What if Superheroes were Sponsored by Brands?

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In Brand Champions (Palgrave 2011), Ian plays with the notion of the superhero employee as “ultimate brand custodian”, suggesting that people are too complex to buy into the alignment logic of many brand campaigns, intrinsically suspicious of internal marketing and PR. He offers the suggestion, instead, that the great brands are built on authenticity both inside and out and are supported by willing advocates who understand what the brand stands for and who see themselves in the values they project be they customers or employees.

Many of our favorite, comic book superheroes, especially popular during tough times, fight crime for the greater good. But what if they were sponsored by brands and made to ‘represent’ the companies that paid them?

Italian graphic designer Roberto Vergati Santos helps to make this point in his illustrated series titled ‘Sponsored Heroes’ which plays with the juxtaposition of personal and corporate branding in the context of icons many consider to be “heroic”.

Taking familiar superheroes from comics and movies, Santos linked each of them to a specific brand by dressing them in colors and logos of the company.

In the series, showcased on the Design Taxi site, ‘Batman’ can be seen wearing Nike gear, while McDonald’s sponsored Tony Stark’s ‘Iron Man’ suit.

“Imagine if one day capitalism reaches the point, where the big brands start to sponsor the superheroes,” Santos explains. “How would this influence their images? Based on this hypothesis, I decided to experiment with some characters, and see what would be the results of such idea.”

The results are fascinating and oddly disturbing but certainly make you think twice about the relationship between brand advocacy, values and endorsement.

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Let’s get physical Part 3: The Future

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The Future…..

M Worldwide has been instrumental in developing and implementing the brand realisation strategy for the all-important physical environment in which a host of high-profile brands operate. Ian has partnered with clients across sectors to clarify their brand promise and create the optimum internal culture keep that promise. Looking to the future, as a modest “think tank”, what developments can we expect in terms of the way brands will evolve their spaces and places and what are some of the changes we will see in terms of the relationship between internal and external brand stakeholders?

Banks of check-outs?

Not any more.

  • Superficial product information on flimsy bits of A4 paper?

Not very 21st century. The love and the embracing of technology by online brands means established in-store retail norms are increasingly being replaced by a ‘have a go’, no barriers approach to the bricks and mortar environment. Digital signage, mobile pay points, home delivery order points, magic mirrors in changing rooms, music that changes to match the clothes you’re trying on using RFID tags etc etc. Exciting stuff for customers as well as employees who, lest we forget, are customers in their own right after all and can have a significant impact on the design of these spaces.

Smartphone penetration in the UK has now reached 45% – and growing. Converging phone, video, internet, wallet, apps and social media, it’s the bridge between the physical and digital worlds. It links shoppers to their friends, bringing them into to the browsing and shopping mix. McDonalds and Superdrug have already trialled prepaid technology for smaller purchases. And in February 2012 Barclays Bank launched Pingit which allows users to transfer cash between mobile devices.

Even the tedious chore of queuing to pay will soon be alleviated thanks to near field contactless technology. Once payments are made, loyalty schemes and vouchers that drive future visits will be delivered digitally. This places a great responsibility on employees, however, to ensure that all face to face interactions are maximised as there’s much less room for hit and miss encounters.

Consequently, employee workplace experience is going to matter even more than it does now .Sales staff increasingly access more knowledge about products and services through smartphones – supported by videos and digital demonstrations. There have been some impressive developments in the use of online learning solutions and virtual reality technology in corporate training, especially useful for global organizations and those who have a high proportion of remote workers. And gamification is rapidly gaining more air time as an involvement-driven engagement phenomenon.

Gone will be the days when products are cheaper online than in-store, where customers go to shops to road test products and then go away and purchase them at a cheaper cost online. Retailers will provide transparency and in-store price matching there and then through mobile or in-store technology.

The shopping environment will be all about experience rather than stuff. Stuff in all its ranges, sizes colours and packaging will need to be available, but it will not be the main attraction. Apart from all the emotional, rational and functional aspects of making choices and purchases, people also need somewhere to go, to hang out, to see and be seen. Employees will, therefore, be more conscientious about the “hangouts” and brands they want to be associated with.

The food/cafe offer as part of a retail experience is now a hygiene factor. Events, demonstrations, activities, in-store theatres, bars and gardens are what’s needed. But only those with the right mind-set, belief and attitude can deliver them. Compare the lackluster sampling and demos seen in UK supermarkets to the browsing experience in the toy store Hamleys. Supermarkets are the biggest food retailers in the land yet their cafes are hardly temples of food love. Quite some improvement opportunity.

But even the more conservative players are loosening their ties and getting in on the engagement act. At the end of 2011, online bank ING Direct launched its eighth bricks and mortar outlet in New York City’s Union Square. This is a 17,000 square foot cafe. You can’t make a deposit or a withdrawal, but you can grab a cup of coffee, take advantage of the WiFi, and enjoy face time with others. The bottom level of the three-story space allows small business owners and non-profits to host meetings, free of charge, for as many as 40 or 50 people. If you think this all sounds a bit too touchy feely, consider this: ING Direct found that deposits increased by about 10 percent in the cities where they have a physical presence.

Traditional retailers, especially those in fashion, often excel in terms of product newness, but lack originality in how that’s presented. Etailers, on the other hand, excel at fresh and new ways at looking at content. This puts them in good stead to make stores feel really different on a regular basis.

The real innovators will also be those that harness the power of their employees through effective engagement channels and consumers through social media, creating and driving content with imagination and clear focus about their point of difference. They’ll also leverage their supplier brands to do more and be more active.

Humans are inherently social animals.While there are those for whom shopping is a chore to be done as quickly and painlessly as possible, for many others shopping is an art in itself — and stores are the galleries. Innovative retail brands have the chance to embrace true multichannel retailing in a way that most traditional high street retailers can only dream about. This should lead to a virtuous circle for the enlightened…great online and physical environments leading to more customers and in turn attracting and engaging more visionary employees who, if properly treated, will care enough to create more of those environments………..

Here’s to true engagement inside and out leading to brand-based innovations that will benefit all stakeholder groups.

Authors: Ian P Buckingham in conjunction with Chris Hill & David Martin of retail design experts M Worldwide. (Published online in 3 serialised parts & also appeared in specialist marketing magazine Admap M-Worldwide_Admap_ShoppingAsArtForm_1Nov12).