Anarchy… or a New Kind of Ad?

“One of my rules is: never listen to your old stuff.” –Lou Reed

In previous columns, I’ve gone to some length to put forth the notion that we’re under the influence of a great change. Change is only possible through a series of events. For hundreds of years, we’ve seen societies maintain a status quo of formalities, customs, and biases, mainly to keep out people who aren’t like them. When change comes, the blame usually falls to some form of outside influence or catalyst, known or unknown.

Brands can be a kind of exclusive society, and for many brand managers maintaining the status quo of a brand is job one. That’s a good thing. We need quality and message consistency for brands to be appreciated, otherwise there’s nothing better about one brand over another.

Along comes the Internet (again!), and the idea of consuming a product takes on another dimension. Brand consumption is no longer regulated to the grocery shelf, taste tests, focus groups, :30 TV spots, or what have you. Users can now involve themselves in what a brand has to offer (or not) online. It’s up to them to spend time with whom they want. Traditional modes of making a brand attractive and useful are likely to be out of date, like dusty billboards along a deserted highway.

It gets worse. Now people can purchase anything they like without understanding a thing about a brand if that brand wasn’t successful at making its point. In a sense, it’s like shopping for all you would need to live in a foreign country, but having no sense of the language or what’s important and what’s not.

Is this anarchy? Are our tried-and-true brands under attack?

This example may be a tad extreme, but we marketers will face this problem in the future as the audience for a brand becomes increasingly fragmented. And the form of delivery will be a primary cause of the fragmentation, as the Internet, TV, and mobile will all connect, carry content, and become increasingly more difficult to analyze.

For an online marketer and brand manager, sewing this digital cacophony together will be quite a task. It’s one we’ve collectively only begun to face.

Is online advertising the first salvo in this new revolution? Are brand marketers headed for an onslaught of new online opportunities that could either make them famous or be the greatest folly of their career? Is this what Web 2.0 is all about?

No. Online advertising is not the enemy of brand marketers; it’s the conventions of brand marketing that are the enemy. And the technological wave of integration, assimilation, and fragmentation are the dust that we must wait for to settle.

Brands are like governments: they must follow a definition of values, morals, and laws that provides them with an identity that distinguishes them from other governments.

Who enforces all these qualities? The police. In the walls of a major corporation, the brand police have the same role, yet the Internet has brought an opportunity to brand advertisers. The playing field for brand laws are now altogether different.

Is this the anarchy brand marketers should be afraid of? Part of it. There’s a middle ground where brands need to play with their audiences and find a way to open up their brand to all sorts of opinions, interpretations, and experiences as the audience now has a voice in the governing body known as the consumer brand. There are risks to all of these opportunities, but the rewards, managed properly, can be powerful.

Nowadays, the brand cop must be more of a diplomat and the online marketer plays the role of the masses’ local representative. Truly, the world is changing.

Meet Dorian at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose, August 7-10, 2006, at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.

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