BEIJING—In the future, a select group of brands won’t be either global or local in their focus; they will be “nomad” brands, finding “tribes” of enthusiasts in each market. That was the theme of a presentation on the topic of Tomorrow’s Brands, delivered at the In2 Summit in Beijing by David Wolff, managing director of the China practice at Allison+Partners.

Wolf suggested that some of the glamor once attached to global brands—those that make the same promise around the world—has been diminished since the global economic crisis, which “suggested that global brands were not perfect, that they did not have all the answers.”

At the same time, the once dominant mass market was being replaced by the rise of micro-cultures. One result was the rise of local brands, particularly in China, and of brands focusing more on their domestic markets, “recognizing opportunity on their own doorsteps.”

Another was the emergence of what Wolf calls “tribal brands.” Sports teams, he says, are tribal brands. “Fans feel affinity with the brand and create affinity with people we don’t have very much else in common with based on a shared enthusiasm.”

In the corporate realm, tribal brands include the likes of Whole Foods Market and Mountain Dew. But “the problem with tribal brands is they are by definition limited,” says Wolf. “We have to help them find their tribes in global markets.”

To illustrate how this might work—and how the tribes might differ from market to market, Wolf pointed to Harley-Davidson, using images of those associated with the brand in different markets: a bearded, leather clad biker in the US, but in China a young female professional.

“In Asia, Harley-Davidson is younger, a banker maybe, not grungy at all.” In the future, the question for marketers and PR people is not “how do we go to market, it’s where is our tribe? The longer you take to find your tribe the more likely you are to lose it.”

Wolf’s lightning talk on nomad brands followed a Tomorrow’s Brands panel discussion, led by Holmes Report editor Paul Holmes and featuring HS Chung, managing director of Hill+Knowlton Korea and a veteran of several start-ups; Christopher Samuel, director of corporate engagement, Monsanto Asia-Pacific; and Jessica Yip, brand manager, Asia, for Air New Zealand.

The general theme of the discussion was disruption, with Chung providing the upstart perspective; Yip discussing the challenges of being a small player in a large market and an industry that has been disrupted for decades; and Samuel telling the story of Monsanto’s self-disruption: reinventing itself as a company 100 percent focused on agriculture after selling its chemical and other businesses to Pfizer.

There was widespread agreement that the key to success in an increasingly disruptive era is improved engagement, with internal audiences (who can act as brand ambassadors) and external audiences, who have ever higher expectations from brands. Engagement can be high-tech, like Monsanto’s website providing the facts about its business and the farmers it serves, or high-touch, like Air New Zealand’s commitment to customer service.

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