A business framework to help future-proof your brand in 2021

Few points in history have presented businesses with such challenging conditions as COVID-19. The worldwide pandemic has upended business models and practices — leaving many businesses and brands reeling and focusing solely on the here and now.

“It’s very easy to get caught up in short-term events and take tactical approaches rather than focusing on the long view,” says Emmanuel Probst, senior vice president of brand health tracking at Ipsos and author of Brand Hacks.

Especially in turbulent times, as challenging as they might be, developing a holistic strategy is better than simply lining up tactics. As Nate Smith, group manager of product marketing at Adobe, says: “All roads lead back to a focus on customers.”

To be sure, remaining relevant to customers and generating value for them — and the business — now and in the future requires developing a vision, unique thinking, the right mix of technologies, analytics, investments in employees, and an organizational framework built on agility and flexibility.

While there are no simple answers or one-size-fits-all approach to future-proofing a brand, the right business framework greatly increases the odds for long-term success. This includes greater CIO-CMO alignment and a framework to implement technologies and processes and upskill workers.

Invest in change

Any discussion about future-proofing a business starts with a seemingly counterintuitive realization: There’s no specific path because there’s no way to predict the future. David Clarke, strategy and innovation leader at PwC Digital, says it’s critical to build a strategic framework that supports elasticity. The ability to act and react quickly to rapidly changing conditions involves both a business mindset and a robust technology foundation.

PwC’s “Global Digital IQ 2020” study identifies key factors that generate payback from digital investments and help future-proof a business. The top 5 percent, what PwC describes as “Transcenders,” have established an organizational framework that thrives on unpredictability.

“They built a resilient culture that doesn’t fear a crisis, and they mandated change rather than just talking about it,” Clarke says.

These organizations also invested 33 percent more than other companies in technology, processes, operating models, and new ways of working.

“They made their people their superpower by taking the time to upskill their people, recruit differently, and attract and retain the best talent.”

David Clarke, Strategy & Innovation leader, PwC

As a result, when the global pandemic hit, these Transcenders weren’t merely talking about pivoting, and they didn’t have to scramble to adapt. They had a clear view of how to change and accomplish results, and they had the technology components in place to make it happen. Remarkably, 75 percent of the CFOs who were surveyed said gains in flexibility as a result of this healthcare crisis will make their organizations stronger for the long term, Clarke says.

So how will companies invest in change in 2021? Expect organizations to rethink how to use underperforming brick-and-mortar locations in more innovative ways while promoting online capabilities. PwC recommends boosting digital marketing and strengthening self-service functions — but, along the way, making these systems more powerful and easier to use. Consumer must see value in the technology and understand when something like a chatbot can deliver potential benefits.

Deepen the CMO-CIO relationship

While many CIOs and CMOs are better aligned than they traditionally have been, many haven’t established a formal framework for communication and collaboration. And in many cases, IT systems and marketing technology investments weren’t in sync before the pandemic.

Success hinges on the ability of an enterprise to apply data, identify current behavior and trends, and match them with the right technologies and features, said Shantanu Narayen, CEO of Adobe, in a recent interview with Global Dialogues.

“Digital technology needs to be tailored to the right expectations,” Narayen said. This requires constant dialogue between CMOs and CIOs about how to make the customer experience more relevant. “Every company thinking about their digital DNA has to pivot. They have to think about things from a consumer-centric perspective,” Narayen added.

CMOs and CIOs must review all projects and establish priorities — together. The CMO – seen by 90 percent of business leaders as the internal advocate for customers, according to an Accenture survey – must communicate customer needs to the CIO, who can then determine what enterprise technology and tools are required.

For example, the CIO and CMO at cash register company NCR have worked very closely together since the onset of the pandemic to retool the organization’s marketing and IT infrastructure to better compete in the digital economy.

“This required us to dig deep internally and understand the gaps and synergies between IT and marketing to create a vision for NCR’s digital strategy,” said Bill VanCuren, CIO of the company, in a previous interview.

The benefits of the close IT-marketing partnership are illustrated in the building of an entirely new NCR.com — “a significant project for both marketing and IT,” VanCuren says — and the creation of a new company intranet as a one-stop shop for all companywide collaboration, application access, and content.

Uncover real-time customer intelligence

Future-proofing relationships with customers requires truly understanding them, Ipsos’ Probst says. Traditionally, a CRM system was thought of as the end all be all for building and maintaining a relationship with customers. But in today’s digital world, CRM alone is no longer enough.

“CRM bolsters sales efficiency and helps companies track leads—there’s no doubt it’s an important part of the tech stack. However, today’s digital environment requires companies to have a more holistic and real-time view of their customers,” said Justin Merickel, VP of business development at Adobe, in a separate interview. “Enterprises need to bring together all of their data – behavioral, transactional, financial, CRM, operational, and more – in order to orchestrate and activate impactful, individualized journeys for every customer based on real-time insights on the edge.”

Businesses require unified customer profiles that update in real time and use AI-driven insights to help teams deliver the right experiences, in the right moment, across every channel.

“The pandemic has made things even more challenging and created a greater divide between digital proficient companies and those that are not. It’s critical to improve the signal-to-noise level and become more relevant to consumers.”

Nate Smith, group manager of product marketing, Adobe

Use your data to be flexible and agile

Building adaptability into an organization’s DNA and the ability to get highly personal is at the center of future-proofing a brand, Smith explains. Ultimately, data drives everything.

“The best performing brands understand how to capture data, analyze it, and activate content or advertising that is relevant,” he says. “They put the data to work to understand what technologies are best in specific situations and how to design interfaces and interactions with customers.”

The ability to pivot quickly also helps define the specific technologies to put into play and how to use them most effectively, Smith says. The Internet of Things (IoT), augmented reality, virtual reality, chatbots, speech and image recognition, machine learning, and other forms of artificial intelligence (AI) can go a long way toward simplifying tasks ranging from reordering to curbside pickup — and thus deepen relationships with customers.

“In a best-case scenario, technology makes things possible — and creates an experience — that customers otherwise wouldn’t have,” says Dipanjan Chatterjee, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.

Smith describes this as “the ability to craft an experience that matters in the moment.”

Understanding trends and recognizing changes at a scale measured in hours and days requires a technology foundation that incorporates clouds and, increasingly, AI on edge servers. Smith says successful organizations typically embrace open architectures and data frameworks that serve as “experience platforms.” They rely on software and solutions that handle much of the heavy lifting through coding, AI, and APIs.

“Today, data science teams don’t have the time and resources to constantly react to changes,” he says. “Flexibility and automation must be built into the platform.”

Forrester’s Chatterjee and others caution against becoming a slave to metrics. Instead, it’s better to focus on maximizing brand image and interaction by doing what seems intrinsically right, something the likes of Steve Jobs and later Tim Cook instilled into Apple’s culture. Still, analytics “can reshape a brand experience by helping an organization learn and optimize consumer interactions,” Chatterjee says. “It is a critical piece of the puzzle.”

Educate and train employees

The mechanics of future-proofing a brand are no less important than the conceptual framework it’s built on. Educating and training employees to understand and use technology effectively — and interact with customers in new and improved ways — isn’t optional.

Rapid changes in customer sentiment and enterprise initiatives such as DevOps demand an agile organization. A focus on upskilling promotes quick pivots and more seamless transitions to new thinking and technologies, whether it’s adopting a marketing campaign based on real-time events or introducing an augmented reality app that captures the imagination of customers.

PwC’s Clarke believes it’s critical to automate menial tasks, so employees have the time and bandwidth to focus on more strategic work.

“[Ultimately], business leaders should double down on digital transformation … work in shorter sprints, and plan for operational resilience,” Clarke explains.

Shift for success

Adobe’s Smith believes that organization must ask a simple question: “How do we deliver at scale experiences that matter based on shifting priorities and value systems?”

In the end, businesses must commit to shifting business models to reflect both a changing digital world and long-term changes introduced by the pandemic, Ipsos’ Probst says. It may mean making shopping more fun and entertaining while adding elements of safety. It may mean incorporating augmented reality into an app, creating a seamless connection between physical stores and online, and finding ways to forge one-to-one relationship with customers.

“The goal,” Probst concludes, “is to create a brand that can adapt as conditions change. When you create a meaningful and trusted relationship with customers you put yourself in a position to future-proof the business.”