the term, we are assuming we have two entities: the brand and the digital realm; these two are to be integrated. From what I am observing, digital integration remains unclear to many brand owners themselves. This is almost an afterthought for many, not part of the brand’s core identity. In my opinion, the minute we call it integration, it is implied that this is a forced practice, not an organic process. This is what I am specifically addressing.

– Brand Building in terms of strategy is storytelling. and always will be.

At the risk of this term being a trend today, storytelling still seems to be the powerful strategy behind every brand identity. Before, this storytelling practice was linear with no real mass feedback or engagement platforms. Stories were controlled and easier to deliver across known platforms. This meant they could have been illusive and so perhaps far more persuasive. Brand perception and communication effectiveness were not always measurable or accurately so; data depended on sales, changes in behavior and market research as the main sources.

Today, components remain unchanged: storytelling still stands; with every touch-point, every communication, every engagement and every experience, a chapter is added to that brand story. These are brand stories people relate to, trust, identify with and form strong loyalty bonds with. This, too, remains unchanged.

The unique but major difference is the depth of attainable data and the level of control in storytelling: Both aspects were completely restructured since we went digital. Today, data offers so much insight that brands have the power to relate to its people at an individual level, across the masses. Those same brands, however, have lost the power to tell their own stories. Let me take you on a metaphorical journey:

Imagine a world of beautiful crystal structures where some are opaque and bulky, others are semi-transparent and more chiseled and the rest are completely transparent, intricately detailed and delicate.

The opaque bulky shapes, appear most sturdy, but will actually be completely shattered under the slightest pressure. The semi-transparent shapes will crack, if pressured, and even break but can still stand, even if somehow deformed. We then have the purest, most transparent forms; you’d think these are so fragile because of their transparency and delicate structure but these turn liquid every time they are under pressure and then quickly transform into another innovative, beautiful form that is even more resilient.

Each of these structures represents a type of a brand and its story, today.

The opaque is traditional in approach, with safe, one-way communications still writing most of the brand story. Digital platforms may exist but are passively employed, with repetitive messages, dated promises, low interaction, and next to no feedback. I would even claim that no data is ever monitored, just by judging from brand behavior and communications. The story here is bland, predictable and threatened to be shattered by its more transparent competitors.

The semi-transparent brands are on a mission to integrate into this digital reality but can’t quite seem to nail it. Trying to meet different objectives per platform, following detailed plans and calendars, and producing content heavily for the website and its SEO reports, for social media and their analytics, for apps and technology and any digital intervention that could be added to the long checklist.

These are active brands that somehow diluted their story, confused their people and lost the brand purpose somewhere on the line or online (pun intended). This also diluted the significant and powerful features of digital and social media. So much more could be done if we understood these features further and respected our branding strategies religiously.

The result to this dilution is noisy brands, with forced, regular but fragmented and shallow presence into the digital realm with platforms/content/messages totally ignored or even rejected by audiences. These are brands that do embrace the digital and do receive the data but don’t really understand how to interpret and employ this effectively. Instead, they identified ways that worked before and these are now the new traditional methods: influencers, for example.

Finally, the transparent brands are those with people and data in their core DNA. While you may be starting a story as a brand owner, you are brave enough to understand that you barely have the power to write the intro anymore, and, still, that intro must be transparent to be credible and versatile to be told across platforms, most of these are digital. Your people and the data they give you will primarily write the remaining chapters. Everything and everyone else follows.

This is a brand that empowers its audiences and allows them to tell its story across the adequate platforms, digital or otherwise. People generate the content and people manage it, they unfold the story, formulate the delivery, control the behavior, design the next technology, build the brand’s future, and then star in it!

Mark the words of my mentor, Dr. Lance de Masi, President of the American University in Dubai and a well known marketing communication guru:

“So far, and this is provable by numbers, brands are losing value in this digital age. I think it’s because no one has figured out how, in this new era of digital power-sharing, to keep the power with the brand manager. Consumers are not easy to interact with, but persuasion as a weapon is still alive and well to be used by those image makers who still believe in the value of the what and have mastered a new set of how’s”.

To conclude, brands must never integrate in the digital reality; they must build that digital reality from the core. But this should never be the point. What brands should really embrace is its people and the data these people are giving. This makes the true digital “power-sharing” as Dr. de Masi puts it. All you need is to empower your persuasion with the “belief in the what” and the “mastery of the how’s”.