A Literacy of the Imagination

a deeper look at innovation through the lenses of media, technology, venture investment and hyperculture

Attention Marketers: The Real Money is in Ecosystems

What people really think about “brands” and “ads”.

There are a host of studies that address the ways in which people are affected by ads and onslaughts of marketing messages, as well as how they feel about them. Most of the data and insights are inglorious; probably the most telling are the studies based on “native advertising”. This one from MediaBrix and Harris Interactive is a pretty good indicator of why consumers have become activists in editing and avoiding ads altogether.

Granted, many of these studies don’t even ask the right questions, or questions more oriented towards cultural behaviors or daily rituals. Choosing between the better or lesser of evils ("Would you rather go with option A, B or C in this rotation?") isn't exactly leading marketers in the direction of enlightenment.

Brand studies are even more elusive; my favorite (I’m being facetious) is this series conducted by Interbrand, which provides geographically designated results on brands in different markets based on variables that have little to do with company operations, sustainability or customer relationship metrics, and everything to do with “brand perception” based on fixed (and arguably irrelevant) variables.

The Bhutan approach to relationship metrics (specifically GNH or Gross National Happiness) is really where these survey questions should lead... But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

brand studies.png

What this says is, as an industry, marketing and advertising is still talking to itself in a giant echo chamber, and is making huge, sweeping assumptions about customer behavior when it doesn’t have to. In short, companies, via their brands, have an opportunity to ask far better questions. And this is precisely where companies will continue to make or lose money.

Marketing is intended to actually build markets.

One of the smartest things I’ve heard recently came from General Electric CMO, Beth Comstock, who unapologetically proclaimed that "Marketing is now about creating and developing new markets; not just identifying opportunities but also making them happen".

Comstock looks at GE as the world’s oldest startup, and this is the kind of thinking that has sustained GE as an innovator across industries for decades.

If you were to look more closely at the word marketing, it would seem that this approach in building markets is a given, but of course it isn’t.

Developing an ecosystem of ideas and resources (not just ads and inventory).

The big talk at the CM Summit this past week (May 18th, 2013 onward) has been around building a new kind of ad ecosystem. This ecosystem specifically refers to things like a “native advertising” or “programmatic advertising” format, which basically focuses on real-time bidding in exchanges that peddle inventory or content for cents on the dollar.

While I think these discussions are important in transitioning our broken ad models to better places, I think they also miss the bigger picture.

For one, they presuppose that innovations in developing the company-customer relationship are predicated on technological advances (read: fancier features). For another, they almost completely ignore the power of people, their communities, and the ways they are willing to participate when the terms for consumption are more equitable.

This includes our functional uses of content, data, and the contexts through which we can build customer relationships, engender trust, and monetize channels without grossly manipulating the market itself.

From a content perspective, here’s what an ecosystem would ideally look like:

content's new context.png

If we can accept the Kurzweilian precept that technology is an extension of biology, then we might be able to reframe these efforts more constructively.

What this really points to is a profound shift in priorities, one that takes us from models based on opacity, forced messaging and a reliance on commodified inventory, to models that place openness, adaptivity and conscientiousness at the heart of marketing and communications.

The Coca-Cola problem.

Many of you are probably familiar with Coke’s escalating issues with obesity. If you’re not, you should be, as this represents a classic example of how traditional marketing and communications (to include “social media”) can’t solve real world problems -- problems that are not only complex, but those which require a whole new way of doing business.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the idea isn’t so much that brands and their products or services need to be perfect, but the overarching idea that they do need to be more humane. This means that operations must be far more empathic in how they treat people (customers and employees), and means that companies must do their best to empower hyperlocal economies.

I will make a much stronger economic case for this in an upcoming white paper, but suffice to say that things like P/E ratios, EBIDTA, market capitalization and increasing profit margins are hardly leading indicators for a sustainable brand, or a profitable brand, for that matter. Further, it will be impossible for companies to maintain the types of margins they have now without more earnest investments in the socioeconomic environments on which they lean, directly or indirectly.

What Coke can do to align its business and brand interests.

A lot of the work I do involves creating scenarios, or imaging possibilities, so that more positive and productive futures can be realized. So, I thought I would take the Coke use case and provide a snapshot of what “newer” disciplines like data journalism and participatory storytelling can do to revitalize the socioeconomic relationship between brands and consumers. (It is also a central use case featured in the book I’m co-authoring, “The Big Pivot”)

story as a lived experience.png

The graphic should be fairly self-explanatory; it basically takes you on a journey from the moment a perceived issue erupts, and shows how a different way of extracting and cultivating a story lends to the consensual development of ideas that not only become authentic brand artifacts, but those which provide a basis for product development and job growth.

You’ll notice that we go from a phase of understanding an issue, to uncovering its intentionality, to finding the purpose behind it in actions on the ground, and ultimately, developing the true meaning of its impact in the form of actionable solutions.

Under normal circumstances, the usual suspects -- media agencies, PR companies, social media vendors, product innovators, sustainability firms, et al -- would work mostly in isolation. More critically, the idea of storytelling reverse engineers a very staid and cumbersome set of processes that doesn’t actually move the needle of the business or nurture stakeholder relations. In this case, notice how real world solutions can be crafted from mostly closed data loops to those that reflect a group or collective intelligence.

Welcome to the future, which is right now.

It is not difficult to see what is possible. We have the tools and the means. What is difficult is to shift the mindset away from a heavy reliance on automation and quantitative reasoning and towards interactions on the ground. These will allow people to become true advocates of a brand, and influencers of ideas that matter, whether they exist as messages, stories and/or pure informational utilities.