That’s a direct quote from Douglas Rushkoff during his closing remarks at last month’s Pivot conference. Brands have no place in the conversation. So, is he right?
Rushkoff, of course, is a smart man, and in this talk he manages to convincingly compare brands to the feudal lords who sought to squelch the peer-to-peer commerce that emerged in the town bazaars of the late Middle Ages. He condemns the Industrial Revolution for reducing the value of both the individual and the artisan, instead centralizing control in the hands of a few who ruled both manufacturing and distribution. He even manages to dismiss branding as nothing but necessary myths created to humanize inhuman products once we no longer purchased them from merchants we met in person at that age-old bizarre.
Enter the Internet. Clearly it was established to restore the kind of community that once thrived in the outdoor marketplace. As Rushkoff says, “The web was invented for distributed communication, the ability to create value from the periphery, and the power to exchange that value directly.”
It was intended to be the antidote to everything that corporations (and brands) were created to prevent.
And so, what do brands and marketers do? According to Rushkoff, they make efforts to usurp the web and social media. They attempt to intercede (rather than join) in the conversation. And they try to get people to connect with them (rather than with each other.)
In my favorite example, Rushkoff talks about the absurdity of trying to get fans and followers to “like” or talk about the Keebler Elves. Clearly no friend of talking cartoon characters, he reminds us that this type of branding device was invented to keep us from talking or thinking about how the cookies might actually be made. It is, therefore, the antithesis of what social media is all about – transparency and authenticity.
But while Rushkoff is captivating and convincing (I’m a fan of his argument that we have to program or be programmed) I disagree with his definition of a brand and his proclamation that brands don’t belong in the conversation.
For starters, any enlightened marketer knows that a brand is no longer what it says in its advertising. Nor is it the mascot on its package or the package itself. A brand is what a brand does. A brand is its behavior. Its content. Its contribution to its community. Think Dove celebrating Real Beauty. Home Depot with its how-to videos. Consider Pepsi’s support of causes and social programs. Best Buy’s determination to share everything it knows. Zappos’ sense of service. These aren’t myths. They are behaviors. For Rushkoff to stand up in front of an audience and talk about brands as mascots is an obsolete way to think about brands.
Rushkoff is also wrong in his declaration that people don’t want to interact with brands. True they may not want to receive updates from an elf, but recent Facebook statistics suggest that users like brands three times as often as they like individuals. That’s an invitation for engagement. On Twitter half of all users follow a brand and nearly 100 percent of them actually engage with those brands.
To his credit, toward the end of his talk, he comes around and admits that if a brand behaves the right way – sharing valuable information and content, and connecting people to each other instead of to the brand – then it’s OK. But that sound bite appears after a solid round of admonishment.
It’s easy, as an outsider, to criticize marketing and advertising. And unarguably much of that criticism is deserved. But brands do belong in the conversation.
They just need to find interesting, useful, and entertaining ways to join in.