Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

Digital snake oil (a bit about branding) [post 16/100]

Brands and branding used to be such a straightforward thing (a few centuries ago, at least). A brand differentiated one person’s products from another’s, and over time customers learned that, say, Pete made the best dark ale and Phillip’s joint salve worked better than that other guy’s (what was his name again?). All you had to do was make a good product and put your name on it, tell some people about it and off you went.

At least in theory. The reality has always been messier and less honest. Not everyone is content to distribute their own product unembellished, and it’s always been easy for clever people to take advantage of the credulous: snake oil salesmen have been around for centuries. Those with more ambition than ethics also realised that if they spread rumours that their competitors’ products were bad, even dangerous, they could get an edge. Thus began the dark side of advertising, which continues even today.

Which is why, whenever I hear talk about ‘social media’ in a brand context, I brace myself for the worst. I’m forever amazed at how brand managers and product makers talk about the channels we use to communicate with each other as entities to be hijacked, controlled, used for their own gain.

‘Social media’ isn’t media in the way that broadcast television is. You can’t go in as a brand and buy 30 seconds or a minute of it, because no single person or entity owns it (though some are certainly trying). What ‘social media’ actually is, is a huge, ongoing, public conversation being had by millions of people, on thousands of topics, all around the world, all the time. And as any six-year-old staircase eavesdropper can tell you, conversations are an excellent way to learn things about people. Sometimes things they don’t even realise they’re giving away – if you’re a brand, lots and lots of useful stuff. And here’s the thing: they don’t even have to be talking about you. When you listen to an open conversation, you find out what’s important to people, what (and whom) they love and hate, what they do and don’t care about, what makes them happy/sad/angry/inspired. And if you’re a brand, that’s the kind of stuff you care about, or should.

Eavesdropping can be a pretty creepy practice, so researchers have always needed to create methods that make it feel more comfortable for subjects to be observed – the challenge is to calibrate the comfort level for maximal honesty, get people to speak and behave as they would if they weren’t being watched. And while ethnographic methods are still useful in loads of contexts, now we’ve got this treasure trove of conversation – talks that used to happen, if not in private, around tables in restaurants and bars, tables we weren’t invited to join – happening out there in the open, where anyone can hear it.

People are fascinating. Also sometimes terrifying. Whenever I need a bit of inspiration, I can rely on the internets to deliver; when I’m feeling down, sometimes it’s better to stay away. Some argue that people are less honest online because they have the mantle of anonymity (however fleeting or relative) to hide behind. I’d argue that while some certainly are dishonest, far more are more honest for precisely the same reason. This is slowly changing as it begins to dawn on us that (a) we are in fact being watched and listened far more, and by more entities, than we might have thought, and (b) there might be real consequences – lost jobs, ruined reputations, political persecution – to the things we say and do online. But at least for the near future, there is plenty to be gleaned, both explicit and implied, from listening to the vast online conversation.

When my clients ask me what to do about social media, my first response is to ask, “What do you want to do?” Often they’re not able to even articulate what they’d want to accomplish by engaging on Facebook or Twitter. In which case, I tell them, don’t. Or if your goal is all about controlling or forcing a message, forget it. It’s not going to work.

What does work is listening. Because listening will help you make better products, understand what people are doing with them, inspire you to strike out in new directions or let you know that you need to focus more tightly. And one thing that’s always worked is great products. Once you’ve made one, let people know about it in whichever way is appropriate to the thing  you’ve made. Join in the conversation if you can, but not if it’s going to feel forced – and don’t think people can’t tell the difference, because they definitely can. Let them decide it’s good, and they’ll tell other people. Spreading rumours or exaggerating benefits still works too, unfortunately, but this same massive global conversation makes it a little harder for brands to get away with dishonesty. People love a bit of public shaming, and if they discover you’re lying they’ll gleefully tell everyone they know – that news will spread far faster than any good news would.

I bring this all up now by way of introduction – branding is an important component of the conversation around connected objects, and one of the most important things that brands need to remember or learn, depending, is humility. Your brand is never going to be the only one in people’s lives, and your products will become part of a personal ecosystem that you can’t know much about. To cope with that, you’ll need to let go, be humble, and pay attention, and think before you speak.