How Prophet is still a visionary 20 years on

Michael Dunn, CEO of brand and marketing consultancy Prophet, has been with the company for 20 years this year, which is a great opportunity to reflect on the evolution of brands over the course of the past two decades and what brands can do stay relevant in a wildly different world. Carlos Bruinsma reports.

“We started the business in 1999, as a small brand strategy business combined with a small market research business. We grew on the back of what was happening in San Francisco back then, the first wave of the internet,” Michael Dunn opens our conversation by way of background.

As any great brand will tell you, reputation is the lifeblood of a business, and Prophet’s reputation pulled them into a lot of big markets with big clients. More specifically, Prophet’s vice-chairman David Aaker has a reputation as a well-known academic and a prolific author with a number of reputable books concerning brand strategy under his belt.

“We got pulled into London with BP, we got pulled into the [European] continent with Deutsche Bank, we got pulled over into Tokyo with Dentsu and Hakuhodo and Toyota – so the business, even though it was small, became global pretty quickly,” Dunn recalls.

At first, the business was focused almost purely on brand strategy and connecting brand and business issues, but this quickly expanded into items like market spend effectiveness, innovation, design, customer experience – the portfolio that the consultancy is now famous for.

“About 10 years ago, we started getting asked by clients to help them do more – to take the planning and strategy we were doing and help them get it to market – some of it was about speed, some of it was about fidelity – so we built more strategic activation capabilities on the back of that.”

And Prophet prides itself on those capabilities, but ultimately it’s still a “brand and marketing consultancy”.

It has seen the role of the brand undergo an almost complete metamorphosis over the past few years.

“The way brands need to get developed and deployed is dramatically different than it was 20 years ago. The way media worked, the way communication worked – it was one-way, it was broadcast, and you were judged to be effective by being super consistent – and really tight, with no variability,” Dunn says with a laugh.

“But what’s happened with the way we live our lives, with social, with mobile; that’s not what we expect anymore. We expect a brand that is serving us well to be contextually relevant, to be personalised, to be adapted to my circumstances and the way I want to interact with them now.”

Dunn explained that brands need to communicate differently in a store, on a phone call or on a chatbot – because consumers have different expectations for what the brand should be doing – and that includes things such as tone of voice, level of familiarity and speed. And due to the wildly varying expectations from consumers, brands need to catch up.

“The hard part is that you have a bunch of these businesses that are native to this kind of environment – like Uber, or Amazon or Alibaba – that are super advantaged in this,” Dunn laughs.

“They were built from the ground up to be contextually relevant and have the capabilities to be hyper-personalised, to be ever-evolving and responsive in their relationship. And what’s happened to the all the other brands and business out there is this – these are the businesses that consumers are benchmarking everyone against. People don’t think: this is a good mobile experience for a hospital, they think: this is crap!” he quips.

The logic is that consumers don’t particularly care whether a brand is better than its direct competitors (other hospitals in the above scenario), but expect brands to be better than companies such as Netflix or Google.

Dunn explains that the bar has been raised irrevocably – and brands have to meet that bar to play the game.

“The brands that do this well – the ones that are customer-obsessed, that focus on ‘surprise and delight’ – they need to do it in a different way than they would have 10 or 20 years ago. Somehow, you need to figure out how to manage in this ‘living brand’, ‘always-on brand’ environment,” he says.

“Consumers are expecting more and more brand experiences to be consumable; bite-sized; relevant and in-the-moment for the job they need the brand to do right now. Checking a flight versus booking a new ticket versus what-have-you.” he says.

Essentially, this means every interaction needs to be exactly tailored to a consumer’s current needs, whatever they might be.

“To do this well, you need more appropriate variability and contextually relevant variability, into the brand experience. That’s how most consumers are assessing whether you’re customer-obsessed. And that will make you a stronger brand.”

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