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In mythology and folklore, shapeshifting is the ability to physically transform into another being or form. This metamorphosis is usually achieved through an inherent faculty of a mythological creature, divine intervention, the use of magic spells or talismans.

Though the mythology is ancient, today’s leading marketers are increasingly adopting the traits and embodying the principles of the shapeshifter. Not of the half-wolf, half-man variety, but highly agile hybrids with an innate ability to find new ways to understand and engage people.

We’re in a new era characterized by incessant and radical change, by the revision of the roles of the public and the private sectors, and by the reinvention of the structure and role of corporations. We all know (and feel) that the brand and communications landscape is shifting at a faster pace than ever before.

If we need a metric, just look at where the world’s biggest companies are based. Three-quarters of the world’s 8,000 companies with annual revenue of $1 billion or more are today based in developed economies. McKinsey estimates that the emerging economies’ share of Fortune Global 500 companies will likely jump to more than 45 percent by 2025, up from just 5 percent in 2000. This profoundly alters global competition and category dynamics.

So much is changing so fast and yet as marketing practitioners we rely on the same tried and trusted methods we used decades ago. The Brand Key, the Brand Pyramid, the Brand Funnel, the Egg, the Onion…

To keep pace in this rapid-fire, content-led and conversation-driven world, marketers need to work differently to survive.  We need a new model for understanding and engaging people, one that leverages advances in neuroscience and goes deeper into the psychology.  To uncover what unites rather than separates people.

In the twentieth century the very definition of a brand was that promise of continuity, a stamp of reassurance.  Advertisers pushed carefully scripted messages at consumers, often falling on deaf ears.

But in today’s ever-shifting world, marketers can no longer dictate what their brand stands for. Your brand is whatever your customers say it is; the emotional relationship is between the consumer and the product.  Engagement is less about interrupting consumers and vying for attention and more about engaging on their terms and partnering on their journey.

Because it’s a social, customer-controlled world, marketers need to pull more and push less. By carefully listening to and understanding what consumers truly feel and what they say to others about brands, we can inspire the conversation. Oreo’s inspired tweet during the Super Bowl was a great case in point of rapid-fire moment marketing.

Creating simple, powerful and unifying narratives are key. People are moving en masse and populism is rising.  Whether it’s the new Harry Potter book, Beyoncé’s Lemonade release or the relentless hate campaigns from DAESH, more than ever reputations are being shaped by ordinary people on the virtual global stage.

Products are also not immune from shapeshifting. In a busy world, they need to speak for themselves and fuel the conversation. Whether it’s Marmite making crisps or Pokèmon Go, brand stretch is no longer a stretch. It’s the way a brand can maintain its social currency, driving relevance and resonance.

Marketers need to become iconic storytellers again, marrying narratology, psychology and innovation. Brands need to become part of the perpetual social narrative. How we keep the conversation going is a 24/7 reality of our shapeshifting marketing age.

Words make conversations and conversations are making the world.

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By Alex Van Gestel, CEO, Verbalisation

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