The rise of functional brands: Is this the death of storytelling?

25/02/19

Ten years ago – in the age of the mega-budget and mini-movie ad campaign – brands were able to seduce consumers with a grand aspirational dream. Our heartstrings were pulled, and our eyes opened to a lifestyle just within our reach. We were sold a fully-formed idea of perfection.

Skip forward and consumers are now much savvier. Instant access to a wealth of data has meant that overindulgent brand advertising has given way to something much more refined. Consumers are now more empowered; no longer passively consuming brand content but setting the context for brands to respond to.

Listen to the culture curators

This new breed of culture curators is seeking to interact, influence and co-create brand output. They care about what they feed themselves – and feedback to the planet. And the power balance has shifted in the consumer’s favour.

So, what does this mean for modern brands? This consumer shift away from brands that present an aspirational lifestyle towards those that demonstrate tangible benefits is driving new brand behaviours.

Functional brands now reign supreme. Look at the redesign for ice cream challenger brand Halo Top. By putting the calorie count front and centre on every pack and point of communication, the brand has been pushed to the brink of world domination. The design simply couldn’t be more functional.

And then there’s direct-to-consumer brands like Dirty Lemon and Casper. These brands exist solely to answer a certain need, whether that’s drinks with benefits or a quality mattress for a better night’s sleep. And they’ve nailed the two-way relationship and online engagement consumers now crave.

These successful brands are not telling us what we want. They’re giving us what we demand – but in a beautiful, engaging way. It’s not the provocative overindulgence of Haagen Dazs or Magnum. It’s direct, powerful and intelligent branding.

Is this the death of storytelling?

One thing that many functional brands have in common is a stripped-back aesthetic. Whether your ingredients sit in pride of place on front of pack (we’re looking at you RX Bar) or – like Treatwell – witty one-liners reveal explicit benefits, functional brands are using a strong tone of voice and purity of design to deliver core information quickly and efficiently.

But what about the magic of storytelling? If the average consumer attention span is eight seconds, how does a modern brand convey the depth and integrity of its story? Well, we need to get creative.

Whilst physical design can create instantaneous consumer connections, online platforms facilitate a functional brand. Instagram has become an invaluable platform for engaging with a consumer audience hungry for information about product ingredients, benefits, potential uses, brand impact, community engagement. The list goes on.

The brands that matter

Which brings us neatly to purpose. Not long ago, a social or ethical purpose lay at the heart of most successful brands – and others simply tacked on the suggestion of a ‘worthy’ purpose to win consumer favour.

But more recently, consumer shifts have meant that brand purpose can now be purely functional. Quite simply, ‘this is a great product that will have a positive impact on your life because…’ commands as strong a following as some leading ethical brands.

When a brand believes in the product it sells, it shows. Brands can no longer hide behind a story and sell people products they don’t need or want. It has to be a brand that matters.

Creativity in new places

From a creative perspective – and from someone who enjoys expressing emotion rather than communicating function – this could be seen as a pretty frustrating period in our industry. But actually, it offers the opportunity to be more inventive than ever. Creativity hasn’t disappeared, it just manifests in new ways and across new platforms.

To be effective in an increasingly crowded marketplace, brands must be super functional and have great design. It’s not enough to stick stats on the front of your pack and expect that to do the work. Consumers want more. Intelligent design will cut through the noise and grab consumer attention whilst still being sharable.

Because at the end of the day, modern consumers want a brand to do three things: Meet their needs, share their values and express their style. And to deliver on these three requirements, great design and a functional product need to work hand-in-hand to create a brand that matters.

Article by Lisa Desforges, Strategy Director at B&B studio. Originally published in The Grocer

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