The notion of “fast food” is about to reach a whole new level. As Stephen Colbert recently reported, NASA is funding the creation of a 3D printer capable of printing pizza—for astronauts on extra long missions—using cartridges filled with carbohydrate and protein powders in lieu of ink. Technically known as additive-layer manufacturing, 3D printing works by building up layer upon layer of material to make solid objects. In design and manufacturing, the nascent technology is already making waves with the world’s first ready-to-wear item, a threadless bikini, and GE’s mass production—or rather, mass printing—of jet engine parts. Many observers believe the process is too complex and expensive to run for most products, but Staples has plans to introduce the first consumer 3D printing service in-store, and 3D printers for the home may hit the market for just $347. With the tipping point for widespread accessibility closer than we think, what will innovative brands—and consumers—dream up next?
With Google Glass available this fall, we may see the world through Google’s eyes right out of the crib. Sound scary? A recent Atlantic article investigates technology’s impact on toddlers’ brains, weighing concerns about creating zombies against ensuring children don’t fall behind their peers. Being a digital native does not necessarily mean being passive, though. Take 17–year–old Nick D’Aloisio, who started playing with his first Macbook at age 9 and created Summly at 15 out of frustration studying for a history exam. Rather than question technology’s impact, we may need to help children sharpen their problem-solving skills and ability to innovate. For brands, these inevitable changes are blowing open doors of opportunity to interact with children at even younger ages. But the bar is high. Those brands that create numbing, boring experiences will be tossed aside, challenging brands to up their creativity through ever more engaging sites, apps and other online media.
A new book from Al Gore says we are in a “period of hyper-change,” which has huge implications for brands entrenched in legacy products and services. This is perhaps most evident in the case of the U.S. Postal Service, which announced plans to launch its own wardrobe line, cheekily named “Rain Heat & Snow” featuring wearable electronics. Nike is more proactively staying competitive as an activity-inspiring brand with new technology products like FuelBand. Most brands, though, are taking less disruptive steps to adapt. Yahoo refreshed its homepage with a Twitter/Facebook-like newsfeed being careful not to upset loyal users, while American Airlines’ rebranding shifed from representing America as a symbol of world power to one of spirited progress. Subtle changes may provide near–term relief. But as technological advances remake the marketplace with growing speed and frequency, legacy brands may have to become more comfortable venturing beyond their core competency while staying true to a higher brand purpose.
Ray Kurzweil, now Google’s director of engineering, says that by 2029 computers will have emotional intelligence and be convincing as people. Another far-off prediction, you might say, but this futurist’s future is here. A 2007 study found that our brains are wired to socialize with anything remotely social, even prompting apologies to robot cats. This has huge implications for consumer brands, which already under-leverage personality as a brand asset. For example, a raincoat glowing in your closet to remind you you’ll need it later that day could feel like a helpful friend—but it could glow differently if by L.L. Bean or Burberry. This new outlet of brand expression promises to blow open opportunities for how brands apply their creative palette to product development. Which brands will take advantage to create deeper loyalty with customers? It will depend on brands’ capacity to value personality as much as function. The future looks bright for the brands that do.
Nimble brands have a knack for increasing their competitive advantage during crises that send others scrambling. Consider the Occupy movement, which leveraged its greatest asset—mobilization—to outpace the Red Cross and remake its brand, as established entities like Tide, Hanes and Duracell seemed to miss the boat entirely. Another scrappy group, Newscred, is daring to resurrect the news industry, creating badly needed revenue streams for flagging publishers by connecting them with brands wanting high-quality, content-rich marketing efforts. It’s not just startups stepping in, though. The New York Times notes that retail chains like Home Depot, Costco and Sam’s Club are shifting, chameleon-like, to fill the post-crisis financial service gap by offering financial products. Walmart is even experimenting with selling life insurance as part of its strategy to fully capture the unbanked population, or a quarter of its customers, proving yet again that size is ultimately less important than the insights and adaptability that drive relevance.
Ford Motor Company, scion of 20th Century innovation, may also hint to the future of the US economy. Ford is ascending again, by appealing to Americans‘ bootstraps values—rejecting the government bailout and acknowledging consumers’ thin wallets. The new F-series pickup trucks use a fifth less fuel than competitors, but rather than marketing the model as environmentally-friendly, Ford is selling it as a money-saver. Recently Microsoft made a pragmatic splash by launching the Surface tablet via an investment in an existing company, rather than starting from scratch. Projecting pragmatism may the best way to profits and the best way to get elected, too. The ideological fervor of 2008 has given way to a more sober political contest this year; less about ideals, more about who can get the job done. It remains to be seen whether voters will judge Governor Romney’s opportunistic positions or President Obama’s compromises as the winning pragmatism for the economy and for the future of brand America.
A confluence of technological advances is making it possible to till fresh discoveries from the explosion of data we’re producing daily, creating space for game-changing innovation in everything from marketing to education. Thanks to data-driven personalized marketing and tracking, the CMO is suddenly emerging as a bigger player in the C-suite, says IBM, which now has the data gurus on its advertising radar. At companies like Xerox, the hiring boss is now an algorithm, better able to pick the best person for the job. Mining through their data, for example, found that a creative personality actually mattered more in a good call center worker than previous experience. With Big Data comes Big Opportunity; a McKinsey study found that retailers leveraging their data to the fullest could increase operating margins by up to 60 percent. Notwithstanding tech leaps, data will be most useful because of the ideas and insights gleaned from it—a task we think is still best reserved for the human brain.
A boost of resources and talent is beginning to flow towards brands with social consciousness at the core of their identities. New Resource Bank, backed by Al Gore’s investment firm, is lending solely to ventures with social missions, looking for returns that are social and environmental in addition to financial. Meanwhile, the founder of Avaaz, the global online organizing powerhouse, has created Purpose, ushering in a wave of marketing potential for companies looking to mobilize consumer movements. Some entrepreneurs are even trying to reinvent the economy altogether. David Brancaccio recently reported on a ”time-banking” initiative that has sprung up in Portland, ME, where people are swapping skills denominated not by the dollar, but by the hour. This is likely an extreme frontier, but integrating social consciousness into one’s business model may promise more sustainable success. After all, as Jack Welch recently reminded WSJ readers, ”Corporations are people working together toward a shared goal, just as hospitals, schools, farms, restaurants, ballparks and museums are.” If that’s the case, why not reflect that humanity in brands and businesses?
Some have suggested that savvy government marketing could be more effective than laws at changing behaviors—even Bill Clinton rallied ad execs last week in Cannes to realize their unique power to solve the world’s most pressing problems. Given the resources of beverage companies, a former Coke executive says activists and governments need to use the same marketing strategies to steer consumers toward healthier choices. Similarly, philanthropist Kathryn Davis advocates rebranding the field of science to encourage American students to want to study STEM subjects. Fostering joy and understanding seems to be President Obama’s approach, too—rather than promoting “No Child Left Behind”-style mandates, he’s said that maker fairs and robotics competitions are key to increasing interest in science and innovation—more carrot, less stick. Will brands or agencies take the lead in elevating higher-order concepts into compelling brands, using marketing tactics for the benefit of their bottom line and the greater good?
Amidst the hubbub over whether the U.S. in decline—spurred in part by new books by Ed Luce, Niall Ferguson and Ian Bremmer—McKinsey reported on the standout strength of US cities. The report says that by 2025, New York and L.A. will be the world’s second and fourth largest cities, by GDP. McKinsey also noted the growth potential of America’s top 28 welterweight cities, and it’s this middle layer that Fast Company’s United States of Innovation issue sees as home to some of the most attractive entrepreneurial advantages. And growth won’t just come from service jobs. A fascinating special report from The Economist points to a third industrial revolution, fueled by digital processes like 3D printing and software innovations, that may bring manufacturing back home. These radical production changes will make New York, L.A. and the 28 cities more important than ever for brands. What do you think?
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