Defining Brand Capabilities.

As user expectations continue to soar in the digital age, brands must harness their unique capabilities to reach and retain their customers both on and offline.

Jonathan Lee
August 5, 2014

Brand building has traditionally been a top-down exercise, depending on an interruptive, broadcast-first model and a focus on controlled messaging to target a relatively passive consumer. It was a model that worked well for the media environment that existed in the past. 

The proliferation of digital has fundamentally changed people’s lives and upended the traditional branding model. The marketing and media industry has changed as well and must continue to evolve rapidly. Today, marketers need to assume that consumers are encountering their brands digitally first. In this new model, brands, technology, and consumer expectations intersect and become one. While marketers may still be thinking in terms of pushing messaging across channels in a linear manner, consumers don’t make a distinction between digital and offline experiences. They experience brands non-linearly and expect them to do more than look and feel the same at every touchpoint. Like the best digital experiences to which they’ve grown accustomed, users also expect brands to behave in a contextually correct, seamless way across channels and devices.

Huge believes that the future of marketing lies at the intersection of brand story, user need and technology. That it’s not about creating campaign-centric “digital ideas;” rather, it’s about developing ideas and capabilities for the inherently digital world users live in today.

Key questions:

  • How is marketing redefined by the convergence of technology, brands, and consumer expectations?
  • How is communication affected by consumer demand for a non-linear, contextually relevant, channel-agnostic brand experience?
  • What is the role of creativity in a digital-first branding ecosystem?

Key finding:

Successful brands, today and in the future, will be able to harness their inherent capabilities to meet the challenges of and even define the digitized world people want to live in, rather than merely parroting existing digital tactics. To do this, brands need to see their customers as users and understand their increasingly high expectations, driven not only by a brand’s competitors but, crucially, by the countless examples of superior digital products and services that exist in today’s world, no matter the source or category. They must go beyond solving for needs that are already clearly defined and create and design solutions for needs that are unspoken or unknown. 

To get there, marketers must extend the traditional practice of branding—defining the brand’s purpose, value and mission—by also identifying what unique capabilities the brand possesses and can deliver digitally. This digital-first approach to brand strategy ultimately liberates marketers from the traditional cadence of campaign executions or media buys and enables them to reach and resonate with users where they are and how they expect. 

This new environment also requires a different approach to overall strategic development, of which brand strategy is a part, one that fuses insight into business needs and capabilities and user needs and expectations. At the heart of this understanding is the user and her needs, and it’s no longer appropriate for the planner to “own the user” (or consumer) and her relationship with the brand.  This must now become a shared responsibility—where the brand planner determines what the brand should say, do and enable for the user, the UX strategist defines how the user should interact with the brand everywhere, and the business strategist justifies why it should happen in the first place.

The branding transformation.

Early brands emerged as a response to concerns about substandard products.

Prior to the 19th Century, people knew their shopkeepers. They knew what kind of quality to expect from individual purveyors. Goods and services were associated with people, not organizations. Industrialization added an element of uncertainty once merchandise became mass manufactured.  That initial impetus to create brands as proxies for trust morphed into the modern branding that emerged in the 1950s and 60s, which was well understood by both marketers and consumers alike.

Brands evolved into a complex set of ideas and associations.

In the 20th century, marketers expanded beyond exploiting brands as a simple mechanism to reinforce consumer trust. They began to build personalities for brands. Developing a brand required defining its core mission, values, beliefs and behaviors. For instance, Target’s tagline reveals its core mission: “Expect more. Pay less.” Starbucks’ mission statement is perhaps more grand (“to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time”) but is reflected in not just its neighborhood cafes but also its commitment to ethically sourced coffee. Nike’s marketing for the past two decades has reflected its core belief that “if you have a body, you are an athlete,” and its mission to bring inspiration and innovation to athletes globally.

Digital allows brands to go beyond beliefs.

Certainly technology plays a critical role in how a brand tells its story. Even as far back as 1964, technological determinists like Marshall McLuhan (“the medium is the message”) understood that the technological form media takes is embedded in messages, producing a symbiotic relationship between how a message is sent and how it is perceived. 

The emergence of broadcast technologies in the first half of the 20th century allowed brands to reach a mass audience with a single TV or radio ad. For over half a century, television was the dominant medium for brand storytelling, condensing a brand’s story to a mere 30 seconds (in some cases, just 15 seconds), a catchy jingle, and memorable tagline. The success of the 30-second spot depended on telling the audience quickly and repetitively what a brand represented. 

The adoption of digital technologies by consumers has created a far more complex landscape for brand marketers. Today, a brand can still be defined by the space it holds in the heart, mind and wallet of users, but that space is increasingly—exponentially—determined by the brand’s digital efforts. No longer a captive and passive recipient of rigidly consistent messages, the consumer is in control, empowered to navigate freely in a participatory digital ecosystem. 

How a brand tells its story and delivers value through digital technologies in this new world has more impact on its overall success and the loyalty of its customers than 30-second commercial ever could. 

For consumers, digital has fundamentally altered the relationship they have with brands. While personal experience with a brand has always mattered, today consumers are forming opinions and feelings about a brand without ever having seen, touched or used the product. Brand perceptions are created not only by someone’s personal connections but also her wider social circle.

With this new relationship between brand and consumer, the traditional model of mere storytelling is insufficient. Marketers must lead with what the brand should enable, followed by what they want to say about that capability. In other words, storytelling becomes a function of the brand’s capability.

Brand development today thus requires simplifying and adding a focus on capability to the classic building blocks of vision, values, beliefs and behaviors.

At the heart of every brand is a vision.

As technology evolves the core tenets of branding remain the same. A brand’s vision is perpetually aspirational—a statement of what a brand wants to be or wishes to achieve. The vision underlies not just marketing and product decisions but also the overall strategic goals of the brand, helps differentiate it in the marketplace, and resonates with both users and employees. The vision’s authenticity should be continually tested (and in some cases, adjusted). It directly or indirectly addresses unmet, unspoken or unknown user needs. It also provides the framework for deciding and understanding the capability a brand can enable. 

The strongest brands are straightforward. Pedigree connects customers’ emotional connection to their pets to the nutritional and health benefits of its pet food. Apple and Google focus on simplicity (both in their products and brand vision), even as technology becomes more complex.

The mission and beliefs make a vision real.

If the vision is the goal of the brand, the mission is its rallying cry. The mission is the expression of what a company does. Beliefs are the foundational pillars of the brand and define how the mission is achieved.  For instance, Amazon’s mission to “be Earth’s most customer-centric company” is reflected in the breadth of its product choice, its customer service and fast shipping, and its product pricing.

Brand capability defines marketing in the digital age.

While a relatively new addition to brand strategy, successfully defining and delivering the brand capability is the key to successful marketing in the digital age. The capability needs to engage and empower users, meeting not just their unmet needs and unspoken needs, but also, for ultimate success, their unknown needs.


User research is typically effective at discovering unmet user needs, identifying functionality and requirements that users are able to say they need but have not effectively encountered in a particular experience. For instance, a user might need the same kind of one-click checkout she’s used on another site, but another brand’s site doesn’t offer it. That’s an unmet need.. It’s a fundamental, “cost of entry” need born from prior experiences.   

Research tends to fall short, however, at pinpointing unspoken and unknown user needs. Unspoken needs emerge from user problems that are prevalent but have no strong solution. For example, HBO viewers were passionate and wanted to be able to watch their favorites shows more. The unspoken need was for a more portable connection to the content in the form of HBO GO. Likewise, in cities where there were thriving taxi and car services, consumers may have struggled to find a cab when they needed one, but weren’t able to articulate the need for an on-demand service with frictionless payment options, as provided by companies like Uber. Finding the unspoken need will drive success for most brands, but true innovation goes a step beyond even the unspoken needs. 

The Holy Grail is discovering and meeting users’ unknown needs. Innovations such as the touch screen in mobile phones, or the ATM, or iRobot’s Roomba didn’t emerge as the result of user research but rather the socialization of technological invention. 

A brand’s capability needs to represent the brand story, as well as provide value by engaging and empowering users to solve not only problems they know they have, but also the ones they didn’t realize they have. In other words, it’s a question of what a brand should enable to anticipate and satisfy user expectations. Branding is no longer a top-down exercise, but rather driven by user needs.

Defining and developing the brand capability.

The discovery of a brand capability is not a linear process, but an exploration of three basic questions that can help an organization clarify its core brand components. These are:

  • What is the real challenge? Ultimately, brands exist to drive business. The real challenge is typically more tactical than the overall business objectives or goals. Instead, it originates in the product category, the business, or the user (or a combination of all three). It can inhibit or restrict the brand but also gives a brand its raison d’etre. For example, Starwood’s W Hotel brand revolutionized the hospitality industry when it was introduced 15 years ago. Starwood recognized the real challenge was to make a luxury brand more accessible. By bringing “accessible luxury” to the hotel category, it was able to broaden the potential customer base and tap into the emerging mass affluent user. The brand exploited guests’ desire for the cutting edge design of boutique hotels combined with the service of a corporate hotel chain. While the chain’s design may need a refresh to stay competitive, the brand pinpointed a lifestyle need few others recognized at the time.
  • What is the unspoken need of the user? Henry Ford is famously quoted as saying, "if I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse." Ford was uncovering a frustrating truth for marketers—users don’t always know what they want until they have it. In a technologically complex and fast-paced world, this is especially true. In addition to having problems that need to be solved, users also now  have expectations for what they should be able to accomplish online. The majority of agencies and marketers understand this and work to build creative responses to these problems, but most stop there. Truly innovative marketers are able to stretch beyond that and create solutions that address what consumers need but cannot yet articulate.
  • What is the true capability of the brand and what is ownable and attainable? Determining what the brand is capable of delivering is an essential component of building a brand today. While a brand’s vision, mission and beliefs are primarily abstract ideas, a brand’s capability is focused on implementation and the practical application of these ideas.  While grounded in the present, it must push forward what is possible for the brand, as well as resetting the expectation for what the user can do. For example, Target’s Facebook gift card app capitalized on the inherently social nature of the platform. When challenged to create a way for the company to sell via Facebook, the solution was to build a way for a group of friends to contribute to a gift card and send it to another friend. It played off the birthday greetings built into the platform, but offered users something more substantial with the same relatively low level of effort and commitment sending a birthday greeting requires. 

    Brands also need to understand their traditional competitive set has widened. Innovators such as Amazon, Uber, Zappos and Disney have transformed user expectations for experience and service, setting the bar higher for users outside of their respective categories. The temptation to extend a brand into new product categories is strong, and the history of failed brand extensions is long (e.g. Cosmo’s foray into yogurt, Smith & Wesson mountain bikes, and Colgate’s Kitchen Entrees range of readymade meals come to mind). Few brands are able to extend into multiple, disparate categories the way that Virgin has. 

    As a result, the brand’s capability needs to feel authentic to the brand. Within the sports apparel category, several companies have built strong brand experiences within mobile. For instance, REI’s Snow and Ski app helps skiers track snow conditions, what trails are open and how many lifts are available. Likewise, Oakley’s mobile app provides current surf conditions and North Face’s location-based app helps users find hiking trails, keeping track of their distance, speed and elevation.

Brand capability can work across a spectrum of user needs.

If branding can be thought to align with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which depicts five levels of needs from basic physiological ones to self-actualization, then most brands tend to aim at the top. For instance, Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” is selling self-esteem for women who have felt oppressed by unreasonable standards of beauty, rather than simply selling soap. Nike has traditionally done the same, focusing on self-esteem and self-actualization for athletes. 

A focus on brand capability can extend these values, but it also lets brands play lower on the hierarchy, where they may have previously lacked credibility. Brands today can play a role in love and belonging, for example, building online communities or participating in wider social networks. For instance, the Guinness UK sponsorship of premiership rugby has cemented its relationship with fans. Through both online and offline community building, the brand has reinforced existing relationships and natural fan affinity, formalized it, and added value beyond the “consumption occasion.” Similarly, Lego has secured its place in the lives of a new generation of “digital first” children by channeling and supporting the community of Lego hackers, creators and fans. Creating a “legitimate” home for them on the web has also created new revenue opportunities for the brand. 
Towards the base of the spectrum of needs, brands such as Comcast can aim toward safety and stability in its connected home product. Financial organizations provide consumers with more confidence when their apps alert them it’s safe to spend in real time. Brands can even credibly play at the most basic, physiological level, providing tools to track sleep, heart rate monitoring or calories burned.

Channel fragmentation creates greater need for cohesive brand vision.

Digital technologies have created a paradox: the channels for creativity have become nearly boundless while the requirements to remain “on brand” are greater than ever. Brands have more leeway to have fun and engage with consumers in a more responsive, personal and entertaining way. At the same time, brands are under increasing pressure to present a consistent personality. While marketers intuitively understand the importance of storytelling, having a solid, cohesive brand vision and platform that stories can emanate from has become crucial. The brand is the touchstone that unifies the user experience across multiple channels.

Charting and measuring progress remains critical.

If the capabilities are what are required to deliver on the attributes of the brand vision, then the road map and metrics are the engines that drive the capabilities. Brands must consider how to measure progress towards supporting their capabilities. Defining the right KPIs is part of that, as is determining a roadmap for enabling the brand’s capabilities. The roadmap includes brand style guidelines, development and infrastructure milestones, and deployment plans. Tracking brand performance and optimizing media placement continuously should help align a brand’s iterations with its core beliefs.

Building a brand’s capability changes marketing processes.

From a user’s perspective there is no such thing as “digital.” Users don’t differentiate between channels the way that marketers do—they expect seamless experiences and interactions with a brand regardless of where they encounter a brand. Yet for the most part, the marketing ecosystem still gives an advantage to traditional agencies, which then brief the digital agency, even though the richest interaction a brand can have with a user is via digital channels.

Defining a brand’s capability also changes the creative process. Brands are typically focused on creating campaigns. But the new model upends traditional campaign-focused marketing and forces organizations to start creating capability-based marketing that can not only drive traditional success metrics such as sales and awareness but also create new value streams for the user, brand, and business. 

This move away from campaign-centric marketing towards capability-focused marketing should also change how marketers plan and budget their media. Rather than attempting to push consumers down a linear purchase funnel, marketers need to focus on building an ongoing relationship with users, which means creating a valued presence in their lives. 

Nike is an example of a company that remains a marketing powerhouse even as it shifts its budget from TV and print (dropping 40 percent in three years) while increasing its spending on non-traditional channels (hitting a record $2.4 billion budget overall in 2012). As its reliance on single slogans and sports superstars wanes (LeBron James notwithstanding), the company has invested more and more in creating a ubiquitous digital presence, building dozens of social sites focused on specific sports or products. More importantly, Nike has focused on enterprise-level digital transformation, aligning designers, marketers and technologists to work together on the intersection of physical and digital products and enabling new capabilities.

Brand innovation requires structural changes.

To achieve this level of brand innovation may also require significant changes to a company’s structure and strategic development. Too often, the digital department is isolated from the larger organization, or sits within the marketing department. Brand teams need to be centered on digital, rather than sidelined as an afterthought. Huge predicts that in the next five to 10 years, the C-suite at large corporations will look significantly different than it does today, as experience and expertise in operations and technology will become more valued. 

Not only will the structure need to change, but the process of strategic development will also need to evolve. In traditional marketing, planners held the keys to the kingdom. It was the role of the planner to determine strategy and the brand’s vision. In today’s marketing environment, that is simply not enough. Brand innovation will require a more holistic approach, drawing on the insight of user experience experts as well as business strategy. While planners still play a central role in defining the brand’s strategy, UX determines how users interact with the brand (regardless of channel or touchpoint), while business strategy and analytics play a critical role in creating the business use case to justify the expenditure required, project the potential revenue generated, and provide measurement and insight into performance.


The most successful brands are ones that set expectations rather than simply recreate the status quo. They will be able to anticipate and shape the digitized world we will live in, rather than develop ideas for the world as it exists today. This requires thinking beyond a brand’s narrow category of competitors. User expectations are set across a broader spectrum of digitized experiences, from the restrained minimalism of Tinder to the effortlessness and utility of Uber, from the comprehensiveness of Starbucks’ mobile app to the progressive personalization of recipe app Yummly as it learns a user’s dietary preferences. 

UX and business strategy also play important roles in defining a brand’s capability. While brand planning must understand the overall cultural zeitgeist and establish a beachhead within that context, UX recognizes users’ interaction with technology and business strategy outlines the operational requirements necessary to develop a brand’s capabilities. Huge believes the future of strategy fuses “big picture” insights with a deeper comprehension of how technology fits into users’ daily lives. 

In order to facilitate this, brands must expand beyond conventional branding (determining their purpose, value and mission) to also define the capabilities they can and should deliver digitally. Digital experiences are becoming ubiquitous (becoming noticeable only when they’re absent). When marketers learn to create an always-on connection with consumers, and embrace capability-based marketing they are freed from the established rhythm of campaigns and media buys.