Insights from Google’s Executive Brand Summit

At the risk of sounding like an ungracious guest, when the host of a conference spends a lot of time talking about themselves, it is usually a good sign that you have attended the wrong conference. Although, if that host is Google, that insight doesn’t really apply.

Like many summits put on by Silicon Valley stalwarts, Google’s Executive Brand Summit is ultimately focused on promoting the use of proprietary products and services. They do this by sharing their innovation pipeline. However, the product news shared at this year’s Executive Brand Summit wasn’t really new. In fact, somewhat surprisingly, the summit reinforced many of the day-to-day solutions many marketers are already currently using to influence consumers who have expressed some intent.

Arguably, the fact that there was not a ton of new news is probably a good thing, both for agencies and for brands. This is surely a reflection of the volume of knowledge we already have of what is in development and what is currently available from Google.

Marketing is focused on the right things…

As is usually the case when attending these things, the Summit reinforced that the industry is focused on the right things. The themes of the Summit reflect some of our most important initiatives. These include: expanding programmatic buying across “traditional channels” and keeping people at the heart of programmatic management; relentlessly improving relevancy for the audience and employing increasingly-adaptive messaging as a leading strategy for ensuring this; developing experiences rather than just advertising; putting mobile at the center of what we do – treating it as the first screen; understanding consumers as close to a one-to-one level as possible, focusing on the unique journeys they take across categories; and, considering Virtual Reality as an entirely new medium for which we are all together in the early stages of understanding its impact potential.

…But there is work to do

All of that said, the Summit also served as a critical reminder that there is work to be done. Of particular importance are several areas in which brands and their agencies cannot be focused enough. These include:

The evolution of storytelling to hypertelling.

One of the most compelling discussions was led by Mike Yapp, CCO of Google’s internal creative shop, The Zoo. This guy is a mad scientist, in a really good way. He talked a lot about the evolving role of what we have traditionally considered “users.” Users are real people with individual motivations. Increasingly, these “users” will become both authors and actors in stories they produce on their own, seamlessly.

Envisioning this as the next evolution of the consumer controlling the destiny of a brand is both really compelling and a bit scary. The tools for making this happen are basically already in hand. As true digital natives get older and increase in both influence and purchasing power, these tools will be a part of their everyday existence in the digital space. The implication for brands is to both enable this consumer hypertelling as well as engage in it themselves.

Planning and activation cannot be fluid enough. 

One of the panelists noted that it is much easier to harvest existing interest/intent than it is to grow it from scratch. Not that we don’t know this, but the implication is that the entire messaging and media mix has to be dynamic and iterative; we can no longer settle for the “digital” elements of the mix accounting for the only true fluidity in message development and distribution.

What was gamification is now a dating layer. 

Historically we’ve talked about gamifying consumer experiences as a means for engaging them in more inherently entertaining contexts. But with the prevalence of the “swipe right/swipe left” culture, it may be more appropriate to think of gamification as a “dating layer” being applied over everything. Facebook’s relatively recent launch of Canvas is a perfect example of embracing the swipe culture. This has certainly been acknowledged in the recent past, but I’m not sure if brands and agencies are acting on it to the extent that is possible or necessary. The implication is clear though, it is critical that we acknowledge the consumers’ voice quickly as they swipe the brand “right” or “left.”

The tension in Open-to-Closed. 

Like many other agencies, our organization is squarely focused on understanding how brands will maintain relevancy in increasingly “closed” ecosystems. There is tension in the expectation of consumers to live and play in closed systems, while at the same time expecting nothing but radical openness from brands. The implication is that as a representative of our clients’ brands we have to know how to navigate these closed systems, while being completely transparent in our desire to do so.

The impact of the visionary. 

When you are “inside” Google, rather than just working with them, you are struck by the passion that has been generated by the vision of the two guys who started the company. Their vision, which is famously and still reverently referenced at events like this, has created a cult of personality that helps Google thrive. Both brands and agencies can learn a ton from this. Brands cannot express their visions often enough, nor vocally enough. Doing so, and in innovative ways, is how brands will continue to evolve, developing new tools and processes for attracting new customers.

The role of Function Follows Form. 

Function Follows Form is inherently a counterintuitive concept. We’ve been ingrained in the contrary. But Function Follows Form is actually a core tenet of Systematic Inventive Thinking, a process we use to generate new solutions. Function Follows Form states that our brains actually work better when we focus on creating a thing, and then retroactively determining whether it effectively solves a problem, instead of trying to create a solution for a predetermined problem. “20%” projects like Google Cardboard prove that Function Follows Form can have an enormous impact on innovation.

Cardboard was started by two guys in the Paris office of Google as a passion project. Since its inception the company has distributed roughly five million sets of Cardboard “glasses.” These are helping people solve problems those guys likely could never have imagined. These include allowing surgeons to see 3D renderings of the interior of the body in entirely new ways, and enabling underfunded schools to take their students on virtual journeys they otherwise never would have been exposed to.

The implication is to develop first, then determine needs and benefits later.

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