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Someday in the not-so-distant future, branding as we know it will be thought of as so 20th century. With societal, cultural and technological changes occurring at increasingly accelerated rates, keeping your eye on the horizon of future trends in branding gives your company the advantage.

Peter Bishop, executive director of the Institute for Futures Research, points out that you can't predict the future but you can arrive there less surprised and more prepared by telling stories, thinking the unthinkable and creating alternate futures through scenarios. Nine out of the 10 scenarios you imagine won't come true. But you'll be ready when that one vision does become reality.

What trends are already reshaping our ideas of branding?

1. Consumers Are the New Creative Directors

Brands that create a process of discovery drive passion and ownership of the brand. Consumers like being the creative director and feeling in control of shaping the products and brand. Born from consumers' desire to differentiate themselves from the mass market, this trend toward customization will continue to grow with the flexibility and efficiencies offered by technology at home and in manufacturing.

Consider Timberland's BOOTSTUDIO, where you can "build a boot as original as you are," including adding your own monogram. Nike ID also allows customers to control the look of 27 footwear styles and view their final creation from five different angles.

Lab21 takes customization to new heights by creating individually formulated skin-care products based on your DNA. Customers take an at-home DNA test and answer a questionnaire about the health of their skin. LAB21's Skin Profiler System then creates a custom formula (with your name on the label) to treat specific conditions.

As diamond promoters encourage women to buy their own diamonds (why wait for a marriage proposal?), technology that allows a gal to design her own diamond ring in three easy steps is sure to increase sales. Diamond.com not only builds your custom ring but also clearly educates on the four Cs, grading reports, setting styles and how to find your ring size.

2. Cynicism Raises the Bar for Authenticity

With consumer cynicism about marketing at an all-time high, brands must cultivate authenticity on a level never demanded before. Consumers are smart, resourceful and savvy. If your brand doesn't deliver on all its promises, or fails to speak to a consumer's specific, personal needs, your brand will become irrelevant, or worse: a pariah.

Furthermore, the companies behind a brand will be expected to behave authentically and demonstrate an active alignment with consumers' values. Simply slapping a pink ribbon on your Web site will no longer cut it, especially in building brand relationships with the influential woman consumer.

This demand for authenticity will shift marketers' preference for communicating via advertising and direct mail. The overt sales focus inherent in these channels makes them more suspect in consumers' minds.

Conveying brand messages via third parties, especially if they are a trusted, impartial source, will be better received. We'll see an increase in brands using the more transparent channels of public relations, sponsorships, niche interaction, word-of-mouth/buzz and blogs to deliver seemingly unbiased brand communications.

3. Multitasking and Info Overload: Don't Waste My Time

In a 2004 Redbook magazine poll of 1,000 women, a majority actually preferred time to money. In our info-saturated, multitasking lives, time is the new currency.

Barraged by more information than we can ever hope to absorb, we have what Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy, refers to as a process crisi —how do we get the wisdom out of all the data with the least amount of time investment?

Consumers look to companies, media and marketers to provide information filters—tools to edit the mass amount of data available. As Robyn Waters, trends guru and former VP of Trend, Design and Product Development for Target, points out, "too much information without editing is toxic."

To effectively filter and communicate relevant data to a specific consumer, brands will need to be well versed in the art and science of interpreting, translating and delivering information. This requires cultural, ethnic, gender and generational expertise as well as sophisticated global knowledge of word associations and linguistics.

Amazon.com's highly developed preferences filtering keeps track of your interests, making recommendations based on your ever-growing profile, providing product reviews, updating daily a customized list of the newest and coolest products customers are buying—essentially creating a personal shopper to save you time. And it does all this in six languages with the appropriate cultural insights for each.

4. Humanization of Technology

The mind-bending advancements of the Web and computer technology have thrown life into warp speed. From an evolutionary standpoint, technology has infiltrated every aspect of our lives faster than we can assimilate the changes. Programming the clock on your old VCR seems effortless compared to the overwhelming, and often intimidating, technological knowledge now required to efficiently get through a day.

Successful brands will "humanize" technology by delivering a brand experience where the technology is transparent to the consumer. Products, services and communications fashioned around innate human behavior, instead of the ideals of a programmer, will win consumers.

Hewlett-Packard leads the pack with its "you + HP" consumer brand campaign focused on taking the hassle out of digital photography. Visually fun, full of creative energy and real life scenarios, HP's ads devote minimal space to showing actual product. Instead, they go to the heart of image-making—documenting, sharing and making memories. HP touts its digital cameras and printers as "radically simple picture-making technology, which lets you be in control of the entire picture-making process." It back ups its claim with easy-to-navigate, thorough product support via hp.com.

5. From Multi-Channel to Uni-Channel

Donald Libey, considered the leading direct marketing and catalog industry futurist, predicts that we will see even more evolved information systems than the World Wide Web. Any aspect of communications in our lives—cell and landline phones, libraries and research, bill paying, satellite TV, GPS navigation, entertainment, travel, financial transactions, shopping, fitness and health monitoring—will be available from anywhere at any time.

Increasingly, consumers will be less aware of separate marketing channels. Instead, all experiences of brand communications will be perceived as one all-encompassing, 360-degree, 3-D channel. Brands can prepare now by investing in creating a consistent and integrated customer experience across today's communications channels.

Catalog and retail giant JC Penney understands how to fully leverage multiple-channel synergy. Its stores, catalog, Web site and advertising interrelate across all channels: enter your zip code on jcpenney.com and browse your local JC Penney store's sales flyer or download coupons; order a printed catalog or flip through one online; items purchased through any channel can be returned or exchanged via any channel. At any touchpoint of the brand, the consumer finds a consistent experience.

6. Trends in Trending

While attending the 9th Annual Future Trends Conference, I was struck that one scenario in particular was not addressed more fully—the phenomenon that the mature market, AKA aging baby boomers, will completely redefine what "old" and "aging" means.

With the average American now living about 30 years longer than 100 years ago, what's considered old? What's considered middle-aged, for that matter? If the brands in these consumers' lives rely on the stereotypical notions of older as an uncool, has-been demographic, they'll perish.

Marketers have historically looked to the 18-to-24 year-old crowd for inspiration and indicators of future trends. I'd challenge the next conference, and brand stewards in general, to explore the dynamic, trendsetting potential of the baby boomer powerhouse.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
image of Mary Brown

Mary Brown is president of Imago Creative. For more information, visit www.imagocreative.com.