Posted by: Andrew | May 3, 2008

Your brand is an illusion

There, I said it. Shoot me.

I attended the New Media Tastemakers conference in San Francisco yesterday, in the too-cool-for-school Supper Club south of Market St. (Definitely read up on this place, it was a very intriguing location for a conference).

Among the many interesting and thought-provoking presentations, I particularly enjoyed a short session with Yelp’s Sonia Survanshi McFarland about best-practices for businesses in a Web-centric world. Her key message was simple: businesses need to operate with transparency and authenticity. Makes sense given that consumers have new power to sniff out a phony and sculpt brand images, thanks to online social networking and the collaborative spirit that the Web inspires.

Which got me thinking – are brands essentially dead in Web 2.0? Or, rather, do companies control their brands at all these days?

Sure, companies still guard their brands vigilantly. Apple is a prime example. As Wired notes, Steve Jobs has built an empire by locking consumers into a proprietary digital ecosystem beneath the Apple umbrella. The company has more or less rejected an open-source model of product development and maintained a tight grip over its brand image. iPod commercials, for example, appear to have tremendous influence and recall that not only helps the company sell mp3 players but also iTunes downloads.

And no one at the NMT conference believed that a business should give up trying to propagate an image about its brand. Every company or organization has a stake in its customer’s opinions.

But it comes down to this: It doesn’t matter how much you blow on PR, how sexy your commercials are, how great your promotions are or whether you’ve launched a multi-million-dollar campaign to “go green” in the next fiscal year. At the end of the day, these efforts might prevail – but the consumer still has the final say. If your marketing and branding efforts are paying off, it’s because the crowds have reaffirmed them.

But if consumers perceive your messages and branding to be dishonest, or that you’re covering up shoddy business practices, they will take you to task for it. A business can have a say in shaping its public perception, but this is just one voice in a fragmented, polyvocal media world. As evidence of this, Sonia pointed out that 75% of consumers say they trust the opinions of their friends the most, while brand sponsorships, banner ads and other forms of corporate marketing fell in the 50% or below range. And because the Web has made it easier than ever for consumers to form connections, those recommendations will become increasingly visible and numerous to the entire world. Companies that have spent millions building brand identities have created mere illusions; it is now up to the consumers to construct those identities.

Exhibit A: Yelp, which boasts over 2.5 million reviews of local businesses across the nation. Within the burgeoning Yelp community, reviewers – who are the site’s sole content contributors – have the last word about a business, not the business owners themselves. Owners can review their own businesses, sure, but they are just one small voice among thousands. Offer lousy service, bad food, shoddy products, and Yelpers will make it known to the entire world, effectively shouting over any advertising, marketing and other messaging you create.

I could cite numerous other examples of consumer dominance today, but one that comes immediately to mind is China’s attempt to quell recent unrest in Tibet. Despite blocking YouTube internally and denying access to reporters in Tibet, China has been unable to control the outflow of images and video from Lhasa, thanks to the speed with which anyone can generate and upload a video of the violence. With the universality of the Web, even the Communist Party can’t maintain complete control over its global brand – although to be sure it’s done a pretty good job of retaining the support of Chinese nationals during the conflict. That much can be expected in a closed-door society without Web neutrality.

What does this mean for companies and organizations? First and foremost, the Web should drive more of them to be honest about their operations – if they’re not, the world will know soon enough. The consequences for lying to consumers are far worse for any institution than being open and forthcoming with them to begin with. Second, I think as more companies come to grips with this fact, they will reform their practices and focus more on social responsibility. At the very least, this should mean better advertising that’s actually interesting and worth a damn. Let’s cut the fat out of this beast and find a way to make all businesses, organizations and governments behave more like citizens, and less like autocracies.

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