Brand democratisation

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Brand democratisation an analysis of the paradigm shift that is the socialisation of brands


<ul><li> 1. his paper gets to the heart of how and why the branding environment has changed, and what that means to organisations. It clarifies how todays social revolution affects brands and repositions socialisation not as a channel, nor a discipline-specific concept, but as a critical part of business and marketing moving forward. This paper outlines the characteristics, challenges, risks, and opportunities of the current branding world, in addition to providing deep insights into, and signposts of, how the future branding landscape is being shaped, and the ways in which organisations need to think, prepare themselves, and behave to best capitalise on this new order. This paper is written for you: people who work within brands, or agencies representing brands, who would find it of value to know: 1. How and why the branding environment looks fundamentally different today 2. Numerous examples of companies that have handled these changes in the best and worst ways 3. The pitfalls to avoid and the techniques to survive and commercially succeed in a fast moving world T </li></ul><p> 2. In the last 100 years of commercial mass media and production, brands were mostly created and launched by companies and agencies without a great deal of questioning or re- purposing by the buyer or end user. These organisations were perceived as the specialists with the tools to create and communicate, and it was largely accepted that the creators of branded products and services knew what was best for the public. Up until the proliferation of the Internet, the act of purchasing, and the subsequent discussions about what had been purchased or consumed tended to be limited to retailers and constrained by geography. Customers and consumers were only empowered to the extent of purchase choice, yet even then the choice of options for many was limited. Over a relatively short space of time, this reality metamorphosed. The main driver behind this change has been the increased capability and affordability of technology. Devices available to us now are increasingly able to do more, at a constantly decreasing cost. From the alternative use of products to the creation and communication of opinions, from email systems to website and blog templates, from phones with cameras to online broadcasting tools, from Internet video calls to file sharing clubs, a level playing field has been constructed and mass media creation and exploitation is no longer the sole privilege of established corporations. This shift has enabled the general public to create and shape their own versions of brands and products, and has empowered people to communicate across borders with the masses, including the creators and guardians of brands, thus affecting peoples opinions and purchasing decisions. How we got here 3. The reality of today is one where we see a shift in control of brand creation, message, and perception away from organisations to everyday citizens. This re-distribution of hierarchies has democratised brands whose parent companies are, intentionally or otherwise, at the mercy of people who may not necessarily follow the intended attitudes and behaviours desired by the original brand owners. The term used to describe this paradigm shift is brand democratisation, which we define as such: The transition to a more democratic branding methodology from a previously authoritarian approach; from a company or agency that is perceivably in control to one that intentionally, or unintentionally, incorporates the views of external people. There is no industry more or less likely to experience the effect of brand democratisation, neither is there safety in size nor longevity in the marketplace. There is not a level of revenue or profit that can mitigate risk, and there are few laws that can protect a traditional organisation from public creation, editing or sharing. A stark example of brand democratisation in action is the events online following the horrific BP oil spill of 2010 off the Gulf of Mexico. Approximately one month after the tragic event occurred a first tweet from @BPGlobalPRs appeared stating, We regretfully admit that something has happened off of the Gulf Coast. More to come. What was not immediately clear was that @BPGlobalPR was a parody twitter account. It quickly went viral across the web with hundreds of thousands of people responding to @BPGlobalPR's calls to action. People got involved in unofficially re-purposing BP logos, creating and selling merchandise, making billboards, music, graphic art and videos, in addition a web code was created that graphically covered the official BP website with black making it look like oil was leaking. The scale and speed of public action was larger and faster than any official response from BP, and the general public's perception of BP as a brand became shaped by the messages, activity and progression played out by people unconnected to BP. What this means 4. Typical traits of brand democratisation hroughout our time assisting companies faced with the reality of brand democratisation, we have observed four typical aspects in which brand democratisation differs from any planned and managed activities an organisation gets involved with: Immediacy Lack of control Extremity of sentiment Exponential growth T 5. 1. Immediacy The effect of most media activity happens after a predictable period of time and can therefore be planned around. A press release has a scheduled time and will therefore spread fairly predictably, if at all. Similarly, a banner ad campaign, or a TV commercial, will have a period of time where awareness is built, consideration happens, and conversion or purchase commences. However, in circumstances where brands are being democratised, activity tends to have a far more immediate effect, one that may not be desired. This was the case for Transport For London (TFL) when a member of the public filmed one of its employees insulting an elderly passenger claiming he should be slung under a train. The citizen journalist tweeted about the event and posted the film on his blog. In a short space of time the online community reacted by commenting, retweeting and blogging. One of the contributors was the Mayor of London who tweeted, Appalled by the video. Have asked TFL to investigate urgently. Abuse by passenger or staff is never acceptable1 . In less than 24 hours there were 448,527 tweets about the incident, within 30 hours 207,000 people had watched the video on YouTube, at that time the blog audience added up to 1.2 million, and 1577 blog comments had been written about the event. Within 36 hours the distribution of the story had reached 2.25 million people2 . A few days later the main press joined in, including BBC news. Throughout this social media frenzy, TFLs involvement was conspicuously absent, to the point of not even posting an official response, or comment, on their own website. This clearly illustrates the speed in which events online can take off. This immediacy effect requires organisations to be not only aware of what is going on, but to be prepared to act on it, as and when action is required and appropriate. 6. attempting to control this is like trying to stop waves crashing on a beach by putting your hand out. Lack of control While organisations can control outbound messages like press releases and hierarchical platforms of communication like TV, the digital world is de-centralised and can less feasibly be governed. Due to the sheer volume of editing and publishing, in addition to the low visibility and random areas where information can exist and be shared on the internet, attempting to control this is like trying to stop waves crashing on a beach by putting your hand out. There is little to stop someone screen grabbing an image of a brand, editing it, then sharing it with the rest of the world. There is also little stopping someone from creating their own mass media through a blog, YouTube or twitter account, a reality Qantas faced during a recent crisis. The last thing the airline needed was for the engine failures of one of its aircrafts to be made public in the same week its whole fleet had been grounded amid a dispute with striking staff. The event might have had minimal media coverage had it not been immediately broadcasted by the actor Stephen Fry, whose twitter follower volume at the time placed him in the top 100 tweeters world-wide. From the plane Mr Fry tweeted, Bugger. Forced to land in Dubai. An engine has decided not to play". In the second it took him to press send, over 3 million people knew of the situation3 . 7. Extremity of sentiment When a brand is democratised, the sentiment expressed by the editors and sharers tends to be either very positive or very negative. The main reason being that the drivers behind people creating, editing, and sharing are of an emotive nature. People are likely to get involved if they a) care enough about the entity in question, b) feel strongly about the event or action taken/not taken, or c) see enough value in being involved with the adjustment, or distribution, of the entity in question. United Airlines realised that extremity of sentiment leads to extremity of effort and action when a Canadian musician, Dave Carroll, had his acoustic guitar damaged on a flight and found the airline to be unresponsive and unwilling to compensate. Dave wrote and recorded a song entitled 'United Break Guitars' that became a YouTube hit. At the time of writing this, the video has been viewed 11,272,705 times4 . To put this in context, in roughly the same time frame Barack Obamas acceptance speech had been viewed 5,677,373 times on YouTube5 . 8. Exponential growth Audience size and type in traditional marketing is relatively predictable. An expected volume of people, from a certain demographic, listen to a radio show, visit the cinema, or drive past a poster at any given time. However, in an empowered society where the public has access to multi- directional, highly interactive, real-time communication tools, there is no such thing as a predictable audience size. The way information and content spreads is therefore rarely linear, it is rather exponential, and so is its impact, as illustrated by some of the examples we discussed previously. This exponential growth can, and will, have a direct impact on a companys bottom line. Let us look at a simplified hypothetical, yet realistic, example where a product worth 400 is spoken about negatively online by someone with 125 readers on their blog. With a traditional mindset one would think the risk of the negative opinion spreading would be limited to 125, a figure unlikely to threaten to an organisation. However, if 1 of those 125 people has 35,000 twitter followers, and 20% of them retweet to an average of 500 followers each, the negative opinion about the brand can be visible to over 4 million people within minutes. Imagine if 1% of these people change their purchase decisions as a result of the negativity, this would result in 1.7 million in lost sales. Organisations often remain oblivious to the exponential growth of communications until it is too late, and they may forever remain unaware of the lost revenue caused by the unsupported communication. 9. ow a company reacts following a brand being democratised shapes public perception as much as any other stimuli and communication managed by an organisation. It is as crucial to the health of a brand to react and act in an appropriate way to any events caused by this new reality, as it is to get the broader communications and marketing mix right. Organisations who create or represent brands tend to behave in one of the following ways to uninitiated and/or uncontrollable events. Stay silent/do nothing Seek to silence through censorship and/or litigation Get involved Let us look at each of these in greater detail. Likely reactions H 10. Stay silent/do nothing Staying silent, or doing nothing is the most common behaviour of all. This was the case when an advertising campaign created by the English Conservative party to reassure voters that there would be no national health spending cuts backfired. It was not the campaigns political message that caught the publics interest, but rather the party leader David Camerons unbelievable baby smooth skin. Rumours of airbrushing started to circulate. Spoofs of the campaign were created, aided by, which provided the public with a template of the ad allowing people to create different versions of the ad using their own words. To this day the silence around the campaign stretches so far, it is even unclear which agency actually created it6 . No one knows why the English Conservative party remained silent; however, an organisations decision to stay silent tends to be due to one, or more, of the following factors. Lack of awareness of an event having taken place, and/or of its importance Lack of preparation to ensure appropriate action is taken The belief that an event will blow over relatively quickly A strategic decision not to act 11. Lack of awareness Being aware requires an organisation to accept the new paradigm caused by socialisation, and to not underestimate the likelihood of something happening, or the importance the event may have. In our experience, organisations tend to place little significance on uncontrolled external factors potentially affecting their brand positively or negatively. These companies are also often unaware of, not only what could happen, but of what is actually already happening in the public space that presents opportunities or risks to their brand. Lack of preparation Lack of awareness and understanding is one of the key reasons for organisations not being prepared to handle situations caused by brand democratisation. Another key reason is lack of internal processes and resources to act appropriately. We will discuss this, and how organisations can prepare, later in this paper. The belief that an event will blow over relatively quickly As it is impossible to accurately predict the volatile nature of brand democratisation, the belief that an event will blow over relatively quickly can only be out of hope rather than reason. In fact the whole view of events being linear and judged in terms of time-based damage is concerning. The reality is that even if events do blow over quickly, damage may still have been done, as we will see later in this paper. Strategic decision not to act There are cases when doing nothing and staying silent is the most suitable behaviour for an organisation. One strong reason for silence is to avoid litigation. We recently worked with a travel aggregator who had no choice but to not respond to people criticising their partners, such as hotels and airlines, even when such criticism had a negative impact on their brand, in order to avoid legal retribution. Another reason for staying silent is to avoid what are known as 'flame wars'. These are essentially...</p>