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Tastemakers and Filters as Brands

I’ve been following with interest the conversation between Chris Anderson and John Hegal around brands and branding, not least because I find myself in the marketing industry now.  In an age when we have more and more brands and yet less and less loyalty to those brands, at least in so far as there is a greater churn rate of brands and a shorter shelf life especially in FMCGs, what is the value of brands and branding?  The question of what economic value brands have got if any is an important one – it threatens my job! So what intrinsic worth do brands possess?

John’s initial remarks are that we are moving from product centric brands to consumer centric brands:

In broad strokes, we are moving from product-centric brands to customer-centric brands. Product-centric brands represent promises about products (or retailers) – “buy this product from us because you can trust that it will be a quality product at good value.” Customer-centric brands offer a radically different promise – “buy from us because we know and understand you as an individual customer and we can tailor an appropriate bundle of products and services to meet your individual needs better than anyone else.” In other words, customer-centric brands promise that, if you give them their attention, they will give you a better return on attention than anyone else.

The key thing here is the knowledge required of the consumer and the way in which the ‘producer’ or brand engages with that consumer.  He goes on to say that the move to customer centric brands "will create more value than customer segment
brands because they offer superior return on customer attention." Hmm.  Seems to me that that very much depends on the nature of the relationship.  Why should the producer or the brand ‘know’ you any better than you know yourself?  I know my friends very well but sometimes I will get them presents they hate
[my wife included..!].  Why should producers or brands ‘own’ this relationship when consumer can manage the information so much better themselves? 

Chris’s response is typically incisive:

Yes, the center of gravity of brands is shifting from products to customers, but I think John trips over the fuzzy term "-centric". Instead, I suspect that tomorrow’s most powerful brands probably won’t be companies at all. They’ll be the customers themselves.

This is radical. 

As product brand proliferation leads to brand dilution… brand power will shift downstream from the producers to the consumers. So the fact that Jessica Simpson is wearing something becomes more important that what she’s wearing. Likewise for the fact that Instapundit bought that camera. Or that Jon Stewart praised that book (like Oprah did before him)…

So, in a Long Tail market, the brands that matter most are the tastemakers. These are the filters you trust, who point you to the niche (or mainstream) stuff you wouldn’t have found on your own. And because you trust them, you’re willing to follow their recommendations, voyaging down the tail with confidence. In the Long Tail, great filters become brands.

People become the brands. Kind of.  The information that people provide around ‘things’ can become the brand. 

That does not mean that brands will not have ‘values’, attributes and ‘personality’ but these things will be  mediated by a mass of people that exist between the purchaser/consumer and the brand itself.  The ‘lovemarks’ that Saatchi & Saatchi have us believe are the sensual, emotive relationships that people have with products are engendered through being open, where the consumer is heavily involved [as two of the most popular ‘lovemarks’, Apple and Bookcrossing attest too]. The brand will only be as good as those tastemakers or intermediaries that the consumer trusts.  Especially in the long tail.

So if the brands themselves don’t hold the economic value what then of marketeers?  Hmm.  Tricky.  Will companies spend money on their brands in the long  tail?  The short answer is yes, but  the more savvy will invest time, money and resources in developing a closer relationship with their customer and improving their product or service. That way the filters and the people that ultimately provide the information of filters will become your marketeers.    This could exacerbate the speeding up of brand life cycles but need not necessarily do so. Cultivating a strong brand by moving with your customers needs, values and expectations will ensure some longevity because they’ll be ‘living’ the brand.   But is the consumer really now in charge?  Has the power shifted to the consumer?  It’s shifted to the collective and that poses it’s own problems for individuality and identity… seeking out valuable and trusted guides to suit your own ‘self-actualisation’ will be key.  Simple solutions like trying to ‘buy’ the tastemakers to  ‘buzz’ around a product do more harm than good.  Honesty and transparency are key and they are words, words which are difficult to an industry used to dealing in myths.