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Brand marketers are prioritizing the customer experience this year and are excited about further exploring personalization, finds the 2018 State of Branding report [download page] from OnBrand and Bynder. But in order to reach their objectives, brand marketers will have to overcome hurdles with new technologies.

Here are 3 takeaways from the report.

1. CX is the Top Priority

The more-than 500 marketing decision-makers who responded to the report – all of whom are at companies with at least 500 employees – identified a range of main priorities for 2018.

But the leading one, cited by one-quarter of respondents as their top focus, is the customer experience (CX). This isn’t too surprising, as separate research finds CX to be marketers’ top opportunity year in and year out.

Closely grouped after CX in terms of priorities are brand awareness (18%), new customer acquisition (18%), customer retention/loyalty (17%) and engagement (15%).

It’s interesting to see customer retention as the top focus for as many brand marketers as acquisition, given that budgets typically favor acquisition over retention efforts.

2. Personalization Generates Excitement

As for marketing trends, personalization leads the way as the most exciting for brand marketers to explore this year, cited by a majority (56%) of respondents. This is supported by recent research in which personalization was also cited as the #1 next big trend in marketing.

Personalization has been around for some time now, but increased spending on activation solutions to combat challenges with data quality suggest that marketers see a lot more in its future. Indeed, most marketers say that the potential for CX personalization in particular has yet to be fully realized.

Meanwhile, this latest study from OnBrand and Bynder indicate that influencer marketing and brand activism/cause marketing will also be key trends for brand marketers.

On the influencer front, 43% plan to invest more than they did in 2017, while 22% will be investing this year after not wading in last year.

And as relates to brand activism, fully 79% believe that social and cultural issues will play more of a role this year than last in their branding and marketing strategy. Then again, the recent CMO Survey [pdf] found 83% of respondents saying that it’s not appropriate for their brand to take a stance on politically-charged issues, so it’s up for debate how much brands will take this on, even in the midst of encouragement from consumers.

3. Identifying the Right Tech is A Major Challenge

The report also asked marketers to identify their biggest challenges going into 2018. Somewhat surprisingly, the top challenge cited in this report was identifying the right technologies for the respondent’s needs. That emerged as an even bigger problem than securing enough budget (more on budgets here) and adapting to changing consumer behaviors.

But most surprisingly, perhaps, is the least-cited challenge: getting actionable insights from data. There have been several indications in recent pieces of research that companies are struggling to leverage customer data for important objectives and that their ability to derive insights from data isn’t improving. So it’s somewhat of a head-scratcher to see this at the bottom of the list of challenges. Perhaps it’s a reflection of this particular set of marketers’ priorities, although their focus on personalization and CX would suggest that they are very data-driven. Then again, it may simply be that they feel confident about the insights they’re currently able to derive vis-à-vis their goals.

Nonetheless, brand marketers do seem concerned about their technology choices. When asked about incorporating new technologies into brand strategy, the overwhelming majority (90%) of respondents said that it’s challenging to identify the right technologies to serve as an extension of their brand.

Marketers are mainly investing in emerging technologies to support engagement, per the report. One such technology is the voice assistant, which 40% are planning to invest in this year. As for the branding aspect of faceless technologies, respondents said they would most take into consideration the tone of the assistant, the speed at which it speaks, and its accents and personas.

The full report is available for download here.

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