Tebo Mpanza on why the future of branding is young, agile and authentic

Connecting with younger generations is a perennial challenge, and the rising pace of technological and societal change is only making that tougher. Tebo Mpanza of Unfound Studio offers his advice on engaging with Gen Z, Gen Alpha and beyond.

In today’s rapidly evolving world, traditional approaches to branding and design are struggling to keep up with the pace of cultural change. Creatives who came up through the era of print design are now faced with a world of TikTok, Temu, and live-streamed shopping on Twitch. For older hands, this can all get a bit scary.

Another challenging truth is that the older you get, the greater the age gap becomes between you and your audience. We’ve all spent the last ten years talking about Gen Z: those born (according to some definitions) between 1995 and 2009. Now, attention is increasingly turning to Gen Alpha, who were born after 2010 and are now reaching their teens. Next year, we’ll see the first members of Gen Beta being born. Who knows what they’ll be like?

At the same time, of course, the principles of branding and design haven’t changed. The more grounding you have in the fundamentals and the more experience you have, the better able you’ll be to navigate this chaotic new landscape.

But it doesn’t hurt to take inspiration from those agencies already at the coal face of this stuff. And that’s why a branding agency like Unfound Studio is well worth talking to.

View from the youth

Based in London and Birmingham, Unfound are young in multiple senses of the word. The agency itself is young, having been founded in 2018. Its employees are physically young, being in their 20s and early 30s (client director Tebo Mpanza is 34, and his business partner Jay Topham turns 31 this year). They work with youthful, cutting-edge brands. More importantly, according to Tebo, they’re embracing a fundamentally different mindset and way of working that’s perfect for meeting the needs of younger audiences.

So, how do those needs differ from those of older people, exactly? Tebo sums it up in a nutshell: “Young people today come equipped with an innate digital fluency and finger on the pulse of contemporary trends,” he explains. “They have a boldness to keep asking ‘why’ and an eagerness to embrace new platforms like no other.”

Similarly, young creatives aren’t as constrained by how things have historically been done. “This allows for more fluidity, adaptability and future-focused thinking in brand strategy and design. It also keeps clients ahead of the curve in effectively engaging the next generational cohorts as they emerge.

“This means we encourage our clients to challenge the norm, to push boundaries,” he adds. We like to work with clients who have an entrepreneurial spirit and a commitment to redefining their categories, clients who seek the extraordinary.”

He stresses, though, that you don’t have to be physically young to take this approach. “It’s not necessarily about age, but more about having an agile, innovative mindset that challenges traditional agency reputations,” he qualifies.

Embracing continuous digital innovation

So, what does this look like in practice? One of Unfound’s key focus areas is helping brands drive innovation in the digital space to create more seamless, valuable customer experiences.
A current project they are working on exemplifies this approach.

Tebo can’t name the client but says they’re a well-known retailer dating back to the 1940s, and they are now aiming to appeal to a younger demographic. “Our brief was to create relevancy for a traditional retail proposition in today’s digital world,” described Tebo. “So we’re exploring how to blend something physical with the kind of digital innovation that Gen Z is super familiar with.”

This has involved deep exploration into enhancing the customer journey with technology. Simple elements such as QR code scanning and social integrations are being elevated to drive more engaging, sticky interactions. “We have to ensure every scan, every click, every swipe leads to a value-rich experience,” emphasises Tebo. “The challenge is making it novel and authentic to the brand for this younger audience.”

Another client, who again can’t be named at this stage, is a wellness brand launching a global campaign. Here, Unfound is grappling with the short attention span of modern consumers. “TikTok users are having six-second conversations,” Tebo explains. “We only have people’s attention for six seconds online, so we must make those seconds count.”

While crafting bite-sized, snackable content is part of the solution, Unfound still believes there is also power in long-form storytelling when done with intention. So, their goal is to fuse both to create genuinely engaging content that drives conversion and nurtures customer loyalty over time.

Leading with social responsibility

One of the core philosophies permeating everything Unfound Studio does is deeply valuing sustainability and social impact. It’s in their DNA because the agency actually grew out of a previous company they founded: a conscious fashion brand called Vaabs, which remains a going concern and is focused on ethical manufacturing and supporting charitable causes.

“Before we ever did branding work, we were thinking about sustainability and social responsibility practices,” said Tebo. “And this helps when a brand comes to us and asks about our approach, because this is just how we operate. So rather than just talking a good game, we can show by example.”

The same ethical principles that underpin Vaabs have also been carried across into Unfound itself. This can be seen in internal initiatives like “pixels over print” to minimise environmental impact and how Unfound operates a remote, digital-first studio. They are also diligent about only working with like-minded production partners committed to sustainability.

Unfound strives to ingrain these same principles into the brand strategy for clients from the start. For example, they helped craft the ethical positioning and learner-friendly digital ecosystem for a sexual education platform aimed at de-stigmatising conversations between parents and children. “The brand’s ethos was meticulously integrated into the digital product and content,” explains Tebo. “And it aligned all digital innovation with their purpose of fostering open dialogues to empower users.”

Unifying brand strategy and business strategy

In Tebo’s view, one of the most common mistakes companies make is treating branding as an afterthought or mere output of the marketing department. Instead, he strongly believes the brand strategy should intimately influence and enhance the overall business strategy.

“Brand is the manifestation of your organisation’s purpose,” he explained. “It dictates how you show up in the world and what it’s like to engage with you, so it should impact every aspect of your operations.”

Through its branding work, Unfound has helped numerous clients bring this unified approach to life. For example, they helped a home audiovisual technology company reframe its brand positioning from the purely technical capabilities of the products to empowering “life-enriching experiences”. This allowed the brand’s emotive essence to guide product development, customer service protocols, and all other functional strategies.

For a private equity consultancy rebranding as Pearson and Partners, Unfound facilitated a pivot to a warmer, more human-centric brand focused on fostering real connections. This relational ethos could be embedded into the organisational culture, employee experience and client engagement approaches.

“The strategic branding was infused across all organisational functions,” said Tebo. “It ensured the brand was authentically experienced at every touchpoint.”

Upholding consistent brand delivery

Once a new brand identity and guidelines are launched, the real work begins to ensure they don’t just collect dust. Tebo acknowledged this is a pervasive challenge, as Unfound has seen instances of client brands already straying from established guardrails.

To address this, Unfound has begun offering an “ongoing brand service” to provide continuous support. Essentially, they can serve as an extended creative arm for companies without substantial internal marketing teams. This allows for more seamless implementation and evolution of brand assets across multiple channels every month.

“It’s a proactive approach that allows brands to stay ahead of cultural shifts and engage in new spaces such as TikTok,” explained Tebo. “Instead of constantly playing catch-up, we can ensure the brand’s essence and integrity remains strong across all customer interactions over time.”

“Maintaining this level of partnership increases the likelihood that employees also develop a deeper understanding of their brand’s identity.”

The future is immersive, personalised and real

So what of the future? Tebo believes that authentic, tangible storytelling that moves beyond just communications into real-world activations will only grow in importance.

He points to how athletic brands such as New Balance, Nike and On Running successfully tap into passionate communities by aligning with cultural hubs such as marathons and running clubs. “It’s the embodiment of brands living their narrative and connecting with their audience’s passion points in tangible ways that create memorable experiences,” he says.

Looking ahead, Tebo believes branding will push towards greater personalisation, enabled by advancements in AI and machine learning. “I think we’ll see highly individualised customer experiences become the norm very soon,” he says.

He also emphasises the growing demand for more transparency and human-centric brand expressions in today’s socially conscious market. “I don’t want to overuse the word ‘authentic,’ but brands just need to get real,” Tebo explains. “How are they creating tangible value and positive impact beyond just selling a product or service?”

Bringing it all together

What underpins Unfound Studio’s approach, then, is a future-focused perspective fuelled by tapping into younger generations’ mindsets and behaviours. While the founders themselves are now in their early 30s, they’ve consciously built a collaborative environment that immerses clients into emerging cultural currents.

“We have this collective spirit at the studio that thrives on cross-generational wisdom,” described Tebo. “It allows us to consistently explore fresh creative territory and solutions for our clients.”

By blending progressive brand strategy with compelling creative execution, Unfound is helping brands to stay distinctive and relevant amid rapidly changing times. Their human-centred ethos sets the stage for more captivating, inspirational experiences that resonate on a deeper level.

In conclusion, Tebo says, “Brands today must be game-changers and culture-shapers, not just marketers and salespeople. And we want to be partners in that transformational journey towards the extraordinary.”

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