Brands Cannot Be Human

Can brands be human? Can brands be more human?

People tend to shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes or simply get freaked out at the slightest thought of making something that is not like us "human" (if you don’t believe me, watch science fiction movies like A.I. or Blade Runner). Before getting into a philosophical and semantic debate over what it actually means to be "human," first think about what a brand really stands for.

What is a brand?

If you go back to the early days of products and commercialism, you’ll note that soap was just soap for a very, very long time. All soap was made the same way, and the only way to differentiate it was for the company manufacturing it to give it an original name and make it look different (ok, some of them smelled different too). In the decades after WWII, companies spent their time, money and effort trying to differentiate their products and services from those of their competitors. Some of those differences were legitimate, while some were not all that obvious. For the most part, brands came of age in a world where the things products did were pretty similar to what everyone else’s products did.

Enter Madison Avenue.

The only way to get around that problem was to create some kind of emotional attachment to one product over another. Enter Madison Avenue, which mixed advertising messages with psychology in the hope that a large group of people would feel emotionally connected to a product. And buy it. Lots of it. Over and over. In today’s world, most products and services are decent; in the old days, you could use advertising to sell something severely sub-par. In this age of consumer reviews, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and beyond, it’s hard to get away with being that bad. But we’ve also reached a point where that emotional connection between customers and brands goes both ways. The individuals behind the products are talking (or typing) directly with consumers.

They’re putting a human face on something that for years was locked behind a passive-aggressive customer service rep.

At the same time, the customers at the other end are developing their own personal brands. They’re publishing, broadcasting and connecting. We’ve come to a point where certain individuals online have more influence and power than some of the biggest corporate brands. What makes this so interesting (and scary for marketers) is that human beings are like snowflakes in that no two are alike. Those differentiators that brands fought so hard to implant in the consumer’s mind at the genesis of branding are intrinsic to humans. My Digital Marketing Blog will look nothing like your Digital Marketing Blog.

We want our brands to be more human because brands are made of human beings.

Take an industry you hate (airlines, mobile carriers, automotive, you name it) and you’ll note that these industries are not made up of evildoers. They’re made of people. They’re good people. They are people who are trying to make a living, trying to make a difference in the same communities as you and your children. They actually care about their customers. They want you to spend more with them and be loyal to them. Science fiction aside, it’s probably impossible for something un-human – whether it be a robot or a brand – to actually become human. But what we are seeing is that brands that embrace the human beings that make them so interesting (whether they work for them or just like chatting about them) are much more successful than others. These brands can engage people much in the same way us humans can – and have done since we first rubbed two sticks together and invited the people around us over to warm up.

These brands may never be human, but they can become more humane. What do you think?

The above posting is an article from Sparksheet. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here. Sparksheet is also an official media sponsor of the @BrandsConf that takes place on December 2nd in New York City (which was the catalyst for this Blog post). You are entitled to a 30% discount on registration by using the promo code "sparksheet" – :

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In Praise Of Lazy

As excited as you and I are about Digital Marketing and Social Media, don’t ever lose sight of the fact that most people are not and will not ever really care. 

We used to talk about the 1% rule – that only one percent of an active audience will actually take the time to create content. That number has probably shifted higher because creating content is much easier and can be done in short order. It doesn’t take long to pump out a 140 character tweet on Twitter, and it’s equally easy to upload a picture or even your status on Facebook. Platforms like LinkedIn make it simple to create content by allowing people to not only update their status, but to also answer questions. It doesn’t take much to “like” something on Facebook or give a YouTube video a thumbs up (or down).

Still, the masses don’t care.

I recently overheard two people talking about Twitter. It went something like this:

  • Person #1: “How many people do you follow on Twitter?”
  • Person #2: “Only a couple of hundred.”
  • Person #1: “Do you ever talk to them?”
  • Person #2: “You can talk to people?”
  • Person #1: “Yeah, you use the @ sign and then they know you’re replying to something they said.”
  • Person #2: “Why would I want to do that?”

I can’t make this stuff up.

If the amount of people who open a Twitter account but hardly use it isn’t staggering to you (more on that here: Twitter users not so social after all), imagine the percentage of people on places like Facebook, YouTube and beyond who don’t even understand the basics of how to get the most out of their online experience. It’s not an indictment on the good work we’re all doing, it’s a reality.

How much work do you want to do?

There was a lot of buzz the other week about Digg and their all-new redesign (which included some additional site functionality). Many people think that Digg is doing this because their traffic is plummeting and they’re loosing relevancy in the marketplace (or that they’re trying to be more attractive to brands and advertisers). It’s not that. The Digg model is simply not something that the masses care about. Meaning: people just want the news. They want it well-produced (in text, images, audio and video) and they want it filtered and edited. Most people come home after a long day of work and they want to unwind. They don’t want to scour the Web for information, create a profile, upload a link, Digg it, comment on it, share it, promote it or talk about it on Twitter and Blogs.

It’s all in the balance.

Don’t be upset that the masses all don’t have Google Alerts or have a news reader set-up on their desktop. Most people are not going to download a Twitter client like TweetDeck or Seesmic Desktop so that they can have a Nasdaq-esque screen flowing constantly with each and every tweet that is related to their lives. Most people are mass media lazy. They’re used to sitting back and letting the media wash over them (from a TV sitcom to an article in Vanity Fair). They want to be entertained. They want to forget about their work day. They’re not interested in working more or creating their own media. The balance comes in recognizing both types of people. The balance comes in creating media (as a brand) that appeals to those who just want the information versus those who want to do something with that same information.

Do you think this is going to change – and that people will become more active – or are we all just too stuck in our ways?

Social Media Can Change The Corporate Culture

Most corporate cultures are what they are. Some have been around for decades. Others have had the same corporate culture for a century (or longer). Change is never easy, but change does happen. 

There’s this old trucker saying that goes: “if you can’t change people, you change people.” The truth is that not every competent individual is right for every company, and there are also some serious nincompoops who manage to stick with a company longer than anyone can fathom. Beneath the many layers of individuals, personal politics, power shifting and HR is a corporate culture. The brand’s raison d’ĂȘtre. It is not something that changes easily, but it does change. Mark W. Schaefer over at the Grow Blog doesn’t seem to think it’s possible. In his Blog post, Can social media change your company’s culture? I doubt it (September 22nd, 2010), he calls me out for saying that Social Media is changing corporate culture during our recent Podcast debate on Ghost Blogging (more on that here: SPOS #214 – The Ghost Blogging Debate With Mark W. Schaefer).

Social Media can’t change a corporate culture…

And, here’s why Mark thinks this way: “The idea that you could transform a company culture just because it needs to create a Twitter account or YouTube channel is probably fanciful. I believe the companies who are succeeding on the social web are doing so because they already have a company culture that would enable and reward that success. A well-managed, market-oriented company with a legacy of customer-centricity is going to do well with social media — and any other marketing innovation that comes down the line. If you look at a list of the most successful companies on the social web, there really aren’t any surprises are there? Their cultures are pre-wired to succeed.”

Social Media is not from within.

Mark is one-hundred percent accurate. A company that is customer-centric and open to innovation will probably be more successful in platforms like Twitter and YouTube, but that’s not my point. Take a look at Dell prior to Jeff Jarvis and his infamous Dell Hell post. What made Dell turn the corner was not a proactive decision to embrace Social Media. In fact, it was the total opposite. Social Media did not come from within. It came from consumers leveraging these powerful sharing and publishing platforms to speak their minds, and the net result of this content scared Dell’s top echelon enough to start re-thinking their corporate culture and how they connect with consumers. We’re all quick to cheer Coca-Cola for embracing their consumer-generated Facebook page, but let’s not forget how unhappy the company was when the Eepy Bird guys started mixing Diet Coke and Mentos for some volcanic fun. The company was not amused and reminded people that they would prefer if people consumed Diet Coke.

Coming round.

There are countless stories of major (and minor) corporate brands that over time have begun to understand how their brands now “live” because of Social Media and the brand ecosystem (Dell and Coca-Cola are just two regularly cited ones). A new Social Media marketing platform will not change a corporate culture, but enough voices in Social Media talking, sharing, creating and doing more is likely to get attention and force change. We have to remember that Marketers – if given the choice – would probably never want Social Media. They can’t control a message and they can’t keep others from speaking publicly about them. That’s scary, but Social Media is forcing this change in corporate culture. Whether brands are doing this proactively or because they have no choice is a whole other discussion.

Push beyond Marketing.

Look at LinkedIn. People are posting their positions. Peers and customers provide recommendations. Companies now have their own profiles. All of this information that used to be so closely guarded against the corporate chest is now open for the world to see. I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in enough small, medium and large corporate boardrooms to know that all of this cumulative content (beyond Marketing and Communications engagement) and information is pushing corporate culture to change. From Real Estate and big pharma to financial institutions and law offices. Change is happening… and it’s happening at the corporate culture level. It may be happening slowly for some or at breakneck speed for others, but it is happening.

What do you think? Is Social Media changing corporate culture?


The Internet Is Your Media Lab

Does your company wish there was a place where you could experiment with New Media, Marketing, Advertising and Communications? 

While attending MediaCamp today in Montreal (as a preamble to PodCamp Montreal), Sylvain Carle (from Praized) suggested that maybe more media companies needed to create a media lab where they could experiment with new content platforms, revenue models and distribution channels. This may sound kind of obvious, but it already exists…

It’s called the Internet.

While it may be wise for most brands to have a premeditated strategy and plan before diving head-first into the online channel, there is nothing wrong with trying, tinkering and grappling with a few skunkwork projects online to see what kind of reception and traction you can get. Why not use the channel to experiment and try things… many, small things? You know, that whole “fail fast” model of innovation and development.

Failure to launch.

Most brands fail at the online channel (or think they’re failing) because it’s not a part of their culture (more on that here: There Will Be Blood). Many of the Journalists at today’s conference were pulling out the old, “How do you make money with a Blog?” or “No one is willing to pay me to Blog, and writing is how I make my living” types of sentiments. So, why not experiment and see if those statements really do hold up?

Here’s what you can do by making the Internet your Media Lab…

  • You can start sharing the content that has, traditionally, lived and died on paper.
  • You can open that content up to comments and commentary.
  • You can figure out what people like about it, what they don’t like and how long they spent with your content (try Google Analytics).
  • You can figure out if your content resonates (if it does, people will spread it on their own volition).
  • You can ask people to subscribe to your content (and track how many people actually care about what you’re doing).
  • You can sell ads on your space.
  • You can sell sponsorship on your space.
  • You can put Google AdWords on your space.
  • You can collect data (email addresses, profile information, etc…).
  • You can set-up a tip jar and see how much people are willing to pay for your content.
  • You can use Creative Commons, and let people distribute your content, so that your ideas can spread.
  • You can use the platform to expand your content into other media. If you’re writing, why not try audio, video, images, etc…?
  • You can engage in the comments and commentary you get as a way to build community and spark new ideas for content.
  • You can use your space like a mental gym: work out your content, daily, so that it stays fit, healthy and in shape.
  • You can use your space as a Media Lab to push your critical thinking into new directions (more on that here: Blogging Still Matters… Now More Than Ever).
  • You may get invited to speak somewhere, meet new people or learn a thing or two (or a thousand) about how people really connect with what you are doing.

… And that’s just the beginning.

Once you begin your new Media Lab, you will start to meet new people. If you’re truly connecting to them, other things will happen and you will uncover amazing strategic byproducts from your Media Lab actions. These might be PR and Marketing related, they may be new business development opportunities or you may just learn a whole new way to do what you love to do. Worse comes to worst, you will learn – in short order – that this is not for you or that your content doesn’t have the audience you once suspected.

… And one more thing…

It’s free. Well, that’s not true. You will have to pay in terms of time, effort and sweat equity, but the platforms can be free to start off (you may want to switch to a more sophisticated and flexible platform if your idea really takes off). Remember, never before – in the history of civilization – has one individual (yes, we’re talking about you) had the ability to have a thought, and be able to publish it – as professional content – in text, audio, video and images instantly (and for free) to the world… and be able to measure the results almost exactly and in near real-time.

What are you waiting for?