How might brands use World Building to reach their customers?

It’s nearly six months since I started to read, think and write about World Building and I’m increasingly getting questions about what it means for companies and brands. I’m not sure my ideas are fully formed yet but I want to suggest that there are two big areas: reimagining digital marketing and using future worlds as a way of driving digital transformation.  I will tackle both of those in upcoming posts starting today with digital marketing.  As always, I would love comments, criticism and suggestions to hone my thinking.

So let’s start with Digital Marketing…

I want to start with some assumptions that have guided me well over the last few years:

  • Brands need reach and reputation more than they need targeting
  • Brands need digital reasons to be (found)
  • Consumers select brands that help them meet functional, emotional and social needs
  • Consumers won’t waste time and (brain) energy making complex choices and will choose the brand they recognise that addresses their needs
  • The digital ecosystem is multidimensional with consumers moving on their own complicated paths through search, social, content consumption, shopping and other online activities
  • The customer acquisition funnel is not a useful model in this complex connected online & offline ecosystem
  • Brands need to find ways to connect with people before they become potential customers was well as stay will them after purchase and after use
  • Brands need to align what they do offline and in traditional media with what they are doing online – there should only be one version of a brand
  • Brands need to construct and tell powerful stories that resonate with people, are easy to remember and show how the consumer will meet their needs
  • Data driven (programmatic and growth) marketing may be a lot less successful (at building brands) than claimed by the big digital players, especially over the long term as consumers adapt to nudges, interruptions and social influences
  • Much of the evidence for the success of digital marketing fails to take into account the wishful thinking of marketers who feel they have found a silver bullet and the persuasive influence of Google, Meta and Amazon who have been very successful in selling the extractive capabilities of their machines.
  • Simple models of influence based on “idea contagion” do not work in practice and more sophisticated multi-touch contagions are much harder for brands to control
  • Brands don’t need purpose, they need to help people achieve their purpose (and this is easier using digital than traditionally).  

I’m sure this list provokes disagreement in some but I am guided by strong scientific evidence from the likes of Byron Sharp, Phil Barden, Damon Centola, Sandra Vandemerwe, Tim Hwang, Lisa Feldman-Barrett, Cory Doctorow and Daniel Kahneman.  New evidence may emerge that may prove some of these assumptions wrong and when it does I will revise my thinking to incorporate it.

Building a brand world for consumers 

It is the complexity of the combined digital and physical worlds that have increased the work of marketers.  We used to tell and control stories in 30 sec films and show them during television shows. Today. we need to craft brands, tell stories and allow others to tell and extend our stories using a myriad of locations, tools and techniques. 

World building is the practice favoured by writers, film makers and games developers that constructs a setting for multiple stories with a depth that is authentic, consistent, memorable and engaging.  

This is exactly what brands need to do.  Instead of pushing products with interruptive messaging and attempting to drive people to complete sales conversions, they need to set out clearly what they offer as solutions to complex human needs in multiple “world” locations while giving agency to people to be part of the story making if they want to be.

The world that we build will have many dimensions including locations (landmarks) a brand controls, locations that are borrowed, hired or shared with others, signposting and referrals that we create and created by others plus places where people gather to discuss, complain or reimagine our brand.  Brands need to be there too.

Brands need to be available when and where people visit and offer short memorable first encounters, deeper stories when requested and conversations and service when that is warranted. They need to notice when people return and keep stories and conversations going.  

They need to avoid locking the door as the visitor enters or demand that they follow a fixed path from door to cash register.  They must observer what kind of visitor has entered their space (or a space shared with others) and adapt their story while keeping memorable aspects consistent.

Many will just want to get in, make their regular (low brain energy required) purchase and get out.  Don’t try to confuse them, upsell them or waste their time.

Don’t expect everyone to set up home in your location but watch out for the few (your superfans) who want to, giving them the space, the tools, the recognition and the encouragement to get involved. Some others may want to take souvenirs from your world and show them off in their own spaces. These are not the same people and the locations and experiences you build need to offer both value.

World building thinking is an evolution of what marketers, retailers and brands used to do.  It asks us to think hard about our visitors and their needs, and equally hard about the salience of our brands.  

Remember that every visitor is different and avoid using crude demographic or behavioural segmentation and stereotyping when creating experiences for them.

World building is a design pattern

Here are a few more things for a brand to think about…

  1. Reimagine every touchpoint as a world location or landmark and design each location to welcome (and welcome back) visitors
  2. Design the fabric of the world in detail to connect with visitors using every sense.  This is deep branding.
  3. You can lay trails into and through your world (and should) but don’t assume that visitors will follow them
  4. Use paid advertising and social messaging as additional reminders of your brand presence with the goal of encouraging exploration of your world rather than “click to buy”.  These are reminder signposts.
  5. Design your world for the wide range of explorers, adventurers, researchers, bargain hunters, job seekers, makers and other people who will populate it.  Think about the challenges and quests that each of these visitors is on when they arrive in your world.
  6. Give your visitors things to do, tools to help them in their lives and things to talk about and show off (as well as buy)
  7. Design for people in groups as well as for individuals.  Increasingly exploring is a team activity.  Let people see each other.
  8. Invite every one of your staff to spend time and actively participate in the world you create 

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