Teaching Brands New Tricks (Book Excerpt)

Steve Addis comes from the grand old world of consumer packaged goods—CPG. He started his career at Clorox, but along the way decided to take a journey into branding, and now he’s proud to call among his clients Lego, Intel and Smith & Hawken.  

“We’re overwhelmed” Addis says. “There’s simply too much choice and access to information to manage on our own. As a result of this new changing reality, we now live in a curator economy. Businesses that understand, embrace, and harness the power of the curator have the opportunity to tap into newfound loyalty.”

New brands, born in the past 10 years, have a curation equation baked in, Addis says. They don’t have to “get it”; they are it. They came into being after the power and influence of network TV began to wane, and they cut their teeth on social media. So brands like Google, sites like Etsy, or companies like Starbucks don’t have to reinvent themselves. But that may mean the large packaged-goods companies are on the long slow slide down the tubes. It’s simply difficult to teach an elephant to dance. Getting brands that are used to buying their way to the front of the line with media dollars to understand that being transparent and responsive wins the day is very hard.

The idea is that brands, both old and new, need to stop ignoring the emergence of consumer power and instead embrace it and accept it. They must channel it, and in turn change how they think about customers. Humans, formerly known as either consumers or couch potatoes, are now creators and thought leaders, passive no more. “Finding and cultivating consumer trust in this economy of abundance means businesses need to understand, embrace, and harness the shift to become a curator brand—a brand that engenders such a level of trust and advocacy that it rises to the level of a peer,” Addis says.

How Can Brands Adapt?

Chris Brogan is perhaps the best-known leader of the social media-conversational marketing revolution. He started early and created a human, funny, honest persona in his 11 years of sharing, blogging and eventually tweeting. He now has earned a powerful amount of attention, attention that he says equals cold hard cash.

“Attention is a currency, just like many others,” Brogan says. “We understand time and money as two interchangeable things. But attention is just as much something that needs to be arbitraged and disconnected from a 1:1 value. Said another way, attention costs me time and time is worth money, so attention by extension is worth money.”

And Brogan doesn’t just preach to the gospel of free content; he puts his content up for grabs. “I give away all the content on chrisbrogan.com for free, provided you don’t use it commercially, and provided you give me link backs to my original posts,” he says. “So, a curator who wants stuff about human business and social media and marketing can use my 11 or so years of experience for free as material they share with their customer base. How do I make money from that? People send me messages once a week (or more, when I’m lucky) that say, ‘I saw your post over on BlahBlahSite.com and I want to know if you’re free to speak on December 44th.’ Money, baby, and I didn’t even have to work for it.”

Brogan says that curation is an essential new tool in the marketer’s toolbox. “I think brands have a great chance to be a thought leader, should they choose that opportunity,” he says. In fact, having just bought his first fancy-pants car—a shiny new black Camaro SS—he suggests that he’s a prime target for marketers to engage him with curated content.
It turns out that the Web, and all the noise and funk it brings, is both a blessing and a curse for brands accustomed to the power and control of mass marketing. As potential customers read, link and “like” content on the Web, they’re leaving breadcrumbs for markers. That content has to come from somewhere. For PR gurus like Steve Rubel, put a few extra checkmarks in the blessings category.

“On the blessing side, we have a million places where we can go to tell our story. It’s infinite, we can create our own content,” says Rubel, while seated in the ultra-swanky Soho offices of Edelman PR Worldwide. “I like to say that we rain on people every day, and we hope that eventually we drop enough rain to cause a behavior change and somebody says, ‘I gotta buy an umbrella.’ It used to just take a drizzle; it now takes a monsoon.”

Monsoon. Tsunami. Avalanche. Use whichever weather metaphor you like. The simple fact is we’re drowning in undifferentiated data. And the guys at Edelman are counting on the fact that they can do more than simply pitch bloggers to write about their clients. The old rules about clients creating content are long gone. Edelman is in the publishing business, hiring Richard Sambrook, the former head of content at the BBC, to come in and run an operation that will help clients such as the American Heart Association, eBay, Unilever and HP to make, gather and curate content for the Web.

Sambrook left the BBC as he saw the balance of power shifting from journalists who wrote stories to the big brands that are the stories.

“Media companies are struggling,” Sambrook says. “Spot advertising is recognized as less and less effective and, therefore, in that gap lots of companies and organizations are looking for new ways to engage consumers. Of course, digital provides them with an opportunity to go direct to the public rather than wait to be mediated by journalism.”

“I actually see what I do as threefold: I curate, I incubate and I communicate,” Rubel says. “So on the curation side I’m out there trying to understand what are the key trends, talking to CEOs, to emerging companies, to thinkers in the space, and just reading a tremendous amount of information and parsing it all down and saying, ‘Okay, what are the big themes that I need to be helping our clients on a global level understand?’ ”

But if the folks in so-called earned media are feeling new superpowers, don’t write off the folks on Madison Avenue. Things are changing, as advertising agencies look to add community content to the mix, but they’re still working to figure it out.

“How do you create content, accurate content, that is much more conversational in nature? What surprises me is that I think the industry still doesn’t have a recipe for that,” says Jean-Philippe Maheu, the CEO of Publicis Modem. As the former CEO of Razorfish, a groundbreaking digital media shop, Maheu is perhaps the leading innovator from the early days of digital to now be working with large brands and agencies.

Maheu joined Publicis from his job as the Chief Digital Officer for Ogilvy & Mather. Publicis begins with the mission “Contagious ideas that change the conversation.” The idea that media can impact conversation is a clue about just how prevalent and powerful social media has become. Maheu says his job is to develop ideas or content that is contagious. Ideas that are interesting or useful or provocative. Ideas that are going to be shared. His job is to create or change conversations.

Says Maheu: “The empirical evidence is that when the brand changes the conversation to its benefits, sales accelerate.”

And what about the whole idea that consumers are talking about brands like never before? Maheu says consumers have always talked about brands in both a positive and negative light. But the Web has dramatically changed the volume at which this discussion occurs.
“The big difference is that now they have huge microphones and podiums to do that and really create a movement, so that’s a huge difference, obviously. So, that is a huge shift, there’s no question.

“I think marketing has evolved into a kind of two tiers . . . one which means you still need campaign, you need points of view,” Maheu says. “You need brands to have the courage to say something and to engage with consumers on something that’s going to be interesting.”
Not surprisingly, he still sees mass media as the key fire starter to a campaign. But the new piece of marketing is what he calls “always on,” the engagement of what was formerly known as word of mouth. Now, it’s more word of mouse.

But what Maheu and Rubel agree on is content and the need for brands to take control of the conversation and curate.

Says Maheu: “You need a point of view. And you need content that enables you to communicate your point of view, and engage and respond. The question is to what extent the brand, the marketers who create and produce content are serious about finding content partners. And curating content from others.”

Brands as Publishers?

Brands begin with the need to lead, the expertise to tell their story, the skill to attract intent, and therefore the ability to be trusted within their communities. Because brands have access to both paid and earned media (advertising and public relations), as well as their own brand space, they are inherently publishers. The big change for the brands that have been built in the post-millennium world is that they are media, rather than buying media. For example, Starbucks sees such remarkable foot traffic and return visits through its doors that it doesn’t need to buy television advertising to reach its customers. Its stores, its signage, its window displays are all media that lets it tell its story to customers.

Increasingly, customers are in control of the brand story. This can be both good and bad. As a simple example, on a recent summer evening I ended up with tickets to see a terrific performing artist on stage at a venue in Manhattan called City Winery.

The performer was Marshall Crenshaw, and he and his band put on a remarkable show. Everything was great: the food, the wine, the service and the music. I looked around and saw that other folks were taking pictures and Flip cam videos, so I decided to join in. I’d brought along my Canon 7D and walked up to the edge of the stage. I recorded an amazing rendition of his hit song “Mary Anne” with good sound and HD video. I wasn’t sure if the venue or the artist would mind, but there wasn’t any mention of not recording video, so I figured it was okay. Back home, I posted it on my Facebook page and sent out a tweet on Twitter: “Great night at City Winery; Marshall Crenshaw performing Mary Anne.”

I didn’t think anything about it. In fact, I was totally surprised when hours later I found this tweet responding to my post from the CityWineryNYC account: “CityWineryNYC @magnify Thanks for your support—come by tonight and get 2 ticks for the price of 1—show tweet at the door.” It’s a great response.

I didn’t know that I was supporting them by recording and posting, but of course I was. I had endorsed both the venue and the artist, and they were repaying my endorsement with an offer, and some warm feedback. My immediate reaction was that I want to go there again, post again, and become an even more ardent supporter of the venue. That’s good marketing.

In fact, brands may have no choice. They may have to become publishers and take control of the conversation that swirls around their space and the product, such as contests that invite creative contributions, with customized printing like the M&M’s with a personalized message on the back, and even by bringing fans into product development, as Lego does.

In order for brands to be present and participate in the new “social” world,  they need to have a voice. And a voice that is more than a monologue. A dialogue. And that requires that they develop a curatorial context for the space they’re in—and a way to share ideas that come from their area of expertise, but not necessarily their own content creators.  

This whole new world can’t be easy for brands or their creative partners. It used to be so easy when dollars equaled dominance, but now there’s a digital fly in the ointment. Curation can give brands a way to convene a conversation, keep the tone appropriate, and create a safe space for customers to learn and share.

But brands that ignore the need to embrace an editorial voice are bound to be unhappy when consumers use their newfound power to talk about them—whether they like it or not.    

Curation Nation by Steven Rosenbaum (McGraw-Hill, 2011).