Digital era redefines brand identity

Earlier this month I was fortunate to hear David Plouffe, campaign manager for Barack Obama, (described in the victory speech as “the unsung hero of this campaign”), talk about the role of the extraordinarily imaginative use of so-called “new media” in the election of the first YouTube-era President.

Simon Clift
Simon Clift

It was another eloquent example of how the media scene has been permanently redefined. And we consumer goods marketers can learn a thing or two from the case study that has been copiously documented. Because I believe that, for many of us, the speed of change has far outpaced our ability as brand custodians to accompany it.

Sure, for some companies or business models (recorded music and photography are the obvious ones) the breathtaking changes in technology have already spelt doom. But the rest of us, for whom predictions of the abrupt demise of television advertising have been inevitably shown to be premature, have – after maybe an initial scare – been seduced into a false sense of security about the profundity of the changes that the internet will drive.

The celebrated examples of alternatives to television advertising illustrate how fascinating the communication opportunities offered by the digital world are. But much more interesting for me is the bigger and, I believe, often glossed-over point, that the fundamental nature and role of brands is changing.

In the old world of top-down, one-way communication, a company told you what it wanted you to hear, and you had the choice to take it or leave it. In the new world of transparency and ready-access to amazing quantities of detailed information on just about everything, companies will be made much more accountable for what they say and do; for their points of view on issues of concern to consumers; and against an agenda set by the consumer. The reason it’s exciting to be in marketing now is because it is brands that are the vehicle through which consumers do this. Brands are the meeting point between consumers’ desires and concerns on the one hand, and companies’ commitments on the other.

What are those consumer concerns? Increasingly they’re broader and deeper than a simple demand for functionality. Influences on consumers come from every quarter, and brands have become conversation platforms where academics, celebrities, experts and key opinion formers discuss functional, emotional, environmental and even social topics.

And since the conversation is no longer one-way and restricted to 30-second TV ads, brands need to take into account all of these consumers’ concerns, even on subjects that might seem peripheral or that the company may be keen not to talk about. You may wish to talk about sport and “just doing it”, while the consumer raises the uncomfortable topic of sweat shops. You may want to talk about skin moisturisation or women’s self-esteem, and the consumer raises the inconvenient issue of deforestation or sustainable palm oil production. However big an advertising spend, small groups of consumers on a tiny budget can hijack a brand’s chosen field of communication.

One of the effects of the financial crisis is that traditional bastions of trust are being re-examined. And brands will be part of this.

But I believe there will be an opportunity offered by the more perfect market of information that the internet brings, to separate out in consumers’ minds the good from the not so good, the relevant from the irrelevant, and the green from the greenwash.

Consumers increasingly want to know what a brand’s point of view is on the big issues that interest them.

Digital is bringing these citizens’ concerns to the forefront in a completely new and powerful way. They demand transparency as never before. Ten years ago dissatisfied consumers would just write a letter of complaint to a consumer service centre. Today technology has enabled them to make their voices heard via YouTube, Twitter feeds, blogs and ultimately organised boycotts. At Unilever, we believe in the power of brands to create a better future. And the consumer democracy that the digital revolution enables has strengthened and accelerated this. Greenpeace-sponsored orangutan-costumed protestors climbing over Unilever House to nudge us – through Dove  – towards taking a leading role in the development of sustainable palm oil sourcing was not just a clever piece of stunt marketing (“gorilla marketing”?) It also served to remind any doubters that consumer empowerment is more than just a buzz word.

But what I find really interesting is how non-government organisations and consumer activists find it more effective to exploit a global brand to achieve social or environmental change rather than complaining to government officials or other institutions that arguably

have a more formal mandate from society to deal with these issues. This is what I mean by digital media creating a new, global democracy, where people with access to the internet and with a little creative power can significantly influence the behaviour of companies and brands.

What rapidly becomes clear is that this internet thing is bigger – and a whole lot more interesting – than the simple task of finding

the successor to TV advertising. We are ushering in a new era of marketing and brand development that I find a scary – but ultimately thrilling – prospect.

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