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Blurred identities, composable and conscious brands

Sairah Ashman, Global CEO of Wolff Olins on three behavioural shifts that will impact your consumer relationships

Sairah Ashman, Wolff Olins

Global CEO

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The future always sounds absurd at first.

But then it’s just…normal.

One day you’ll talk to people on giant video screens!

One day you’ll do all your work at home and never meet your colleagues in person!

One day your kids won’t identify as a boy or a girl!

It all sounded like absurd imaginings. Implausible. A joke.

Now you just call it Tuesday.

So what absurd things are going to happen – are already starting to happen – that we’re just going to have to get used to on any given Tuesday?

I spoke at the Collision tech conference in Toronto this week, exploring how we create modern brands for the modern world, and unpacking three trends that we believe we’ll see more of as society shifts: a future that is becoming more blurry, composable and conscious.

In a nutshell, these are about acknowledging people’s multiple identities, understanding the extent to which people co-create and the more meaningful roles brands can play in people’s lives.

1. Blurred identities

You’re already used to people rejecting pronouns, rejecting gender boundaries, rejecting physical boundaries.

But in the near future, more and more people will acknowledge their multiple identities - the different personas they have online, offline, at work, with friends, in the metaverse.

And, while you find new ways to keep up with these identities, you are going to have to get used to people having no fixed name, too. It’s illegal in many countries to have no name, which makes it all the more alluring, rebellious and mysterious to reject standard ‘Christian names’ – and instead adopt a symbol, handle or icon.

Just look at Grimes (herself a dream-pop sci-fi self-invention) and Elon Musk’s child X Æ A-12, which they pronounce “X A.I. Archangel,” or X for short.

Sounds absurd right? Wrong.

As branding experts, that presents us with a huge challenge, as for so long naming has been synonymous with branding. But in future, we might have to get used to creating more mysterious, more ephemeral, less prosaic brands that you can’t even say or write down.

2. Composable brands

You’re already used to brands that you can personalise, you can reconfigure, you can continually update.

But in future, you're not just going to tweak and tinker with brands and their factory settings. You’re going to have to build them yourself, or commission someone to make them for you.

It’s already the norm to build your own shop, marketplace and brand in Roblox or on Depop. It’s already the norm to manage your own reviews, build your reputation and design your own brand identity in these open worlds.

So we are all going to have to get used to the fact that everyone on the planet is not just a ‘digital native’. They don’t just live in the digital world. They build it. They’re world-building - and brand-building - native.

So, in the future, if you haven’t built your own world, your own brand, and your own marketplace – will you have a stake in society, in the economy?

In the future, you’re not just going to get cancelled if you’re not 100% sustainable. You’re going to have to go to war with legions of digital activist fans

Sairah Ashman, Global CEO of Wolff Olins

3. Conscious brands

You’re already used to people boycotting brands, demanding fully vegan workplaces, cancelling toxic brand spokespeople.

But in the future, you’re not just going to get cancelled if you’re not 100% sustainable. You’re going to have to go to war with legions of digital activist fans.

Just look at fan-driven climate action platforms like Kpop 4 Planet and campaigns like No K-pop on a Dead Planet. In recent years, the mobilisation of K-pop fans has made global headlines through campaigns like the BTS ARMY raising more than $1 million for the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 and K-pop fans more broadly drowning out hashtags including #BlueLivesMatter in the same year to fight for racial justice.

K-pop fans have even organised anti-authoritarian strikes in Myanmar, and purchased tickets to Trump rallies, creating hundreds of no-shows.

So, if you’re thinking about putting out a statement on your purpose, your role in the community or stance on the planet, don’t only worry about what the WSJ or NYT are going to say. Worry about what thousands of hardcore passionate K-Pop fans are going to do to you in your next meeting.

To succeed during troubling times when people are seeking optimism, a different kind of brand is needed - a conscious one.

Conscious brands are responsible in their actions and responsive to the world as it evolves. They are adept at unpacking the roles of branding and experience, understanding how the fusion of the two can create a more conscious impact on businesses, individuals, and the modern world. And they are inherently optimistic.

The landscape for brands is shifting, fast. And it is shifting in every way – from a consumer, industry, tech, channel, organisational and societal perspective.

We believe blurred identities, composable brands and conscious brands are just three areas that demand your focus as your brand evolves for the future. And this future is already a reality for many of your customers. Just imagine, what will any given Tuesday look like in 10 years?

Guest Author

Sairah Ashman, Wolff Olins

Global CEO

About

Sairah Ashman is Global CEO of brand consultancy Wolff Olins, where she oversees the business direction across its offices in London, New York and San Francisco. She’s passionate about working with ambitious leaders to help their businesses become great brands in world, the kind of radical and category-defining brands that represent something special for the people who buy from them and the people who work for them. She works across a wide range of jobs, helping to push creativity and challenge the work internally. Sairah is an alumna of Harvard Business School and Goldsmiths University of London, where she recently completed a Masters in Digital Sociology. She’s also an active supporter of The House of St Barnabas, working to break the cycle of homelessness, and a regular TEDx host and speaker.