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Save us it's 2020 already!

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Peshkova)

One of the great things about 2020 being here is that we can all hopefully stop doing and reading business presentations about this bloody year. It’s almost taken on a similar strange significance to, yes, 1999.

Before sticking necks out about forecasts, trends, hopes and fears (there are quite a few of those) for 2020, I thought it would be interesting as an extra-masochistic exercise to look back at something I was involved with for similar reasons in 1999. It was for a book called ‘The Future of Brands’, and its purpose was, at the time of A Significant Year, to look forward at what could be in store for brands and the world at large.

That was the future, once…

In fact, it looked well forward. Twenty-five years forward (I recall because Interbrand, my company at the time, had been founded twenty-five years before as the first specialist brand consultancy, so it seemed nicely symmetrical). To help in this endeavour, we interviewed twenty-five interesting people from a wide range of backgrounds around the world.

They all looked a bit younger then (as did we all), but they included people like Howard Schultz (he of Starbucks and potential US Democratic candidate fame), Deepak Chopra (health and spiritual guru to the stars), Spike Lee (Academy Award-winning director) and Paul Smith (design guru), alongside business leaders from Europe, North America and Asia, as well as the creative director behind Apple’s campaigns and, er, Sepp Blatter. Most are still alive and just about kicking now, and the 15-year old champion surfer we interviewed had become a Michelin-starred chef….although I did discover that tragically, the senior BMW executive contributor had later been killed in a motorbike accident at Brands Hatch, the racing circuit.

Fast forward

Overall, the findings were both reassuring and sobering.

Reassuring because several of the predictions and observations on the future had actually come about. In looking at which categories might yield the most valuable businesses and brands in the years to come, in 1999, there was broad agreement about: Personal information management; Health and wellbeing; Leisure, hospitality and entertainment; ‘New’ sciences of genetics and biotechnology; Education.

Looking at these, and bearing in mind that in 1999, Google was only a year old, Netflix was barely two and neither Youtube nor Facebook were close to being conceived, and that at c. $150bn market value, video gaming is now bigger than the music and film industry combined, I think we can all agree that ‘Personal info management’ and ‘entertainment’ have fulfilled their potential so far. On the other areas, it’s taken a while, but ‘global health and wellbeing’ growth – in the broadest sense, rather than traditional pharmaceuticals – is now promising major breakthroughs and anyway blurring into genetics and biotech. It may

well yet yield a major global brand, although current power brands like Apple and Google are also seeing huge potential in their own expansion into health. ‘Leisure and hospitality’ has been transformed with new business models like Airbnb, booking.com and expedia. Again, the latter two were still toddlers in 1999, and it would be almost ten years before the arrival of Airbnb. So far so good.

Only connect

But the other interesting thing is how all these sectors have connected and intersected, enabled by the ‘personal information management’ digital revolution in itself. And that connection has enabled the growth of the cross-sector megabrands like Amazon and Apple…which echoes a few other major predictions from the 1999 book. Here are the relevant extracts…

“There will almost certainly be fewer, bigger brands with more powerful relationships, sitting across more territories and categories – in parallel with new, diverse and energetic entrants”.

“In an over-loaded, over-communicated and over-informed world, trusted life-editing brands and life-simplifying will be even more critical…..every brand will have the possibility of becoming both a powerful medium and a power retailer – if they can quickly build strong enough relationships”

And in a final point...

“Or will a new ‘e-tailer’ become a brand for life in a new world?”

Er, that would be Amazon. Bingo on some of those predictions.

Then and now

As a further illustration of the changes (as well as continuities), here is the list of the most valuable global brands in 1999 vs 2019 (according to Interbrand for consistency of method).

1999 Top Ten Best Global Brands (by brand value):

  • Coca Cola
  • Microsoft
  • IBM
  • GE
  • Ford
  • Disney
  • Intel 
  • McDonalds
  • AT&T
  • Marlboro

(NB. Nokia was No. 11 and Kodak 16. Both RIPs. And Sony was No 18…vs Samsung nowhere. Anyone who had told you that the mighty Sony would one day be eclipsed by the then cheap and commodity Samsung would have been laughed at. And Apple well down at that point after its traumatic 1990s). For contrast see below 2019 picture...

2019 Top Ten Best Global Brands:

  • Apple
  • Google
  • Amazon
  • Microsoft
  • Coca Cola
  • Samsung
  • Toyota
  • Mercedes
  • McDonalds
  • Disney

 (IBM now down to 12, Intel 13, Facebook bubbling under at 14)

Timeless lessons

If these changes of fortune tell us anything, it is that a) no matter how valuable your brand has been, things can change. A lot. At a scale and speed in the digital age that can take your breath away and b) that you need to keep restless, keep innovating, and keep worrying that anyone and any brand can come into your sector and win if they have a great sector-defying proposition and strong enough customer relationships. (Like the Amazons and Apples).

I should also say that there were some bum notes of prediction, like organic food (which has metamorphosed into other food challenges and much bigger sustainability issues).

But the final predictions from the 1999 study – the truly sobering ones - could have been written for now, and present the societal dilemma that global brands have both highlighted…and may well have the answer for in the future if managed properly.

“The most widespread concerns about the future are over inequalities in society – both at the national and international level. Many contributors paint a nightmare scenario where a ‘fast track’ developed world begins to exist in a ‘drawbridge society’, separate from an increasingly alienated (and armed) developing world”

Borderless world?

What’s interesting is that global brands can actually cross borders to connect and unite people in a way that governments and supra-national institutions sometimes struggle to do. Some of these brands might not all bring glad tidings and health and wellbeing to all mankind, but they do provide channels of understanding and shared experiences…which can be a start. And strong global brands also include non-profit brands like WWF (and the newcomer Extinction Rebellion could have a lot to learn from them in terms of effective brand discipline to have the kind of sustained impact they’d like).

We’ve got five years…

So, with five years to go to the original 2025 ‘prediction horizon’, what might happen that may still confirm or deny those 1999 crystal balls?

My own view is that, rather like the internet and technology-enabled extraordinary growth and changes in brand fortunes over the last twenty years, there is at last compelling evidence that real sustainability, underpinned by the green economy and greater social accountability, will be the uniting connection in the years to come.

We might already have been talking about the growth of life-editing ‘ecosystem’ brands like Amazon and Apple, and about their economic sustainability, but we will see a real shift in the meaning of ecosystem to the literal vs just business jargon sense - ie. overtly and directly helping the planetary ecosystem. We could perhaps call it the rise of ‘saviour’ brands. Those existing mega brands could fulfil this if they put their whole minds, bodies and spirits into it.

Hopey changey?

If that seems like happy hippy fantasy, there are a number of immediate and current trends that would support this rapid shift (apart from the urgent ecological evidence).

There will be more Gen Z than millennials in the population in 2020. Consumer-pressure-led movements are showing organisations and people in power that the buck now has to stop somewhere. People will be more mindful about what they consume generally - and what they put in their mouths and its impact on the planet. Notwithstanding some odd political outcomes, there will be greater emphasis on inclusion and celebration of diversity, with a change in leadership priorities at the top of organisations (even if the change is partly driven by nervous investors worried about risk and the needs of new corporate reporting). A greater awareness that businesses anyway need to think about broader impact on society (not just immediate customers) if they’re to retain licence to operate. There’s evidence of a return to repair, if not a ‘make do and mend’ mentality. Brand markets becoming more about experiences and services than products and more ‘stuff’. The circular economy will spiral upwards, championed by high profile people and businesses.

So, there’s still another five years to go before the twenty-five-year predictions of the 1999 ‘Future of Brands’ book run off. I remember David Bowie once sang “Five Years. That’s all we’ve got…..”. The other lyrics included “News guy wept and told us. Earth was really dying”. That was first recorded in 1971. Hopefully, the news has really got through this time.

Here’s to a healthier and happier 2020, and an even better 2025 for all of us on this planet.

Rita Clifton, CBE, brand expert and portfolio director