It is the first time in history that brands alone, not the product or service a company produces but its mission and cultural impact, have the ability to fulfill a universal human need. The digital revolution has caused a disruption, a huge behavioral shift creating a heavily fragmented audience and allowing brands to play a new, key, leading role.

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More possibilities than ever

Untethered as we are from our physical existence, able to access tons of information and communicate with almost anyone on the planet, we are gradually losing our sense of belonging.

As we embrace the new endless possibilities Internet has created, we are exposed to a new reality where we find ourselves culturally boundless. Until now, it has been our family, our friends, the city we grew up in, our neighborhood, or even our workspace that have helped us develop our identity, shape character, and embrace a system of values.

But in the intangible digital world where we blend in with billions of other people from around the world, it is hard to isolate a group that shares a distinct identity.

How have consumer behaviors changed?

The behavioral change caused by the digital revolution is undeniable and has been documented by the IBM iX global qualitative study conducted by IPOS, revealing that because of this “perfect storm of cultural influences that is eroding our sense of belonging” we tend to develop a new relationship with brands.

Consumers around the world may be more distracted than ever (exposed to an average of 10,000 brand messages per day), but the majority are willing (55% of them) to pay more just for a better customer experience, not the actual product or service but the experience. Consumers tend to identify themselves in relation to the brands they choose more than ever before. As the study mentioned above, if they were countries, Apple and Amazon would be the 2 biggest ones right now, not because of their wealth but because their brands produce the strongest sense of belonging to their customers.

Are brands going to fulfill our need to belong in a globalized and fully fragmented digital new world? How attached will you be to your native country, to your family, or the city in which you live in the future compared to major brands? How upset would you be if Netflix had to shut down today compared to changing neighborhoods, for example?

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How should brands adapt?

As big parts of our lives, like work, communication, and entertainment, move to the digital world we tend to have more experiences on the web rather than the physical world. Brands are the touchstone of the digital experience.

You accept the terms of use of a digital service/platform the same way you comply with a country’s regulations. Brands have a bigger effect on your digital experience than the country you live in or your family and friends.

This way businesses, through the customer experience they design, are able to create very strong bonds with the users, bypassing the conventional offline experience influencers. As our lives become more and more digital every day, key digital players gain the power to prove themselves superior to any other offline cultural group, no matter how well-established it used to be.

It isn’t a simple task to become so influential though. “Brand Belonging” requires clear and compelling brand purpose and business objectives as a foundation. It also involves continuous strategic choice-making in the context of business and brand objectives. Brands need to select key drivers, define a differentiating play and most importantly put customers’ needs as their first priority.

The IBM iX study finds extra reasons that have caused a belonging deficit. Increasing isolation, erosion of trust, economic inequality, political polarisation, and mass migration are among them. No wonder the need to have a cultural reference in the digital world has created a huge business opportunity with proven business returns. Are corporations able to take such a responsibility? Customers have higher than ever ethical expectations.

Are you struggling to create a sense of belonging with your brand? Or have you mastered turning your customers into devotees? Share your challenges and advice with a global network of marketing leaders on the CMO Alliance Community Slack channel. Sign up for free today.