Earlier this year, Mitt Romney (to jeers from the assembled audience) asserted that corporations are people. Of course, in a literal sense he is right – corporations are populated by people who interact with other people to transact and make money. But in a metaphorical sense, the idea is repellent because so many corporations appear to forget that they are made up of people, behaving in a way that abdicates all responsibility to be civil.
This is the thesis of Todd Carmichael, the founder of La Colombe Torrefaction coffee shops whose entertaining talk at this year’s PSFK conference raised a simple challenge to corporations to act less like douches and more like decent people.
But it’s not just CEOs who should take note. If the majority of corporations act like douches, this is also true for the brands attached to them.
This misbehavior was aided an abetted by 20th century media. We spoiled people’s fun by interrupting their favorite TV shows or magazines (or commutes to work) to shout often poorly targeted, ill-conceived nonsense at them. And we would go straight into ‘selling mode’ without any attempt to get to know them and understand their needs. Not, I’m sure you’ll agree, attractive traits in a person.
As I wrote in great detail in a previous post (so won’t bore you with here) new technology has enabled people to escape this invasive messaging. Devices and services like Dish Network’s controversial Hopper and Firefox’s ad-blocker are helping people to build personal firewalls and live blissfully ad-free lives enabling them to engage with brands only when they choose to. And when you aren’t compelled to engage with a brand, why would you when there are so many more interesting things to do?
In many cases, the thing that people are choosing to do is spend time on social networks: spaces that enable them to connect, share and build communities of interest. In other words, forums that accentuate and augment our humanity. Thanks to Facebook and Twitter’s need to monetize, they are making it as easy as possible for brands to engage in all this humanity using their services and in certain cases, brands are embracing the opportunity to behave like people you might want to build a relationship with.
Much of this relies on good community management – literally making a brand more human by empowering a human to speak spontaneously and authentically on its behalf. As these examples from Samsung Canada and Smart Car demonstrate, even the most incidental interactions give brands the opportunity to engage consumers in a more human manner.
As Andrew Keller wrote in an email to CP+B employees this week , these small interactions are fundamental to brand building, representing “opportunities to show the lights are on. That someone is home. The personality, the story is in the details.”
But these opportunities aren’t simply reactive. Many brands are also proactively connecting with consumers in more human ways using social networks. Red Bull, for example, recognizes that everyone already knows about the energy drinks it sells and that no one wants to hear about them, so uses its FB and Twitter presences to engage its audience around their passion for high-adrenaline sports. In doing so, they transcend their category and the fact that they are a brand at all to become a vital source of news and content for their target audience. On social networks, as elsewhere, Red Bull stands for something more than the products it sells – presenting a compelling point of view to which people gravitate.
Of course, for every Redbull, there are brands that continue to see social networks as broadcast channels; a repository for press releases and product information. The beauty of social networks is that this self-indulgent douchie behavior is rewarded with the response it deserves – small numbers of followers and limited engagement.
But beyond the ubiquitous Facebook and Twitter, I’m finding myself increasingly excited about the opportunities for brands presented by Instagram and particularly Pinterest because of the necessity to communicate exclusively visually. Humans respond to imagery at visceral level and the explosive growth of these services are testament to this. Afficionados of Pinterest spend huge amounts of time and effort to express themselves, building immersive visual worlds and in so doing, attracting large followings. So for brands to make any sort of impact, they must do the same ie. take an inherently less selfish, less self-indulgent approach to communication by presenting a compelling point of view (beyond product) through the selection and curation of imagery. After all, who would follow or re-pin a stream of product shots?
Kate Spade does a great job building a ‘colorful’ world to support it’s broader brand point of view
Even if Pinterest’s audience is incompatible with a brand’s, I still believe that thinking about a presence is a worthwhile exercise as it forces marketers to do in microcosm what’s necessary for them to succeed elsewhere. As the cliché goes, a picture tells a thousand words and brands have the opportunity to harness the power of imagery in order to express what they stand for in a truly compelling and accessible way for consumers. However, for this to happen they need to be more human – to have a belief system, to be generous with their time, connect with their audience, save the selling for later – in short, no more douche.
Over recent years, the narrative of trust in peers supplanting trust in institutions has become accepted wisdom. The steady decline in influence of institutions such as the church, government and business has been matched by a concurrent rise in the influence of peers; a process catalyzed by the explosive growth of online social networks, which make the opinions of those peers so readily available.
Numerous studies have posited this hypothesis but it really appeared to gather momentum on the back of Edelman’s (highly influential in its own right) annual Trust Barometer, which in 2005 asserted “Trust shifts from ‘authorities’ to peers”, explaining that “trust in established institutions (business, government, media) and figures of authority (CEOs, heads of state) is being supplanted by a personal web of trust that includes ‘colleagues,’ ‘friends and family,’ ‘a person like yourself’”.
This school of thought has taken firm hold in the marketing world, devaluing previous assumptions about the ability to influence consumers via 1-way communication and obsessing us with the creation of influencer-strategies where we seek to stimulate conversation and participation, encouraging networked influencers to spread our message to their peers on our behalf (what Griffin Farley has termed Propagation Planning).
So it comes as something of a surprise to note more recent Trust Barometer findings which suggest that our trust in peers is now in decline. This trend was noted last year by my colleague Patricia McDonald (then of BBH Labs) who pointed to a 20% decline in the influence that US respondents ascribed to peers between 2008 and 2010, a trend that has continued in 2011. Concurrently, the influence of CEOs (and ‘experts’ generally) increased by 19% between (2009 - 2011) see the full report here.
Edelman data shows declining influence of peers vs. increasing influence of CEOs between 2009 and 2011
Edelman seem not to offer an opinion as to the underlying causes of this shift so we are left to speculate. I wonder whether the changing nature of our relationships (catalyzed by social networking) is causing them to weaken with a consequent decline in the level of trust we ascribe to them? Is the way we use Facebook weakening the influence of friendship?
Naysayers (and your parents until they joined Facebook) have long questioned the substance of friendships conducted virtually. But an uneasiness around the number of ‘friends’ we have amassed and our ability to actually maintain relationships with all these people has become more prevalent recently. This trend was the focus of the launch campaign for Microsoft’s ill-fated Kin smartphone, a sociological study following individuals as thy sought to build real-world relationships with friends they had only ever encountered virtually.
The scientific basis of this questioning of the validity of online friendships is provided by the oft cited Dunbar’s Number. Robin Dunbar, director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University first put forward the theory in 1992 that “the way in which our social world is constructed is part and parcel of our biological inheritance. Together with apes and monkeys, we’re members of the primate family – and within the primates there is a general relationship between the size of the brain and the size of the social group. We fit in a pattern. There are social circles beyond it and layers within – but there is a natural grouping of 150. This is the number of people you can have a relationship with involving trust and obligation – there’s some personal history, not just names and faces”.
Back to Edelman’s findings, a contributing factor to the declining influence of our peers would appear to be that we simply have too many with whom to sustain relationships built on “trust and obligation”. That our mania for collecting Facebook friends and unwittingly rendered these friendships less meaningful. So what does this mean for brand’s carefully-constructed influencer strategies?
Whilst friend influence (as defined by Edelman) may not reach the heights of 2008 again in a hurry, our peers have always influenced us (we’ve just paid attention more recently because we’ve been better able to follow and influence their conversations) and will continue to influence us. However, for this influence to be useful in the building of brands, we must focus more on the quality of ‘friendship’ over quantity.
For social networks looking to command brands’ marketing budgets, the key will be helping people manage different kinds of friendships and prioritize more meaningful ones (whether through the segmentation of an existing network like Facebook Groups or the creation of new, tighter networks like Path which limits users’ total number of connections to 50). For our part, marketers need to pay less attention to generic metrics like ‘likes’ and more to defining exactly what we’re hoping to achieve, how peer-influencers will help us to achieve these objectives and how to engage with them in their social networks in order to achieve this.