David Kirkpatrick, Senior Editor, Internet & Technology, Fortune Magazine
Recently I took a much-anticipated business class transatlantic flight with British Airways. I had been smitten by its advertising, with seductive descriptions of flat beds and cosseting treatment. But when I stretched out to sleep on the plane, I was surprisingly uncomfortable. Even though I hadn’t paid for the $8,600 ticket myself, I felt burned.
But I didn’t just grumble. Instead, I fired up my account on Twitter, a free micro-blogging service on which users can send out short texts on any subject to hundreds of people around the world. “British Airways’ ‘new’ business class very disappointing,” I wrote, in the telegraphic language that characterizes Twitter. “Bed too short, privacy lacking, service so-so. Unlikely to fly it again.” The brand had, quite unexpectedly, failed to live up to my expectations.
As evidenced by my “tweet,” as Twitter posts are called, in today’s world there was no reason I had to take my experience lying down, so to speak. An amazingly powerful panoply of digital tools is available to anyone who wants to share an opinion about anything. However, too many people in business have yet to recognize how profoundly this is changing the marketing and branding landscape. That’s why this book by Allen Adamson is so welcome and necessary. The fundamentals of brand building, from listening to and learning from customers, to relevantly meeting their needs, have been magnified in a world of digital communications and consumer empowerment.
Managing a brand in the digital era is like wrestling an anaconda in a crowded room – or worse, on a swaying subway train at rush hour. No matter how well you think you can restrain the beast on your own, others are inevitably going to reach over and help you. The companies that cultivate brands best take this as a given. They invite feedback, criticism and innovative ideas from the users of a product or service. Adamson calls today’s consumers “de facto collaborators in the brand-building process.” If British Airways had, when I landed, sent me an e-mail or otherwise invited me to give them my response to the trip, perhaps I would have refrained from complaining openly to a large group of potential customers. Alas, they did not.
There is one bedrock explanation for why the relationship between businesses and their customers is so different in the digital era: It’s the technological touchstone called Moore’s Law – a well-proven theory about the evolution of semiconductor technology first propounded by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore back in 1965. He said that the power of the computer chips underlying all digital products gets exponentially greater over time while their price more or less stays the same. As digital tools have thus gotten cheaper and more powerful, more communications power has been put into the hands of people – a process that shows no sign of abating. That formula has led to the emergence of a succession of amazing tools that take advantage of those chips – from the PC to the Internet to the cell phone to new services like Twitter, Google, MySpace or Facebook. We are still just beginning to understand how radical are the implications.
Adamson makes many statements in BrandDigital that would seem absurd were we not all intuitively familiar with these changes wrought by Moore’s Law. Here’s one of the most striking ones: “Consumers can track and monitor corporate behavior with the same speed and fluidity that corporations can track consumer behavior.” That summarizes one of the most remarkable transformations society has ever seen. It’s a fundamental realignment of market power, caused by the levelling influence of the Internet. Another profound notion is encapsulated in a line Adamson quotes from Lenovo’s David Churbuck. Speaking about those who shepherd brands and company images, he avers, “Time is not on your side.” If you don’t move quickly to respond to the new consumer power, your brands could rapidly weaken.
One of Adamson’s central and most useful images is that of the “back fence.” This quaint image may evoke small-town America, but it also aptly symbolizes where every consumer now stands. After my recent ill-fated airline experience, I stood at the equivalent of a back fence where I could speak not to my next door neighbor but to literally hundreds of similarly talkative people who listen to me on Twitter, and the potentially thousands more who listen to them. Speaking of one of today’s most important developments – the stunning rise of social networks – Adamson calls them “equivalents of Wisteria Lane.” That is, of course, the setting of the somewhat dark and gossip-driven suburban America of the hit ABC series Desperate Housewives. Social networks are powerful drivers of gossip and viral communication, Adamson writes: “When someone whispers it has the potential to turn into a verbal tsunami.” I’m so convinced of the potential of social networks like Facebook to change social life, business, marketing and even politics that I’m writing a book about it myself.
To hear Adamson tell it, being an effective branding and marketing organization these days is a lot like being a responsible and caring person. In this world of pell-mell change and topsy-turvy power relationships, those who would operate with the top-down, hierarchical, imperial methods of old are unlikely anymore to succeed. The word that kept leaping to my mind as I read Adamson’s engaging stories from today’s brand marketplace was “humility.” But the good news, he tells us, is that even the biggest businesses can still apply these new tools of openness and humility to build brands of tremendous strength and durability. Just look at GE or at Hewlett-Packard’s PC business.
We are still only in the early stages of the changes Adamson outlines here. One fundamental statistic shows how much transformation is still to come – and how much opportunity remains for smart marketers to take the reins of their brands. In 2007, 21 percent of total media consumption in the U.S. was digital, but only 8 percent of total advertising spending was. The behavior of the marketing and branding industry clearly hasn’t yet caught up to the behavior of the American consumer.
If you’re intent on catching up, this book should help. My copy is heavily underlined. I’d be surprised if anyone engaged in any way with stewardship of a business or brand does not find useful insights throughout.
Toward the end of BrandDigital Adamson lists a few basic principles, which leap off the page. “First and foremost, stand back… Forget about the way you used to buy media or made your branding decisions… Watch, listen, and learn… Consumer behavior should be your guiding light.” It may not be easy, but there really is no choice.