The Brand Wars Are Over—Guess Who Won?

We fought with our heads above ground. We fought with TV spots and print ads. Then we fought with billboard and radio, and—how revolutionary!—we fought with Web banner ads. And while we were busy throwing money into the coffers of our brand generals, the digital guerrillas were tapping into our lives just below the surface, skimming the great underground left by the footprints of our keystrokes—virtually for free. We created a new logo; they tapped into people’s Facebook accounts. We talked strategy and channel proliferation; they suggested something for someone’s BFF from Amazon. We created a store locator; they shipped your customer a $6 gizmo for free.

We won the account. They won the war.

You’ve been reading all over the place how the marketing world as we know it is changing. But it isn’t really changing at all—it’s already gone. All that’s left for us to do now is to make peace with the victors. But guess what? They’re not interested in détente. It’s not that these alien-like beings are after our souls. They’re not. They’re after something we covet much more than that: our customers.

The marketing landscape has turned into a Terminator world, where machines called servers (gotta love that word) call the shots; collecting data about our customers, compiling, crunching, analyzing and (sometimes, but not always) selling it. Then they use that data to give people what they actually say they want. And half the time they don’t even care if they make a profit. They’re just caught up in the doing, creating what they call “the cool factor.” The nerve!

How can they do this? Easy. Our customers let them do it. Consumers have cheerily left their digital doors wide open while they stand at their kitchen counters going through the mail, standing over the waste basket as they rip up the offers we sent them. But hold on: Didn’t they notice that new logo we spent so much time conceptualizing and designing? How could they just throw it away like that? Don’t they realize how hard it was for us to get the budget for that campaign? (I won’t answer these questions because, I suspect, you already know what they are.)

How did we come to live in such a nightmare world, this marketing dystopia? It didn’t happen overnight. If only. These guys go 24/7—and they never stop.

Is there a Sarah Connor out there somewhere, giving birth to a Terminator-foiling John or Joan? Is there anyone equipped to lead us out of this digital abyss? Maybe. Hopefully. But I think we’d do better not to wait for a savior to deliver us from this evil.

Instead, maybe we should make peace with the real winners in this war. You know them. They’re on your white boards in your war rooms. You call them by cute names like “boomers” and “Y-Geners,” while the servers call them by their first names. They’re customers, and it’s time we stopped trying to sell them something and instead started listening to what they want.

Time will tell whether we’ll truly learn from history or simply end up repeating it. But I’ll bet the servers will be able to tell us.

And they’ll have the data to back it up. 

Paul Stawski is a veteran corporate-communications writer who’s authored everything from TV commercial scripts to executive speeches to white papers. He’s currently managing partner of Equilibrium Creative.