Last month, I sat down with Vivek Bapat, SVP, Global Head of Marketing Strategy and Thought Leadership at SAP to talk about the evolution of brands, digital transformation and purpose-driven marketing. I can tell you that meeting was one of the most insightful and stimulating conversations about marketing I've had in my 23-year digital marketing career.

While many companies talk the talk about digital transformation, Bapat and his team are leading these transformations for several of the most valuable brands in the global economy today. In other words, SAP is walking the walk. As such, they are deep into the process of strategizing the practical realities of digital transformation, and have come up with some must read insights such as 4 Traits That Set Digital Leaders Apart From 97% Of The Competition.

One theme Bapat reinforced was something I first read about from SAP's CMO, Alicia Tillman, in a recent Forbes Brand Voice blog post: "At the end of the day, brand is not a "marketing thing." It encompasses the value that a company delivers to its customers through solutions and services that help to tackle issues they care about and therefore is a strategic driver of customer loyalty, and ultimately, business success."

And what Bapat illustrated was the implication of the changing role of a company's brand once it moves from a "perception led" traditional business model to a "user led" digital business. During our meeting, he sketched out an illustration on his iPad (and then kindly had a member of his team provide the following graphic):

The implication being that when the "Brand is the Product", developers must think and act more like brand marketers. Let's break this down to some concrete examples. Perhaps the most widely written-about examples would be Facebook, Uber and Airbnb. Facebook is a media company who (up until recently) produces none of the original content it uses to sell advertising.  Uber is a transportation company with no vehicles. Airbnb has a market value higher than the top hotel chains and yet doesn't own any of the inventory that it sells.

These are three clear-cut examples where the brand is the product and the product is the brand. Therefore, the customer experience has never been more critical to the brand's success. Bad customer experiences (often driven by poor product design) negatively impact the brand and are therefore detrimental to the success of the company.

Most Developers Are Unprepared For Their Role as Brand Marketers

While programmers have obsessed over big-data, cloud computing, AI and other tech-focused macro-trends, branding has, for most companies, been a siloed function relegated to the (often fragmented) marketing departments. Worse, in more traditional companies, branding is often narrowly defined and measured by interruption-based advertising media such as TV, Radio and Banner Ads.

More recently, progressive brands have recognized the comprehensive nature of the overall "brand experiences" which include every touch point a consumer has with the company. The problem is, each of these individual touch points are the responsibility of different teams (read "siloed departments") who are not working collaboratively. The most recent reorgs have put the customer squarely in the middle of everything, but it will take some time for these comprehensive changes to truly take shape and feel seamless to the end customer.

Meanwhile, when it comes to the fastest growing digital businesses, it's the developers, not the marketers, who have the biggest direct impact on the brand that the customer experiences. Every day developers are making judgment calls, which ultimately impact positively or negatively on the brand's value. This may be what drove some companies to establish a new hybrid c-suite role aptly called the Chief Marketing Technologist.

Regardless of your company's ultimate solution, one clear challenge that Bapat identified is the growing need for developers to think and act like brand marketers. Said another way, in the world of DevOps where applications are changing daily, branding isn't static and therefore is being positively or negatively impacted every day.

As more businesses are working through their own digital transformations, it's clear that putting the customer at the center of everything (which is absolutely the right thing to do) is evolving they way companies must think about brand value. Every employee has a role that either contributes or hinders that value.

Published on: Oct 21, 2017
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