True to form, James Surowiecki has yet another insightful take on 21st-century marketing. You may remember his book The Wisdom of Crowds, put out about 10 years ago. I read it during my Microsoft tenure and remember mentioning his ideas to my colleagues, being met with their sense of wonder at yet another way that the internet was fundamentally changing the customer-brand relationship (and also a few blank stares from some). Over time Mr Surowiecki’s foresight has proven itself prescient in numerous ways, from the ways in which the creative process is handled nowadays to voter polling.
In his latest piece in the New yorker, Mr Surowiecki puts forth another simple premise: Brands mean less today. Consumers are less loyal to brands these days precisely because they have myriad inputs into their decision-making process, and hence using brands as a decision-making “shortcut” is no longer necessary. That, coupled with the fact that all establishment entities undergo an inordinate amount of scrutiny (thanks again to the internet), leading to an overall skepticism on the part of consumers worldwide.
Consequently, brands have been reduced further, now being represented by their latest product. “As Simonson told me, ‘each product now has to prove itself on its own.’” In translation: we live in a world of now. Your brand is viewed via the lens of today’s market offerings, and all your past successes won’t sufficiently obscure a poor product today. Each product effectively becomes your brand during its existence. How you design, build, price, distribute and service those products vastly overrides The moral of the story: Don’t release shoddy products. (What about agile development/iterative product models, you ask by way of counterexample? While on the surface a reasonable rebuttal, I would submit that products following this model these are wildly different than full-fledged releases, as they’re usually offered on a free/freemium payment model. This is a case of price, the ultimate arbiter, overriding all other product attributes.)
The implications of this development are profound. The Forbes list of Most Valuable Brands list shrinks – at least in effect, if not in size. It’s possible that the few remaining powerful retain even greater value. (Time will tell.) But in the here and now, this consumer conceit creates fertile ground for market upstarts to displace existing brands. By way of example, look at Android’s marked success in the mobile marketplace vis-à-vis Blackberry’s and Motorola’s current states. However, all is not lost for the incumbents. While this phenomenon in consumer buying greatly diminishes the intangible asset we call “brand”, it in turn places greater emphasis on tangible assets such as R&D capacity, channel distribution, partnerships, and effective service models. The brands that realize and embrace this sea change, and act accordingly by shifting their focus away from brand-building and toward hard-value assets, are those that have a fighting chance to win. However, the clock is ticking: I only have to refer you back to the Android example above to illustrate just how swiftly change sweeps through a truly dynamic market.
So, how to short-circuit the process and give yourself a leg up? If you’re a new firm, how do you get your product into your customers’ hands? And if you’re an existing brand undergoing this erosion, how do you go about placing emphasis on the features and benefits that set you apart from the competition? And when it’s time for a new iteration, how to garner repeat purchase? You can probably guess where I’m going: engage influential thinkers. If you do your research right, you’ll discover the people who already have the ear of your market. If you can convince them, they can steer buyers toward today’s product. What’s more, if you include them in the design and development of the next rev, you’ll have the opportunity to instil loyalty and inspire repeat-purchase habits. It comes down to helping your current customers share their positive experiences (and learning from their negative ones) via influencers’ existing communications conduits. (Easier said than done – just ask me!)