Why some brands still thrive in the tech era

It’s not easy to thrive in Silicon Valley these days. Faced with steep headwinds and the anxieties around “sharing economy” startups, both in the US and globally, many of the most successful tech companies have halted their expansion. Some of the most colorful names (Farmville, Twitter, Groupon) have already exited the public markets. And the companies that remain — Uber, Airbnb, Lyft — are under relentless attack.

But one startup that seems to be stronger than ever is what may be the most sacred relic of Silicon Valley: loyalty.

Startups are built with brand loyalty at their core: many companies, especially non-tech companies, will only sell to customers who have bought in. The Google network is not entirely dependent on regular users, but many of the more popular Android apps will not be updated without their approval. Increasingly, it is startups and makers who push platforms — not the other way around.

Why are startups so reliant on users? One theory is that they often put their brand at risk: if only one or two users interact with a company’s app, who cares? But they don’t necessarily have an interest in creating engagement with as many users as possible — so this undermines the value of the brand.

To minimize risk, many businesses want to strike a balance between huge numbers of daily active users and users that are loyal over time. If users are tapped out after three months, a business that does not have compelling features can stop shipping updates. When users are loyal, a business can resist all the threats that arise from a constant delivery of new features and services that will drive them crazy.

The question is whether all the rules of marketing make sense in the midst of a highly competitive and chaotic technology ecosystem. Instead of a question of “Am I worthy of my brand?,” I’m seeing entrepreneurs in the tech industry wrestle with “How can I still maintain my brand?”

Any business with a social purpose, like Kickstarter, 100% Clean Power, or Soluto, has to maintain attention on its core brand — its core of innovation and its emphasis on trust and choice. In a fast moving environment, businesses like these can’t lose focus or risk losing their brand by being on every social platform and having to do the bare minimum.

But for traditional businesses that lost customers or people who switched to alternatives, customers may decide they are more loyal than ever.

Maybe one of the reasons why brands have historically thrived is their ongoing ability to shift to new marketing techniques and new technologies. Creating a new brand seems like a long shot, but new ideas or new marketing strategies can change the face of a brand and bring it back to life.

Building a brand is a long-term mission that needs support and nurturing. While most CEOs are driven by quarterly and year-end profits, many of the most interesting and successful companies — including Mint, Gnip, Spotify, and Odesk — are doing it for the long-term. That gives them flexibility, and the ability to pivot quickly.

Today’s brands need new courage and new resources, and brand loyalty may be the best test.

This article was written by Seth Shapiro, co-founder and CEO of Interface, Inc.

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