Sunday 4 January 2015

The Future of Brand Building is Triangular

This essay was submitted to, and shortlisted for, the Admap Prize 2014 and is reproduced with the kind permission of warc.

This essay is an argument for a new shape. In order to recognize how to now shape a brand in the post-digital world one needs to acknowledge the shape of events around it. I will argue that everything in the communications world should now take on a triangular shape. Brands are no longer built in a bilateral way by building relationships with consumers alone; they are now built in a triangular way by building relationships with three partners: consumers, government/regulators and the wider community. In order to build the triangular brands of the future, we are going to need triangular skillsets, and that means nurturing and recruiting triangular people.

People Build Brands

Are brands built by people or built by ideas? We most often reference the Brand Idea or the Advertising Idea as the best method to build a brand, and much commentary has been devoted to how these ideas, big or small, and their models and frameworks, have changed since the coming of the information age and communications became ‘digital’. But it is an often over-looked fact that brands are as much built and sustained by people, as they are built and sustained by an idea.

When I recently interviewed around twenty of the first-generation planners who had worked in JWT and BMP around 1968 to investigate the origins of planning, I was struck by just how much these planners moulded, influenced and in some cases created the brands they worked with. Brands like Persil, Oxo, Kellogs’s Cornflakes, whose fate often lay in the imagination of the planner, alongside their understanding of consumer behaviour, in order to drive what the brand would say and do.  It made me reconsider the importance of the people who build brands, particularly with regard to the post-digital era of communication in which we now find ourselves.

Now more so than ever, brands have people behind them. That is to say not only visible spokespeople but also the invisible hoards of people literally behind the brand communication, typing away on Twitter and Facebook and all kinds of other social media, posing as the human side of the corporate brand and having a ‘personal’ or ‘one to one’ conversation with anyone who wants to engage. Who are these people? How much control do they have over what the brand says? And to whom it speaks? It sounds a trivial question but it isn’t at all. These days every idea is pumped out into social media in the form of ‘beta’ testing and if it is taken up immediately by enough people it is considered a success. It certainly is one way to create momentum and ‘noise’ around a brand but is it the right way to build a brand, in a digital world?

I would argue that the industry has lost its brand-building leaders. In the hands of social media or community managers, brands have become reactive rather than responsive; have sacrificed depth of meaning for breadth of attention; and in many cases are always-on rather than always-to-be-counted-on. And the net effect is like that of a wind-tunnel test in the car market: brands are increasingly all looking and sounding the same. It’s time to fix that. Let’s create a new generation of brand leaders to build and maintain brands in the digital world and let’s allow them to do this important job properly. As we now enter the fully digital world in which everything and everyone is connected, there has been no more important job in the history of brands, than the one to be done now.

I say this because I believe that, in a digital world, brands are no longer built in a bilateral way through a simplistic relationship between a manufacturer and a consumer. That was the case for many years in a world in which products, in particular, fast moving consumer goods products, dominated our lives; a world in which efficiency was our primary need and the solution that brands could supply. Now we don’t seek efficiency so much as we seek connectivity. In a digital world we need to be connected in order to make anything work for us or around us. In a connected world, at any moment at which you are ‘disconnected’ you are vulnerable. And that goes for brands too.

In the last few years we have seen a few brands become literally ‘disconnected’. And the net effect of this is a feeling that they have somehow been ‘caught out’. They deserve to be

punished by consumers if government isn’t going to meter out any retribution.  Do I really want to place my savings in a bank that has been found guilty of fixing the Libor rate? Do I really want to buy my books and DVDs from an online general store that avoids paying tax? Do I really want to spend 1 in 8 of my hard-earned pounds at a supermarket that serves me horsemeat in my ready meals rather than the beef its packaging claims is inside? Do I want to spend my money anywhere that is not prepared to pay its employees a living wage?

The reason these situations have become so public and have continued to form part of the discussion and debate is because we now expect everything, including brands, to be connected. The world of brands is now interconnected, and in a digitally interconnected world a brand cannot wear two faces. It cannot show one face to consumers and then another to the local community it impacts or employs, and perhaps yet other face to government and regulators. In a connected world it only has permission to show one face, the same face, to all and everyone.

The Rise of the Triangular Brand

Hence the emergence of what I would call the Triangular Brand: the brand that has three sides, three corners, points in three separate directions but itself has a congruent, stable and honest shape. A brand that is the same from every angle you look at it. In fact, in ancient history or philosophical terms, the triangle is the shape that symbolizes harmony and creativity. And that is what brand-builders in the digital world of the 21st Century should be aiming for when they steward a brand, they should be ‘building’ into their brand, harmony and creativity. They should be building a Triangular Brand.

How can one build a triangular brand? A brand that is connected and has truth and consistency across its consumer, government and social community communication?

I am reminded of some classic Toblerone advertising:

“Toblerone out on its own.
Triangular chocolate, that’s Toblerone.
Made from triangular honey from triangular bees
and triangular almonds from triangular trees”

If you want to build a triangular brand, you have to build it using elements that are themselves, triangular.

That means people who have the skill-set to bridge the current divides between consumer, government and society. One could argue I suppose that all one needs to do is find individuals from each of these areas and build a super-triangular team. But as I argued earlier, what is lacking in the digital world, is not collaboration across teams of diverse people; what is lacking is leadership. A ‘fish rots from the head down’ as the Chinese would say, and if your leader is not triangular themself, then what hope is there for those that take their direction from him or her; what hope is there for the brand that they are building? A triangular brand needs a triangular element at the top: it needs a triangular leader.

To investigate this further, we need to go on a slight detour, via the Harvard Business Review, into the world of management science.  In an article entitled ‘Triple Strength Leadership’, Nick Grove and Matthew Thomas highlighted why and how executives need to move easily amongst business, government and social spheres. They used an example of a Coca-Cola executive solving a major problem the company was facing in South India. The company was facing opposition to its water consumption and had been banned from soft-drink production in the region as a result. An external consultant, Jeff Seabright, was brought into Coca-Cola to develop a strategy for sustainable water stewardship in the position of Head of Environment. To cut a long story short, he solved the problem but much of his success was put down to, what the authors would call, tri-sector skills. To quote them:

 ‘Jeff Seabright is a rare breed. He epitomizes what Joseph Nye has called a “tri-sector athlete”, someone who can engage and collaborate across the private, public and social sectors. Drawing on his cross-sector experience, Seabright can appreciate the needs, aspirations and incentives of people in all three sectors and speak their language”.

And indeed, we should be building brands in the digital age, that themselves are connected across all three spheres, and can speak all three languages. But it will take leaders who are triangular themselves to create these kinds of triangular brands.

Jeff Seabright’s career had taken him from working in policy planning at Texaco, to that of a diplomat within the Foreign Service, the US Senate and on President Clinton’s task force on Climate Change. He had also worked within USAID, and in his proposals to Coca-Cola used this to good effect when he established some joint projects with USAID as part of a sustainability initiative.  Contrast this with most of the CMOs responsible for brand-building today, or the heads of advertising agencies, media groups, or even planners. How many can say that they have triangular experience? Are they then fit to build brands today, let alone those of the future?

There are some examples though. Here in the UK, Martha Lane-Fox, started her career at an IT and media consultancy firm where her first project was for British Telecom, and was called ‘what is the internet?’ She then founded her own company called, an online travel and gift business and successfully floated it.  She then joined the boards of Marks & Spencer and Channel 4 and was later appointed as the UK Government’s Digital Inclusion Champion to head a two-year campaign to make the British public more computer literate. She then launched the charity GO ON UK to make the UK the world’s most digitally skilled nation. She joined the House of Lords last year becoming its youngest female member. As stunning as her career has been imagine if some of this experience, and its triangulation, could be used to build a brand. In some ways, it is: it is building Brand GB, but in terms of corporate life, if she was leading the development of a food conglomerate brand or the world’s biggest technology platform, how coherent, how meaningful and how influential would that brand be? Just imagine.

Searching for the Triangular People of Tomorrow

In a time when friction between the three sectors is at an all time high (a cursory look at the recent TFL tube strikes in London, gives one a glimpse of the never-ending blame game that continues, between the government, the service providers and unions, and the end users - businesses and consumers).  Businesses often regard NGOs and government as bureaucratic and inept; government often see the private sector as individualistic and opportunistic, and

society at large has lost trust in both government and business with regard to their ability to build in any sense of care towards people or planet. It is one reason that Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, hypothetically a big thought, went nowhere. No-one could envisage the three different species of people working together. That was because Big Society was an objective that had the wrong strategy behind it. The right strategy would have been to find triangular leaders who could bridge the divides and make sense of it all for each side.

Likewise for brands, if built properly for the 21st Century, actually brands that could broker these different positions, and in particular should be built by triangular people with the tri-sector experience who can speak all sectors’ language. If I were Eric Schmidt or Tim Cooke, or Mark Zuckerburg, I would be looking to engage leaders with this kind of triangular experience as the themes of data privacy, advertising to children, illiteracy, and pornography come to the fore for everyone - consumers, governments and social communities – and must be answered, rather than ignored, by these brands

But this is not just a concern for the technology brands, born in the digital world, in some ways it is of most concern for some of the most established 20th Century brands responsible for one of our most precious global resources: our food. And if I were Nestle, Unilever, or P&G I would be looking at who has the triangulation of experience that could ensure the brands in my portfolio were triangular too. As issues of health, wellness and nutrition escalate in a world in which more people are now dying from obesity than starvation, I would be seeking brand-builders who have the triangular experience to build me one brand that can speak three languages that says the same thing, to consumers, government regulators and social communities.

In summary, I have not argued for the new position of a Chief Triangulation Officer because that would just be an adjunct to an existing team. I am arguing for a rethink of the team. In fact not the team, but a complete re-think of the kind of leader that is now required to build brands in the digital world.  There are many layers of leadership that exist as one builds a brand: the CEO, the CMO, the brand manager, the planner, the customer experience manager, the innovation or NPD manager, and the head of PR and communications. I am arguing that alongside the CEO or CMO having a triangular CV, at every one of the other layers triangulation should be encouraged.  If I am to think about career advice that I would now be giving to planners in my own department, I would be suggesting they seriously consider how, if they have only ever worked in the private sector, they find ways to gain government experience and become involved in more social and community initiatives, whether those be local or global. Today, on 16th February, an article in the Sunday Times quotes the recent DEMOS report findings that today’s teenagers are more highly aware than ever of social issues, are keen to volunteer and are determined to use their digital skills to change society for the better. In a separate survey of teachers, 66% found that the most popular words they use to describe this generation are ‘caring’, ‘enthusiastic’ and ‘hard-working’   If we believe that these Millennials are also the most marketing-savvy too, then we can see a generation of triangular people ready to build triangular brands, on the horizon. And what a great portent that spells for all of us for tomorrow.


“Triple-Strength Leadership”, Nick Lovegrove and Matthew Thomas, in Harvard Business Review, published September 2013

Wikipedia, entry on ‘Martha Lane-Fox’ as at 16th February 2014

“Today’s Teenagers do give a damn” Sunday Times, 16th February 2014

Brand, CMO, Coca Cola, culture, Demos, digital, future, HBR, martha lane-fox, skills, toblerone, trends

Friday 16 March 2012

SXSW #3: Tactivism

So it's day 4 and I feel exhausted. Not because the SXSW talks are too much or the sun is sapping my energy. But because I feel under an immense pressure to be energetic about a cause or an issue every waking minute of the day.

Yesterday I attended an interesting panel on 'brands as patterns'. There were some insightful points made around the analogous areas of music and architecture - around the idea of choreographing experiences so that people feel they are both familiar and surprised by the brand. For this reason they posit that in the future interaction designers rather than marketing managers will be the brand guardians (but that's another blogpost!).

Anyway the talk then went off into the need for every brand to have 'a values based mission that empowers people'.

If felt very much that if you are going to say it's not about brand narrative anymore, (only about user experience) then you can support your case by hiding behind some lofty cause-related position that renders your argument acceptable.

Time and again I could hear the drum beat of activism underneath nearly every presentation.

Social activism came out loud and clear in Biz Stone's presentation. In a very compelling, evangelical talk he took us through the principles on which he built Twitter. Passionate about baking-in good causes to the business he creates he stated that 'the future of marketing is philanthropy'. Our businesses always have to be doing something to help people. He suggested that instead of Coke spending money on advertising they should just supply red cups to the World Food Programme, claiming 'what great marketing is that!'

No-one here seems to understand that the only reason Coke could do this is because of the equity it has built up over years, the meaning it has created and the brand story it has told.

And anyway I can't imagine that awareness of such an association would go beyond the recipients, the digerati and the left-wing press. Coca Cola, a brand built on its strength of distribution surviving by only doing this? I don't think so.

The day before, I attended a conference panel on celebrities and causes. The main thrust of the argument being that celebs should only get involved in the issues they really care about. Lady Gaga was held up as the shining model of getting this right. Her support of "don't ask, don't tell', LBGT rights and anti-bullying. Strangely these sorts of issues have helped to recruit so many little monsters that she now has something like 4m followers. Which came first though, the activism or the marketing?

Sean Parker and Al Gore preached to a packed crowd about the evils of the TV medium, about how TV has gatekeepers, how anti-democratic it is as a medium for politics and how the Internet has returned to us a form of political town-square debate that will out-popularise TV in the long run.

Sean Parker who now runs a company called 'causes' (where he matches issue based groups with politicians) and Gore talked about how TV monopolises media with the messages of only those that can afford it and what people now have with digital is a set of tools, through which they can take action. In fact it is their duty to take action.

They failed to see that only the richest too get best access to the Internet as an advertising medium; that social platforms aren't object but value-laden too; that progress lies not within a group of people who all feel compelled to say they 'like' the same thing but in conflict, dissent and debate; and that not everyone's opinion is as valid as another just because 'we all have a voice now'.

The idea that traditional media is corrupted but new media isn't just seems extremely naive to me.

The author of "You are not a gadget" was much more informed and expert around this subject in another talk on the good and bad of technology, and he said:

"Facebook has two versions of you. One you can see (your page) and one you can't (your algorithm) which determines which ads you see, when, and what happens and doesn't happen in your news feed".

He quite rightly called for democracy and empowerment in new media saying: "People have to own their own information in order to be empowered by it". Exactly.

In all this talk of collaborative consumption and shared ownership and loveliness and community - we seem to have forgotten the political power brokers who sit behind these new media platforms pulling the information-access strings!

And so overall there is an unspoken political doctrine of SXSW which says your brand must have a cause; your brand must behave like an activist; and your users must be activists too in order to be properly engaged. Activism is 'politics made popular'. And it will make your brand popular.

And then there's a smaller group encouraging us to be activists in the area of data privacy - to fight against the very platforms that enable us to be activists in social and political issues worldwide.

So whilst much of the cause-based initiatives i saw over these days are laudable I am left feeling that the constant call for very public 'activism' is often a justification for some more private marketing 'tactics'. These involve using and abusing personal data of people on a mass scale. A distraction at best; a manipulation at worst.

One thing is for sure: 'Tactivism' is the new mode of marketing; whether people see it as such or not.

SXSW #2: L-Shaped Data

So there seems to be a crossover from two of the emerging themes of the first few days. One is the huge importance of personal (or Big) data; and the other is that of local and the value of information and exchanges based around locality.

Not that anyone else is but I'm going to call this crossover, 'L-shaped data'.

That's because I think location will prove to be the biggest disruptor of the next ten years, transforming the very nature of the lives we live, the services we enjoy, the jobs we do and the experiences we enjoy. I predict that 'local' will be a bigger transformational trend than either e-commerce, or social media has been so far and that it is locality that will unlock our willingness as individuals to freely give our data away to invisible sources and intelligent services.

Yesterday Steven Levy (the Wired journalist and author of In The Plex) talked about the idea of Epic Tech Wars and about those of the past and those he predicted for the future. One common to both was the battle between Open and Closed; between Freedom and Control. He took us through the history of Hacktervism from as early as 1959 and it was clear that as more personal data enters the public domain, a battle between Protection ( govt control) and Privacy ( personal freedom) is set to take place.

But there is a third way and that seems to be around setting data free within a local setting. So it's local govt control as well as local community freedoms. In fact those people and institutions that are defining a local code of behaviour are the same people and institutions that are opening up their local data. It's a local quid pro quo.

I came to this realisation during a session entitled Cities in 2032. A company called New Urban Mechanics talked about an app they've developed called 'Street Bump' in which the sensors within the smartphone detect smooth or otherwise driving conditions, record this and upload it to form a picture of where local road repairs are required.

Chris Volinsky of AT&T took us through the results of an experiment they conducted in New Jersey in which they took 6 months worth of data from all the phones in a particular city, anonymised and analysed it and started to identify and then solve city issues around commuter routes into town, or traffic around schools.

And Eric Paulos shared a fascinating point of view on the growth of 'Citizen Scientists' showing how with sensors in phones everyday people could not only input local data but also analyse it themselves to start solving problems in their local area. Imagine if we could tell from aggregated local data whether a particular bus route was the most efficient for most people and as a result of the data we find a better one. People feel engaged, effective and an active part of their community. He quotes Obama "we can't win the future with the government of the past". Right. So once governments cotton on to this availability of local data thing, everything in every local community will change.

And with burgeoning companies that have Local at their heart, like Living Social, an 'L-Shaped' revolution is guaranteed. Their CEO, Tim O'Shaughnessy talked not only about how they want to become the default choice for 'local' but how in order to do so they are expanding from online to offline in order to service local communities. He talked about their truly fascinating plan to launch a physical store/space in Washington DC to help local businesses put on events and host branded experiences. The example being a local sushi restaurant that wants to run a series of sushi classes. They can afford the teacher-chef but can't afford to close for the evening to put on the events. Enter the Living Social space to the rescue.

And finally, Amber Case of took us through a mind-spinning uber-intellectual history of the Cyborg, and ended with the notion that "the next generation of location is ambient". She explained the new technologies and partnerships behind the geoloqi service: a technology that allows our actions in the real world to trigger virtual annotations to pop up that relate to our exact locations. For example one can put a 'geo-fence' around the local bus stop and as you take your bus journey, without having to think, act, press a button or pull down any data, your phone will alert you to get off at the right stop. As she explains: "information flows at you, and the interface disappears; you don't have to search or even ask a question". One of the most useful trial applications of this technology is the geo-fencing of all the local restaurants and the aggregation of all their restaurant reviews to produce "Don't Eat That", warning you not to eat somewhere you might well be about to enter.

So local is where it's at! And after a couple of years of the machismo of BIG Data it feels like small data might triumph. The micro data contributions we make on a daily basis around our local areas are proving to be the most priceless. So I would say watch out for an increase in "L-shaped data", in "L-shaped businesses" and in "L-shaped government initiatives".

As Bing Gordon said on the first day I arrived here, "Local is the extra vector the Internet can bring to bear on us". And everything I'm seeing and hearing would suggest that is very much the case.

SXSW #1: Becoming SuperBetter

I guess that's the overall theme of SXSW, isn't it: how do we all become a bit (or a lot) better through our gaining of knowledge; our making of new and vibrant connections; and our contributions through the brands we work on to make everyday life a bit better.

So I was intrigued to attend Jane McGonigal's 'Crash Course on becoming SuperBetter'. I have seen her TED talks, read much of her work yet still wasn't quite prepared for what a truly inspirational speaker she is. Young, attractive, energetic and above all having come back from a life-threatening accident/illness, totally irrepressible. She started the talk with her mission: 'To increase the lifespan of everyone in this room by 7.5 minutes'. OK then, she has everyone's attention!

Her argument is as follows.

People are criticising the games industry and gamers of sucking the life blood out of real world participation and as a result we're becoming a population of dumb-ass gaming droids who put mindless entertainment before meaning.

BUT her research and that of others shows that of all the biggest regrets in life that people have, actually games and gaming can alleviate and potentially address them all.

We learn that the top deathbed regrets include wishing we had worked less hard (tick); had seen more of our friends (tick); let ourselves be happier (tick); had the courage to express our true selves (tick); and lived a life true to our dreams not what others expected of us (tick tick tick)... Again she has us all. There's a weird chill of connectedness that's descended on the audience. It has made 1000 individuals in the room feel like one universal being.

Jane presses on channeling research stat after research stat proving that game-related activities actually make us better. For example: Stanford Uni have research that proves that your avatar can make you more confident and determined in real life; having just two people you can express yourself to is more important for long term health than watching what you ingest; experiencing three positive experiences for every one negative emotion keeps hope alive - if you can find three tiny things a day that make you feel good - you'll be emotionally happier.

She invited her audience to carry out four tasks that would build up our physical, emotional, mental and social resilience. And you can do them yourself right now if you download the SuperBetter app or visit And her point was that in the time it took to carry these playful activities out, we have actually improved our resilience - that 90 seconds has given us 24 hours of better resilience. And she had; she had given us a 'Futureboost'.

But the bigger point she is making is that there is going to be an exponential growth in gaming-type learning and self-improvement, enabled through digital, interactivity and social. Her premise is that we are going to go far beyond pursuing happiness - we want to progress and achieve - and improve. "It is not the pursuit of happiness but the happiness of pursuit". Boom.

Her rock solid belief in the fact that gaming can encourage better human behaviour in us is clear. Gaming makes us Courageous (helping us determine who might be enemies and how to seek out allies). Games give us Agency, the confidence that the actions we take will have an effect in the world. And Games help us value time, and we commit time and energy to the things that are important to us. She makes the point that the definition of 'virtual' is not about un-real but is about capacity, the about-to-ness, or Possibility of something to become a reality....

And gaming trains us into possibility - the possibility to problem solve; to find allies and fight enemies; and overcome challenges. They give us skills in the virtual world that positively enhance us in the real world. She is almost religious in her credo that a life of play is a life that is SuperBetter in every way. And you'll find it's pretty difficult to argue she is wrong. But more importantly, why would you want to?

Of course I have to point out that if we weren't having to stop every 30 minutes to recharge our phones, that there was actually some network coverage from AT&T or T-Mobile deep inside the concrete convention centre, and the registration queue could take less than the obligatory 2 hours, that wouldn't even be SuperBetter, it would just be a bit better. Which is more than enough better for me.

Sunday 30 October 2011

Why should currency be common?

The more I think about the future of money; the future of rewards; the future of social media and the future of mobile....the more i think that we're talking about just one thing, not four.

Last week I saw WIRED's editor, David Rowan, deliver his trends talk at the IPA 44, and whilst it covered a lot of trends we've all been thinking about for a while, the sheer number of examples he gave of initiatives, start-ups, services and platforms that are already live and exhibiting these trends really bought home the sheer pace and acceleration of everyday change that we are now undergoing.

He mentioned Blippy which publishes your all your purchasing behaviour in an attempt to harness the idea of social currency and leverage it to encourage others who trust in you to purchase in similar ways. Swipely geolocates your spending on your cards suggesting new places and products to followers. And Whipcar, a neighbour-to-neighbour car rental scheme where you can set your own prices dependent upon whether you need to use someone's car for hours, days or weeks. No waste. No risk. No doubt. The common theme that I took away was that we are seeing a massive transformation in the very idea of value.

Now, add onto all that, the idea that we are giving away more and more personal data to platforms such as Facebook and Google, who will soon recognise our identity via face recognition, our personal mobile number, or our unique position in a social circle. As we start to barter for the best deals on products and services, and we use our data (and those of others) to do so - whether that is our location, our connections, our social influence, our monthly subscription, our user content generation...and lots more besides - aren't we developing our own currencies with which we trade?

The idea that currency should be macro seems to me to belong to the twentieth century. In the twenty-first century, we are developing our own individual currencies.

For example, say I have a mobile on a carrier and i spend £45 a month, and because I use their location based service offers at least 10 times a month, and follow them on twitter and tweet to my 1,000 follows every time i redeem their promotions - I am worth something more as a customer to them than someone who has no social footprint, doesn't use services beyond calling, but still pays £45 a month on their contract. I have developed my own currency with which I should be able to trade with them. I agree to tweet every redemption if they cut my bill by 10%, for example.

Similarly, anyone starting to use an NFC transactional system on their mobile might leverage their purchasing behaviour (whether number of transactions or total value of transactions), their social footprint and the number of '1's they register across the internet, to earn them a better deal when it comes to purchases they might come to make through the Google ecosystem.

It's not difficult to see that every individual will have their own 'value' and will be seen as being of a different 'value' by brands. It's a new type of exchange in which we start to use our personal data and digital behaviour as leverage for a better deal. And brands use the same personal data to keep us loyal through rewards.

So the question is will each of us develop our own currency, that is uniquely tied to our digital identity? Will I become my own currency, the value of which is based on my social footprint, the way I spend money, the things I spend it on, the amount of sustainable purchases I make, the number of positive ratings and reviews iI contribute across the web? Will 'tracey-lou's be worth more or less than pounds or pence? and how will I rank against other individuals' currencies. And who will monitor the exchange rate of a tracey-lou v another currency? Google? Amazon? Facebook?

A world of 7 billion currencies is a difficult thing to contemplate but the more we do, the quicker we'll get to a world in which currency is no longer about commonality, but has individuality at its heart.

Sunday 14 August 2011

The Rise and Fall of Free: The week in which FREE finally went up in flames

How shocking it was to see those pictures on TV of rioting, looters helping themselves to trainers, plasma screens and mobile phones: brazenly walking into shops and clearing the shelves of more goods than they could carry. How shocking it must have been for marketers in particular. Haven’t we been telling our clients about the declines in materialism in favour of experiences; how there is an accelerated trend in people buying on the basis of ‘values’ as much as ‘value’: and how people are redefining what makes them happy by making more mindful purchases as they start to live with less and adopt a back-to-basics mindset. Well the events of last week seem to have punctured that theory.

What I saw was something closer to what has been described as ‘shopping with violence’ by groups of people who felt it their right to acquire as much as they could to get something for nothing. Some of the looters when interviewed on Radio 4 admitted that they didn’t need trainers themselves they were just taking the chance to get something for free.

But is it any surprise to us that our society has spawned a certain group who feel it is their right to acquire things for free? For how long have we been peddling the ‘magic of free’? From entering a free draw; enjoying a free drink; downloading content for free; and reading our news for free, to free interest rates, and even free housing. Is it any wonder that if you push the concept of free so far, that not only do you end up with freesumers….but freeloaders?

Now, of course, the reasons behind the riots are truly complex and don’t lie in just one area, but the contributing factor made by the marketing of ‘free’ is one element that has been strangely overlooked by the media, preferring to dwell on the political subject of ‘cuts’ than on the economic subject of ‘costs’. But this was a riot cultivated by a culture of acquisition, not of austerity. The evidence is right there before us in the TV pictures of looters: people who have been described as ‘mindless’, who value nothing but their ability to acquire what is not theirs to take. If this is about politics, it is about the politics of price.

Because if you tell people over a long enough period of time that the things they most desire can be acquired for free, you are eroding the very frameworks for understanding value. We can theorise about the post-recessionary changes that are taking place in the ‘value exchange’ but the unkind truth is that in a market where everything is free, there IS no value exchange.

Many a psychological study has been recorded on the effects of presenting products as ‘free’. Perhaps some of the best by Kristina Shampan’er and Dan Ariely’: ‘How small is zero price? The true value of free products’ in which they show that ‘zero cost’ encourages people to act in a much more irrational manner than if they had to weigh up the opportunity costs of something that came with a price tag.

Interestingly, the digital noughties (which perhaps we should now rename the ‘freebies’) could perhaps be held partly accountable for the ‘mindless mindset’ that fuelled some of last week’s events. When Clay Shirky paraphrases Szabo and others who have written on the idea of ‘mental transaction costs’ (the energy required to weigh up what the cost of something might be) he comes to the conclusion that: “The only business model that delivers money from sender to receiver with no mental transaction costs is theft” – or if you like, something that you don’t own but that you can take for free. In the digital world we have an expectation of ‘free’; and as the digital world and the physical world become one and the same thing, can we really be surprised when people have rising expectations that what they want should be free?

Looting online has been going on for ages, and as a society we have been happy to overlook it. But who pays for the data required to freely enjoy a Youtube clip on an iPhone? Who pays to play Farmville; who pays for the ability to send messages via BBM? The answer seems quite clear now: we all pay.

Free has been used as a mass distribution mechanic. And those looters last week felt that some non-digital distribution should be coming their way. This is not at all to excuse that repugnant behaviour, but it is to raise the possibility that in a world of free, where acquisition is presented as having no consequence, that requires no thought – where no one pays, so there is no cost - we are raising not a generation of free-thinkers, but a generation of non-thinkers.

A generation who do not have to calculate risk and reward. A generation that has grown up with free information, free publishing and free distribution at the heart of many of the products it now consumers. Chris Anderson wrote eloquently and convincingly about the new internet-fuelled freemium models, promising us that £0.00 would be the future of business, and that for businesses to survive they should become two-sided and learn to cross-subsidise. This is all true. But it does of course rely on ‘hiding’ the true cost of something that people might believe themselves to be getting for free.

And here’s the rub: years ago, many of the Platonic philosophers, as Ariely points out, were very suspicious of zero: because zero was seen as ‘void’, and since that was a concept that was impossible, neither was zero possible. As marketers, we have used free to mean zero, and the truth is that it is just not possible. Nothing is ever truly free, nor should something we want people to truly value, be flogged as free. We must redefine free as part of a trade, and not as zero. Like freedom itself, ‘free’ is not a right; but a responsibility. As such, it always comes with consequences and we must be responsible enough to spell those out.

Friday 17 June 2011

The Accountable Consumer

Thinking a lot about the post-recessionary consumer, I went back to John Gerzema's talk on the 'post-crisis consumer'.

It's fascinating really because he gives numerous examples of how consumer mindsets and behaviour has changed as a result of the recession; and also how brands and services are responding to this to deliver to a new set of needs.

His big point really is that consumers are now looking to buy into Value + Values - looking for brands that will deliver both great value and will do the right thing ( a bit of a Triple Bottom Line theme) but this seems a bit high falutin' to me when people can't afford to buy an extra tin of beans, or are having to feed their family for a fiver!

But i think what is interesting is that he is highlighting the themes of responsibility, accountability and sustainability. And he seems to pick up on an important shift taking place in which consumers are starting to, and having to, take more responsibility for their spending. They are de-risking; being extra resourceful in how they spend and on what they spend, often collaborating with others (as we know from collaborative consumption); and (like in the Depression) wanting to get better educated and skilled so that they can make more informed choices - and therefore, the right decision.

So, building on this thought, we could say that we are entering the age of 'The Accountable Consumer'.

The value exchange is indeed changing, away from consumers just expecting to be rewarded with great value; towards an idea in which the consumer takes some responsibility for the scale and type and even timing of rewards that are due them. The consumer might be empowered - but rather than just bullying brands, he can work with brands, to gain an overall better sense of reward. Think of it as 'buying the right thing + doing the right thing + enjoying the responsible thing'. There must be a sense of satisfaction knowing that you have been more mindful in your spending (ie that is an emotional reward that sits alongside the material reward of whatever it is you have required).

No longer are people being sold to. They are an active part of the purchasing process.

It made me think that maybe we are seeing a journey over time from the Age of Excess (pre-recession) through to the Age of Austerity (which is now in 2010/11) and will in turn soon become The Age of Accountability.

Of course, it's not just the consumer who is having to be more accountable; brands are too. Gerzema talks about brands now paying dividends to their customers (we might say 'rewards') and this seems a lovely mirroring of the consumer and brand sharing the same values - and hence both being equally accountable for purchasing - like a 'we're in this together' kind of mentality.

So, we could go one step further and say that the Accountable Consumer will now choose the Accountable Brand. And the Accountable Brand now seeks an Accountable Consumer (one they can build a sustainable relationship with).

And that could be the new value-exchange: one based on shared accountability. ie a shared accountability for spending, saving, - a sharing of responsibility. Consumers now will only have relationships with the brands, services, products, or other people who share the same values. And a brand only has a relationship with fans rather than random promiscuous purchasers - we are all taking more responsibility for what we attract and what we choose.

So let's not pretend consumers are having it all their own way (i don't think any consumer actually feels that!).... It's far more about an accountable consumer than an empowered consumer. A combination of rights + duties, not just rights per se - because that's what got us into this mess, in the first place.