Is Your Brand Fit For The Future? – Robin Charney

What makes a brand fit to face the future?

That was the question discussed by The Future Laboratory’s Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer Tracey Follows at AAR’s recent breakfast event. She was talking about the organisation’s newly-published Future Fit Index, which ranks the top 100 most future-fit brands in the UK today.

The Index emerged from thinking about how consumers have seen the destructive impact of short-termism from brands and businesses and are increasingly demanding long-term thinking.

It was created by measuring brands against six critical behaviour patterns: agility, brand stretch, conscious business, innovation, thriving employees, and long-term planning. Some of these behaviours fall within marketing already, but what was particularly interesting was how many are being brought into the more forward-thinking marketer’s purview. For example, the importance of having engaged employees who represent the brand’s values at every touchpoint is only now being seen as important to marketers. I read recently of a CMO who described their HR director as “my new best friend.”

Tracey went through each of the behaviours in turn, explaining why they were chosen and giving examples of the brands and businesses that had scored best in each category, as well as some that hadn’t.

Agility was chosen, she said, because it’s important to be able to adapt quickly when you see an opportunity. The top companies in the category were What’sApp, Facebook and Instagram, with Nike and Adidas the notable non-tech businesses. Tracey highlighted Adidas’ Speed Factory initiative to put manufacturing into stores as an example of agility in the supply chain, and she also mentioned Dyson’s investment of £15m in its Institute of Technology, which aims to train 6,000 engineers by 2020.

Brand stretch is all about having a purpose that is engaging to current customers and future high-spenders. Google topped the rankings here, by virtue of being everywhere, from online advertising to autonomous cars and We Wear Culture, a site that “tells the stories behind what we wear”.

Conscious business, Tracey explained, involves taking responsibility for the consequences of your behaviour in the world by behaving ethically. She singled out Unilever for its Sustainable Living Plan, which she said demonstrates that if you align the focus of the business with sustainability, it will show up in your results. In the case of Unilever, the brands in the Sustainable Living Plan – such as Ben & Jerry’s – are growing more than 50% faster than the rest of the business.

Fashion too, and even fast fashion, has cottoned on to the importance of conscious business, with examples like the H&M Foundation, with its mission to drive long-lasting positive change and improve living conditions by investing in people, communities and innovative ideas, and Clevercare by Stella McCartney, which aims to remind people to think of the environment when caring for the clothes.

The flipside of this, she suggested, are tech brands like Facebook and Apple, where a lack of transparency suggests to consumers that they have something to hide, and leads to mistrust.

Tracey defined innovation as “learning what will be desirable in the future, and funding its production”. The ability to innovate is obviously key not only to being ready for the future, but to shaping it. The automotive industry scored most highly here, with a compelling example being Jaguar Land-Rover. The company is doubling the size of its UK R&D centre to develop new power systems, for example, but it’s also thinking about neighbouring sectors, investing £19.5m in ride-sharing company Lyft.

Unsurprisingly, John Lewis was the outstanding business in the Thriving Employees category, with its unique organisational structure. But Tracey also highlighted Virgin, which scored highly by offering flexible working, unlimited leave and employee health initiatives.

The final category, long-term planning, is also about imagining your preferred future and knowing how to make it a reality. Tracey mentioned Coca-Cola as a brand that does long-term planning very well, citing the way it’s preparing for the threats posed by changing attitudes about sugar and health, and supporting that with full environmental disclosure.

The number one spot in the Future Fit Index was claimed by Nike, which scored well across all six behaviours. Tracey described it as “environmentally conscious, in good shape financially, with women on the board, high internal engagement and the ability to think about the future and the products and services it’s going to create for future consumers.”

Tracey closed with three pieces of advice for people wanting to be better prepared for the future themselves. Firstly, work for an agile company, one that’s able to respond to changing customer demand and the emergence of new technologies and competitors. Secondly, bin your company’s five-year plan. Instead develop a 25 year vision that you use to guide initiatives across a six to 12 month timescale. Finally, talk about your preferred future. Brands and businesses that do that, she said, are more likely to be able to make it happen.

I’m very much looking forward to next year’s Future Fit Index and to see who has moved up (or down) and to see what lessons we can all learn from it all.