What could a map and a brand possibly have to do with each other? Nothing much -- until recently. Almost overnight, geography, and the part it plays in connecting brands with users, seems to have developed yet another amazing opportunity for brand builders.
Last month, Google revealed an advanced version of Google Map. Yahoo was quick to follow suit, and MSN released Virtual Earth just last week. There's a new trend that takes advantage of these maps' advanced features: "mash-ups" (define). One thing a mash-up can do is take specific data on the Web, say, the locations of North American Porsche owners, and lay it over another site's map, such as Google's. Normally this wouldn't have caught my attention. They're just maps, right? But when I saw a mash-up site in action, I was amazed. I found a map packed with balloon-shaped pinheads indicating the locations of Porsche owners all over North America. Another mash-up site revealed Beetle owners' whereabouts. Let's be clear. These maps don't show you where the dealerships are. They show you where the car owners are.
Yet another map lists places to find cheap gas. One indicates where single people looking for partners live. Click on the pinhead, and you'll see a picture and detailed description of the person it denotes. Mapping and the Internet have come together to deliver a new, wondrous world of community relations.
The opportunities for brand-builders are massive. Despite being in its early days, it's not hard to figure out this API (define) technology's potential for harnessing consumer knowledge. Mash-ups have the power to connect every brand's user data to a map and instantly present a picture of the brand's territory.
Imagine a map that shows you where most Prada customers live. Or AJAX or Fubu customers. The technology promises to change our perspective on brands as users and brand builders and to influence our consumption and management of them. Think of the ramifications of a map that illustrates where Coca-Cola drinkers live versus Pepsi drinkers. Or Mac versus PC users. The possibilities are limited only by data accessibility.
Mash-ups reveal unaccustomed knowledge about ourselves as brand consumers and owners. They might make plain communities you never knew you were part of. Or they might demonstrate your uniqueness in loving the brands you do.
The mash-up trend is another tick on the consumer checklist. The technology can connect users with one another, and transform individuals into brand broadcasters. The trend in brand-building power is moving away from brand owners toward consumers. This is the next step in this power transfer. First eBay, then blogs and podcasting (define), and now mash-ups. Every day, new tools are developed that enable users to amplify their voices.
Web sites that isolated themselves from meaningful interaction with users by failing to reflect consumers' lives, preferences, and behaviors, will struggle to survive. The community dimension of brand building is rapidly becoming a mandatory component in every brand strategy. The days of one-way information, from brand to customer, are over. The familiar habit of emitting constant, controlled brand information is becoming too dangerous not to kick. On a practical level, the "about us" button is out. The "about our customers" button, which connects brand fans with each other, is the new prerequisite to brand health.
Mash-ups put the "me selling proposition" trend into action. It reinforces the fact brands of the future have only one choice -- to be run and ruled by their consumers rather than by their marketers.
This opens an interesting can of worms. On one hand, MSP opens up amazing avenues for hearing the real voices of brand users. On the other, MSP has inherent risks: if the world can hear real opinions about brands, uncontrolled, unedited, and uncensored, you can't be sure all voices will be happy ones. This is a risk marketers must take.
So get your house in order. Are you prepared for the MSP trend? For mash-ups and blogging? To what degree does your site allow customers to run your brand, voice their opinions, and become part of your brand community?
There won't be many readers who can answer these questions with confidence. But for those who can, or can see themselves being able to do so, a whole new brand world could open up. A world where the true brand managers are your customers.
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Martin Lindstrom is recognized as one of the world's primary on- and offline branding gurus by the Chartered Institute of Marketing. He is the author of several best-selling branding books including his latest, "BRAND sense: Build Powerful Brands through Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight, and Sound," published by Free Press. BRANDsense.com details information about Lindstrom's "BRAND sense" and the BRAND sense Symposium, a branding conference running in 51 cities in 31 countries.
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