Brand Strategies & Big Ideas For 2023

Predicting brand engagement trends in a permacrisis (where chaos feels like the only constant) may seem like a mug’s game, but early doors insights from this radical time offer some key roadmaps for success as we slide into 2023.

From the metaverse’s physical flex, civic-centered commerce, and the imperative for establishing ‘all abilities brandscapes’ to why it’s time to bow down to ‘Queenagers’, here are eight key trends, shifts and strategies offering vital promise – and opportunities to step up – in 2023 and beyond.

1: Civic-Centered Commerce

Echoing how traditional metrics of success – growth, productivity, solo sector domination – are being questioned at every level (see the coalition of countries looking to combat the polycrisis via economic manifestos rooted in new ‘national wellbeing’ policies), in 2023 leading brands will also reimagine the premise of being a power player.

Consider the 2022 revelation that Patagonia’s billionaire founder Yvon Chouinard will transfer all profits to a charitable eco trust, and the still-wilder announcement that beauty brand Faith in Nature had legally appointed nature to its directorial board. Effectively stakeholder capitalism (where everyone the brand touches matters, not just shareholders) there’s a key role for retail in reshaping the civic landscape. Look to Starbucks roll out of incubator-esque community stores, supporting under-resourced groups in partnership with local non-profit organizations; or Santander’s refurbishing of bus stops with new lighting and billboards, serving up free advertising for local entrepreneurs (that are also customers).

Brands needn’t even consider themselves activist to go civic: take Tracksmith’s unorthodox ‘no pro’ approach to sponsorship – instead it funds aspirational amateur runners, great ‘citizen athletes’ stalled by the hurdles of everyday life. For further reading see John Alexander’s Citizens not Consumers: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us.

2: All Abilities Brandscapes

Recognizing and empowering consumers of all abilities (physical or mental) is a massive 2023 imperative, with the practical tools and services as important as status-quo quashing narratives. It’s a liberation missive for every part of the brand ecosystem; 15% of people globally live with disability yet less than 1% of primetime TV ads show that reality, and 43% of those dealing with a condition have abandoned purchases online due to poor accessibility.

Gaming and esports hold gifts for e-commerce – see Forza Horizon 5 (customizable subtitles, screen reader narrators, the ability to disable moving backgrounds) and the brilliant 2022 e-nterpreter tool by Peruvian beer brand Pilsen Callao that embraced an estimated 300m deaf players with a downloadable AI-powered bot translating voice chat into sign language in real time (within Discord). Also consider CVS’ app-based spoken prescription labels tool – a concept heralding privacy, safety, and independence.

In advertising see Apple’s late 2022 The Greatest, which promotes its devices adaptable tools from sensory alerts to audio descriptors via the personal achievements of people from doctors to DJ’s – i.e., through identities not defined by condition. Metaverse depictions matter too; while digital life is often deemed escapist by default, for many it’s a haven for affirming lived experiences. See NYX Cosmetics Valley of Belonging Pride 2022 activation in The Sandbox where prosthetic limbs could be chosen alongside skin shades and sexual orientations. For service opportunities see Ikea’s new shoppable docuseries, Belonging at Home, focusing on interior design for neurodivergent minds.

3: Look Up: Midlife & The ‘Queenagers’

While youth remain key (as the de facto future consumer) do look up this year to midlifers, particularly women. Enter: The ‘Queenagers’ (aka 45+ women) – a term coined by Eleonor Mills, former editorial director of The Sunday Times & founder of community platform Noon, in defiance of the gendered ageism self-sabotaging gazillions of brands who could be a.) changing the script, while b.) making themselves a mint at the temple of the middle-aged females in the process.

As Mills states: “Age is a big diversity blind spot. Queenagers drive 95% of all household purchases and outspend younger women by 250%. For the first time in history, women over 40 are earning more than those under 40. They’re sticking with their careers; they’re a pioneering generation and they don’t want to be marketed to as a walking hot flush.”

Indeed, while the menopause market is massive and important – worth $15.4bn globally and set to grow to $22.7bn by 2028 – much still suffers from sledge-hammer branding. For early steers, look to specialist branding agencies like LA-based Grace Creative and Finnish skincare label Djusie, which homes in on Gen X women and (some) men in its marketing.

4: Metaverse Moves: Metrics, Meaning & The Meta-Physical Flex

Continued confusion about the metaverse has spurred a cooling period of sorts as the brands mostly motivated by FOMO stop shoveling cash into sad virtual desertscapes, but the long-term opportunities remain very real and investment worthy. Two consistent queries (Can it deliver ROI? Is it what the world really needs right now?) will make 2023 an especially interesting year.

In answering the first, consider the ‘spatial web’ as the logical progression for ecommerce, with proprietary brand worlds promising better engagement metrics than trad e-tail thanks to the more exploratory nature, trackable interactivity and promise of personalization. Look to white label concepts from world builders including Journee, which is bringing cinematic-grade aesthetics to fully CRM-connected, user-adaptable brand environments (see its collabs with H&M and Vogue Business) and AnamXR which has a toolkit for brands including directly alerting NFT holders when events are about to start.

For the second, there’s the lifeline of virtual co-presence: consider switching a patchy FaceTime call for taking a virtual park stroll, i.e. tools poised to dismantle the epidemic of loneliness, establish empathy, and support mental health. Intimacy matters: two third of US consumers want a new social media where one can engage in a virtual space as if in person.

Also pay attention to the new archive-based retail/museum metaverse experiences, digitally resurrecting cultural artefacts, spaces, and important narratives – start-ups MNTGE and ALTR lead the way – and the physical flagships mainstreaming access to Web3 tech. Forerunners include Crosby Studios X Zero10’s pop-up shop for virtual fashion where fitting room try-ons came with special effects and, the big Daddy of the genre, London’s the Outernet – a multifaceted venue powered by SwivelMeta whose giant plug-and-play screens are AI, AR, VR and crypto compliant. See its activation with ‘Web 2.5’ luxury streetwear label Cult & Rain where IRL visitors watched a livestream of its metaverse experience or participated via headsets and tablets.

5: NFTs Next: Utility, Community & Consumer-Stakeholders

If the metaverse makes your brain scream for mercy maybe jump straight to no. 6. If not, it’s time for NFTs. By late 2022 the hype bubble had burst as crypto markets crumbled and the initially frenzied approach to slapping a price tag on anything digitizable looked infinitely less cool. But, like the metaverse, it would be remiss to read early shakes as a market/mechanism in cardiac arrest. Instead, expect 2023 to bring a judicious refocusing.

‘Utilities’ will be key; the capacity to grant access, perks, and rewards on an ongoing basis, will keep the brand-fan spark alive. For instance, the aforementioned AnamXR’s NFTs will also enable token-gating, where only special tier owners can open doorways into the most desirable nooks of its branded metaverses (see it’s project with US music producers Blocktones, where NFTs afford entry into private listening rooms). Porsche is planning to cultivate addiction via dynamic NFTs – those where the token’s traits are mutable post-minting – drip-feeding a stream of variations by artist Patrick Vogel, with which to update the ‘origin NFT’ (an image of a white Porsche 911 Carrera) over several months.

Community is vital, too, because NFTs tease consumption with a thrillingly altered power dynamic. As SwivelMeta CEO and founder Scott Harmon says: “NFTs can be […] like having the brand in any wallet. If people sell the item, the brand ties are cut. This puts the power back in the hands of the consumer, meaning the rewards will come for brands that genuinely consider their fans as a community.”

It’s already a core tenet of Nike’s Web3 strategy. Its in-beta marketplace Swoosh lets members create and collect blockchain-registered, tradeable virtual products (aligned to brand briefs) where favorite pieces, as voted on by the same community. Products co-created by Nike’s own in-house designers (an incoming scheme for 2023) will even see fans receives royalties. Starbucks NFT-based loyalty scheme Odyssey lets members and employees both earn and buy experience-unlocking NFTs while limited-edition versions can be traded in-app.

Starbuck’s scheme – where points mean prizes like classic loyalty cards – reveals a possible future where consumers will truly own their data: imagine not merely being able to cash in your points or air miles but flog them wholesale to others.

Again, physical brand environments will help mainstream an intimidating sector – see Salvatore Ferragamo’s NY store where staff help visitors mint artworks on site, and Harvey Nichols HN NFT Vault, Hong Kong, selling NFTs from feted projects.

6: Recasting Consumption: Newness in a time of non-Abundance

In 2023, the brand-consumer relationship regarding sustainability will still be fraught with confusion (most consumers think brands greenwash), contradictions and even myths for brands to confront, including the rhetoric surrounding young peoples’ eco-sanctity – the values–action gap remains a chasm as the thrill of the new continues to seduce. From a brand engagement perspective, a key imperative (and opportunities) will therefore lie in reframing newness itself.

Expect success from next-gen swap shops where circularity services become a shop-floor proposition, such as the premium-looking Circuit (by Ikea parent group Ingka) featuring vintage fashion and furniture concessions and repair stations; the UK’s Library of Things facilitating rentals across home, DIY, and gardening gadgets; and luxury fashion brand’s Golden Goose’s store concept which foregrounds and services including sanitizing, repair, and conservation for products from any brand.

Look to technologically invigorated resales too. See premium Danish fashion brand Samsøe Samsøe’s streamlining of reselling via QR code labels that auto-create social media ads for products when scanned, plus a prepaid media budget, automatically publishing a hyperlocal campaign to promote it. However, such tools bode less positively in fast fashion (Zara is doing something similar): such easy offloading could trigger more shopping, derailing the critical slowdown.

Framing sustainable behavior as indicative of an evolved consciousness, or simply growing up, will gain traction too – see the ultra-popular noughties nostalgia fueled Nu-Metal, Nu-Me ad from brand Beyond Meat where an emo-goth teen bemoans his adult self’s failure to continue “eating pizza pockets until the wheels come off.”

Cultivating positive behaviors – instead of expecting corporate-level insights to do the work – will matter most. As Shaunie Brett, sustainability strategist, advises: “There’s a reverse logic to behavioral change: we assume that by educating people and speaking to their values their behaviors will change. But many people do the opposite; we’re over-indexing over education, when we could be incentivizing new behaviors that can actually awaken and justify positive values.”

7: Wellbeing Trips: All the Feels Health

Wellness will be ripe for more retail & media-based strategic reboots in 2023 – via new parameter-stretching formats including mainstreaming access, psychedelics, and mental ‘wealth’. Most foreground a magic feelgood factor.

Real mainstreaming will mean taking wellness to places only lightly trodden before, creating new iterations of mindful media. See Nike’s collab with Netflix (following its earlier (2021) wander into wellbeing territory with mindfulness/meditation app Headspace, it will broadcast Nike Club Training classes) and two launches from British broadcaster ITV – Unwind with ITV (calmness-inducing programming for the 4am-5am ‘graveyard slot’ – helping people whose circadian rhythms are out of whack) and Woo – a Gen Z focussed magazine-style, retail integrated online platform conceived to make mental wellbeing “aspirational and culturally-relevant.” See also editorialised ecommerce concept, Mental.

The Outernet (see section #4) is also blending media and brands with Room to Breathe – a 15-minute, immersive sensory experience teaching breathwork skills to reducing anxiety (backed by Panadol and Pixel Artworks); while beauty retailer rituals’ Amsterdam flagship has a Mind Space where visitors can meditate in tech-enhanced classes – a multi-sensor headband provides real-time biometric feedback, and corresponding guidance.

Aspirational ‘feelgood-ness’ is the most salient strategic hook, positively presaged by Selfridges early 2022 thematic Superself –therapeutic activations promising “innovative wellbeing”, “sublime self-care practices” and “safe trips”. The latter came in the seductive shape of pods authored by Dutch sensory reality specialists Sensiks inducing a breed of sensory psychedelia attuned to the growing consumer interest in the scene (see the psychedelic renaissance).

8: The Sensorial Sell

Echoing the shifts in next-gen wellness, 2023 will see sensory branding come into its own – partly attributable to the memory of pandemic-stoked sensory deprivation still looming large, but also because of the potential for next-gen virtual environments to unlock more intense and tightly tailored experiences than possible in ‘real life’.

In the physical space, consider Aesop’s new infusion chamber style ‘Sensorium’ rooms – a slice of in-store experiential gold for imbuing a piece of clothing with an Aesop fragrance of their choice, or YSL Beauty’s Scent-Sation tool which uses neuroscience to measure consumers’ reactions to fragrances, subsequently triggering fluctuations in the content they experience.

Online, see companies like Full Fathom and it’s metaverse-focused sibling Metasense capable of eliciting taste sensations via sonic frequencies or even attaching sentiment to objects. It’s previously worked with VF corporation on sonically attributing texture, movement, and newness to virtual apparel (spurring far longer interaction times, and willingness to spend more) and is now crafting hybrid experiences where, as visitors traverse physical rooms wearing metaverse-accessing headsets, the perception of the food and drink they consume can be dramatically, thrillingly altered.

As Lynne Craig, programme director for the institute of Design Informatics (Edinburgh) says: “sound is seen as a passive experience but it’s essential in making [digital] experiences achievable and believable […] consider clicking a sound or object to experience a taste.” Metasense founder Scott King goes further: “Consider attaching sentiments like purity, dynamism, or openness to a shoe when it moves. Nike can’t make a pair of trainers IRL that sound pure because they’re subject to too many other real-world restraints. Here, we can.”