Yesterday I had yet another invigorating conversation with John Winsor, founder or Victor & Spoils, committed co-creationist, and author of Flipped.
John and I seem to feed off of one another’s passion and ideas. We rarely have a conversation that doesn’t leave us each energized and thinking about new possibilities.
In fact, John called when I was at mile 45 of a 60-mile ride. I usually don’t take calls from anyone but my wife or kids when I’m screaming along a country road. But when my mobile screen said it was John on the line, I pulled over, unclipped and welcomed the interruption.
As far as I’m concerned there are only two kinds of people in business: those you want to avoid, and those with whom you want to surround yourself. The former sucks energy out of you by complaining, criticizing and making excuses. The latter infuses your imagination with fresh thinking, interesting ideas, and a contagious enthusiasm for what’s possible.
John ranks high among the latter. While he has chosen to leave the traditional advertising agency environment in an attempt to invent the new one, he rarely wastes time condemning the past, instead celebrating the potential of what’s next. He may be determined to change the business from outside a mainstream agency, but he never fails to encourage my efforts to change it from within. He gleefully shares his plans, solicits mine, and turns every conversation into a productive exchange about how to do things better.
Ten minutes without pedaling should have slowed my heart rate significantly. Instead, after listening to John’s excitement about his newest investor, the continued momentum of Victors & Spoils, and the knowledge he’d gathered about crowdsourcing platforms and co-creation technology (which, by the way he willingly agreed to send me in support of a project I’m trying to get underway) I found myself even more pumped up.
I think one of the greatest things about the new digital platforms that let us connect, share, discover and expand our tribes is that we can find sources of inspiration anywhere.
If the person in the cubicle next to you is a downer, if the colleague across the lunch table likes to complain, blow them off. Get out here among the passionate, energized, enthusiastic people who believe the possibilities are endless. You can always start with @jtwinsor.
Who injects you with energy and ideas? Introduce me to him or her.
Doc Searles, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, and I have been exchanging thoughts about brands, branding and reputation over on his blog Doc Searls Weblog. (Gotta love the fact that he calls his site a weblog, testament to how long he’s been around.)
Anyway, Doc had a pretty opinionated post about how “branding has jumped the shark,” declaring that….
“saying stuff may get more attention than doing stuff, at least in the short run. But doing stuff is what makes the world work.”
No arguments there. But I sort of disagreed with Doc when he insisted…
“brands are nothing but statements. At best they are a well-known and trusted badge, name or both.”
I believe that a brand is the essence of what of what it promises and delivers. It’s not a logo, or a trademark — and definitely not its advertising — despite the claims of brand identity companies and even some ad agencies. Your perception of a brand may be informed by ads, along with recommendations from friends, or interactions with a company’s employees, but the only thing that truly matters is the real-life experience you actually have with the company or its products.
Think of how many brands you know that hardly do any advertising. Starbucks, and Wholefoods, for example, or until recently, Zappos. In every case, what you think about those companies has less to do with their “branding” and more to do with the personal involvement you’ve had with them.
I suppose in some ways, Doc and I are in agreement: messages don’t matter; actions do.
So if you’re in the business of “branding,” it’s more important that you work to influence, or at least accurately reflect, a brand’s behavior. And just hope you’re not on the BP account.
Here’s the back and forth Doc and I shared.
My initial response to Reputation vs Branding
WTF is branding? That’s a dumb word that simply means taking a brand, its beliefs, what it stands for and its consistent behavior (all adding up to the promise of a brand) and giving it a “message.” It’s messages that have jumped the shark and branding = creating messages.
What you really mean to argue is that false messages or contrived messages — think BP’s Beyond Petroleum — have jumped the shark. That is what you call branding. And in an age when the manufacturer, publisher, broadcaster and programmer have lost power to the consumer, reader, viewer and user, it’s obvious that the power of controlled messages (what you call branding) has lost its impact. That’s nothing new.
Brands, on the other hand, are alive and well. A “brand” has always been its ultimate promise; and what you, a consumer, believe that promise to be. In many ways, that’s the exact same thing as reputation, as a reputation is earned through behavior.
Doc Searles’s Reply
I did not mean to argue that false or contrived messages have jumped the shark. They have not, and probably never will. I did mean to argue that “branding” as a marketing buzzword has jumped the shark, in the sense that it has been carried by its buzzers far from both its original meaning and the one to which its defenders hope to restore it (by calling it, for example, a “promise”).
Differences matter. Distinctions matter. A brand may be a “promise,” but a reputation is not.
My second comment
We may be saying the same thing and using different semantics. I am arguing that there is a difference between “branding,” the act of trying to define a brand, and “brand,” which is essentially what the brand *is* and *does* and delivers as an actual promise, not a stated one. Nike’s reputation is for good athletic shoes. Nike’s brand is about encouraging individual performance. That is its promise, delivered through its product, consistent behavior, etc.
Coke’s product is a sugary softdrink. Its brand is happiness, delivered through the way in which its product is used and the occasions associated with it.
BP’s product was oil exploration and oil. Right now its brand is environmental destruction. Recently its branding has been Beyond Petroleum. If we follow your argument, it suggests that such “branding” efforts are futile. But brand, not always the same as product, will always exist. Brand is reputation. Branding is an attempt to change that reputaiton through words or messages rather than behavior.
Thanks, Edward. That’s the best summary I’ve read so far on the topic(s).
I figured I should quit while I was ahead. But you must admit, the opportunity to connect, debate, disagree and clarify our thinking is what’s cool about all of this. What about you? Care to weigh in? Message versus behavior? Reputation vs Branding? Branding vs Brand?
photo by: jddefillippo 138
Given that many companies are now coming to realize that their thousands of web pages, dozens of microsites, multiple blogs and numerous social accounts actually have to be organized, maintained, governed and monetized, content strategy is rapidly becoming the new black. At least in the digital space.
Brain Traffic has a pretty straight-forward, hard-to-argue-with approach to content strategy. You put up nothing if it isn’t useful, usable, purposeful, productive and profitable. That means even those really cool, award-winning, flash-based micro sites have no real reason for being if they don’t satisfy the above criteria.
Don’t get me wrong, I like shiny metal objects on my bookshelf as much as the next person. But let’s face it, if you’ve ever installed a tool like SEO Book and taken a look at the traffic and ranking for some of those sites, it’s obvious the only people visiting them are people in the advertising business. Not customers. Not prospects. Not users.
Kristina urges us to focus on four areas: substance, structure, workflow and governance — all of them guided by a core strategy. I must say the choice of the word substance rather than copy, or content or information is, in and of itself, a fresh way to think about what a brand does online. Too often we focus on what we want to say. We put up content for no other reason than we can; cheaper storage space, faster servers and better search engines (not to mention YouTube, Twitter and Facebook) all invite us to populate the web with endless bits.
Substance implies meaning, utility, and purpose. It’s less about what we can publish and more about the value our readers and users get from the words, videos and images that define us online, whether that value derives from information, advice or pure unadulterated entertainment.
So before you ever get to the IA, wireframes and overall eco system (structure), before you figure out who does what to whom and when (workflow), before you set up all your approval procedures and assign responsibility for maintenance and fixing those broken links (governance), ask yourself: Got substance?
It’s only on occasion that I write something specific on this blog about Mullen or our clients. But once in a while there’s something too good to pass up. This week’s move by Panera Bread to open a “community café,” that allows people to “take what they need and give all they can,” is a case in point.
I don’t need to tell you too much, as the story is pretty much everywhere. In a nutshell, Panera opened a new non-profit store in the St. Louis suburb of Clayton. It looks and feels like any Panera except the prices are different. There aren’t any. You pay what you feel is fair or whatever you can afford.
According to Ron Shaich, Panera’s Chairman (he just resigned his CEO position to head up this new initiative) this is something he’s wanted to try for a long time.
A skeptic could come up with any number of reasons to question a project like this. It doesn’t make good business sense. It could eat into business at the for-profit stores. It’s not a long-term growth strategy. An optimist, on the other hand, might argument that it’s brilliant. Showing that Panera cares about the community. Conveying it’s a brand with a social conscience. Endearing itself to the thousands of customers who won’t merely patronize the café but will turn into vocal advocates for the idea.
This week’s Fast Company declared that the most important leadership quality a CEO can possess is creativity. Not operations. Not finance. Not management. Creativity. Creativity means breaking with the status quo, trying things that have never been done, innovating on a regular basis. And in the case of Panera, and Ron Shaich, following your heart.
Here’s to hoping this little experiment works and inspires more brands to be equally inventive.
Recently Forrester reported that 67 percent of all consumers think there’s way too much advertising. A staggering 95 percent of them say that most advertising fails to be “honest and authentic.” Not surprising when you consider the majority of advertising is pretty bad.
Yet at the same time nearly half of the 450 million users on Facebook and a similar percentage of those on Twitter willingly “follow,” “fan” or “like” brands that engage on those social networks. Contradiction? Not necessarily. It simply means that our customers and prospects want brand interaction on their terms, not ours.
Of course even in these venues a buyer doesn’t actually get to determine the frequency or relevance of the messages that appear in their streams. Instead, they can only hope that enlightened brands figure out how to stay relevant through the kind of engagement, trial and error and analytics that lead to effective conversation strategy.
Introducing the consumer-generated RFI
But what if the consumer had all the control? What if she could essentially issue digital RFI’s or RFP’s and it became a brand’s responsibility to respond?
Well, we’re probably not too far away from that happening.
Last week I met with a young company called Sendza. If you’re a marketer, Sendza claims that it “pairs high value messaging services with a clear channel for delivering advertising through voice, SMS, email, and Facebook mediums.” Marketing speak.
But if you’re a consumer, Sendza lets you issue the equivalent of an RFI, allowing you to opt-in to a brand’s messages, contents or updates simply by texting to that brand’s Sendza ID. A user can then choose what she wants to receive – text, audio, video — and when.
Desire only messages about sales and specials? That’s what you’ll get. Want notices about sales only when they’re for a specific category of products? No problem. Prefer updates for a specific category of products but limited to those times when you’re within 100 yards of the store? Supposedly, the service can do that, too. According to the company, a marketer can customize limitless ways for a consumer to self-select the kind of messages she wants to receive.
Consider what huge grocery chains, with thousands of repeat customers, could do. Today those retailers still depend on Sunday circulars. Instead, with a platform like this, it could allow any customers with a cell phone to tell the store what day of the week she wants circular content, what product categories she wants them for, and (thanks to a Foursquare-like check in feature) even request that the grocer sends her reminders when she’s in the store. That would be a win-win situation for both parties. The shopper gets to limit and control the flow of content and advertising; the brand spends time and money only behind messages it knows will get heeded.
And the consumer-generated RFP
In the last week I also started doing business with a company called Springpad. (disclosure: Springpad is a Mullen social media client and I’ve recently interviewed to join the company’s board.) The company’s iPhone app is emerging as great way to save and organize virtually anything (recipes, books, products, ideas), simply by scanning a barcode, entering a location, snapping a photo, or filing by category. From your computer it also lets you “clip” a URLs, so you can collect just about anything.
Right now, Springpad lets you filter content and capture stuff you’re interested in. (In an age of too much information, we all need better filtering systems.) But its eventual potential could be revealed as it develops into a shopping app. Save something you’re interested in – flat screen TV, camera, exercise equipment – and Springpad will send you the best prices available anywhere, alert you to deals or discounts, and deliver relevant coupons to you electronically. It’s like having a personal shopper. Or, if Sendza is like issuing an RFI, Springpad is the RFP. You announce a product you’re interested in buying, then sit back and wait for the best offers to come in.
Yet another step toward ending the long reign of interruption based marketing.
What interests me about stuff like this isn’t so much the technologies or the platforms, but the fact that both of these services represent the continued transfer of media power from the brand to the consumer. Almost daily consumers gain more of say in every brand engagement they have. From shutting those engagements off all together, to deciding if, when and on what terms they’ll occur.
For marketers, of course, the ramifications are even more significant. It means we have to continually experiment with these new technologies. Even more importantly it calls for us to re-frame our thinking and realize that anything we do has to offer value to a consumer according to that consumer’s definition of value. The message, the device, the interaction, and the utility built into them all end up making a statement about our brand, our respect and appreciation for our customers, and our willingness to play according to the new rules.
It remains to be seen how big either Sendza or Sringpad will become. But one thing is certain. The impact of consumer control continues to loom large.
Photo by: quinn.anya