Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the House, once famously said “All politics is local.” It was a lesson he learned in his first political loss: unless you connect to the needs and desires of the folks near you, you won’t be successful. In this emerging era of branding, I think all marketing will be local marketing.
I grew up in a really small town. In the local diner, the owner had posted a sign:
“If you like our food, tell a friend. If you don’t, tell the owner.” That’s local marketing: direct, face-to-face, immediate. No BS and no hiding. It’s where marketing is headed. (Or headed back to: an era of branding and marketing that is more like Mesopotamia than it is like Mad Men.)
The last 70 years of big brand marketing has been the mass media era. TV commercials, print ads, direct mail: all directed at faceless masses of ‘consumers’ by faceless corporations. Recently, everyone is talking about how marketing is changing. “One-on-one marketing”, “permission marketing”, “relationship marketing”, “social marketing”… primarily as a reaction to the worst of the mass media era of marketing. Everyone agrees that mass is out, individual is in. The fact is, ‘individual’ has always been in for a certain segment of the market: what some sneeringly call ‘small business.’
I took this picture where I get my hair cut. (I’m loath to call it a ‘salon’. ) It’s a relatively small place. Not a global mega-haircare brand. In their changing room, they’ve posted what is clearly a desktop printed sign – not a slick 4-color printed communication. Now some marketers may roll their eyes at such a low-tech approach. But I think the sign embodies the truth about 21st Century marketing: 21st century marketing is going to be local…whether you’re talking to people around the corner or across the globe. Their sign made me smile, made me think and then made me appreciate what great marketers they are. (Jackson Square Salon, if you’re in San Francisco.)
Here’s why I think the sign is smart and indicative of where marketing is heading:
- “Helping” – marketing is, in fact, asking for help. “Try our service.” “Buy our product.” “Tell a friend.” Ultimately, marketing is ‘an ask’. The salon is very clear on their ‘ask’: It’s personal, action-oriented, engaging, easy. Who wouldn’t want to help? Are you as clear on your ‘ask’?
- “Almost all our new clients come from Yelp.” How many brands are that smart about where their customers come from? Actionable knowledge is the first step in great marketing. Do you know how your customers find you?
- “We are building clientele”- marketing is focused on the long term as well as the short term. It isn’t just about the sale, its about building the relationship…a client, not a purchaser. Is your brand building clientele or selling products?
- It’s appreciative. They ask for something and appreciate you for acting on it. Twice. I think that’s a good ratio – two “thank you’s” for every ‘ask’. Do you genuinely say “thank you” to your clients twice as often as you ask them for something?
The sales cycle is a classic framework that has been around for a long time. You can find versions that are more complicated than this, but I like this one.
For me, this is the simplest way of breaking down how a person goes about choosing and using a product or service. The cycle may happen fast (when you’re buying a candy bar) or the cycle may happen slow (when you’re buying a car) but it generally happens in this order, over and over again. This framework, however, often ignores a critical characteristic at the heart of the entire cycle. It’s sharing.
Now, if you listen to the Social Media Gurus™, you’d think they had discovered a new law of nature recently – that people share information during each stage of the sales cycle. Some pundits have gone so far as to say that this sharing phenomenon has destroyed the sales cycle. But the fact is, humans sharing information about their needs and their purchases isn’t a new phenomenon. People have always shared information with other people:
- “Do you know a good butcher?”
- “How do you like your Cadillac?”
- “‘Do you want Levis or Wranglers?”
- “How do I get this VCR to record a show?”
I imagine that even during the Mesopotamian era of branding, folks were asking questions and sharing information about the local olive oil producer, neighborhood wine maker or weaver. Those conversations happened on the sidewalk, over kitchen tables and backyard fences. That’s not new. What is new is the fact that now marketers can participate in the conversations as they’re increasingly happening on-line for the world to see and search, real time and permanently. So although the manifestations of a natural human characteristic (the desire to share with others) may be changing, our inherent nature isn’t. For me, that’s one of the key truths about looking at various ‘eras’ of branding…the tactics may change, but many of the central principles remain the same. And all the chatter about the new ways in which brands have to behave are true to a certain extent. But that chatter misses the fact that it isn’t ‘sharing’ that’s new – it’s how we’re able to do it these days.
What are the ways you’re seeing this ‘new’ center of the sales cycle making itself manifest?
Image from New Scientist, 4-26-2008
What’s the oldest logo you can think of? Coca-Cola? Jell-0? Alka-Seltzer? A few great brands of today date back to the late 19th century. Most to some period in the 20th century. You want an old brand? Instead of 100 years…try going back about 5,000 years.
The photo at left is of a Mesopotamian bottle stopper. Approximately 8000 years ago people starting marking stoppers with personal seals, in effect, creating the first branded goods. At least that’s the theory of David Wengrow, an archaeologist at University College, London. He believes that around 5,000 years ago, as cities grew and people had to start dealing with products produced by people they didn’t directly know, the symbols on those stoppers were likely used to ensure quality or embody trust for the people consuming the contents.
Sound familiar? “Ensuring quality”, “providing trust” for consumers – at their heart, these has always been the fundamental functions of brands and brand symbols. As long as people consume things they didn’t create themselves, there will always be a need for brands to ensure quality and embody trust. How brands do that, as well as what other real or perceived benefits a brand can provide may be changing. What’s worked for brands for over 5,000 isn’t going to stop working tomorrow. But change it will. So what are your thoughts: Is branding dying? Or just evolving? What are the clues you see that demonstrate the evolution?
That seems like a grand claim. Like something a branding guru would say as they set you up in order to sell you something familiar dressed up to look different. I’m no guru, and I’m certainly not prescient enough to see a new era if we’re really in the early stages of one. It’s just a hypothesis I have, and is one of the primary reasons I set up this blog – to explore what’s happening on the edges of branding and see if that constitutes a new era or simply, business as usual.
I’m probably tipping my hand with the name of my blog. Because I do believe that branding is changing and will change significantly in the next 10 years. Old rules of thumb will get overturned. New rules of thumb will be created. Some rules of traditional branding will still be true, but will be applied differently. It will be (heck, is) a period of enormous experimentation in marketing and it will take time to sort out the long-term successes and failures.
People say that branding is dead. That branding was a tactic created to exploit the information arbitrage between consumers and manufacturers. That with access to all the data now available in people’s smart phones, brands can no longer play fast and loose with facts, ingredients, claims, promises, pricing. That the clear eye of information will cut through all the marketing haze and will render branding’s magic null and void. Poof. It’s been a fun ride, but th-that’s all folks.
But humans have been using brands for 10,000 years. Don’t take my word for it. Anthropologists have determined that symbols on ancient commodities probably functioned much like logos do on today’s products. So, perhaps what everyone is reacting to isn’t the death of branding, but the demise of branding as we know it- the only kind of branding that any of us alive have known if we assume this era has been underway for some time. I believe the new era of branding will have much in common with what I imagine the earliest era of branding was like while, in some critical ways, looking very different from today’s branding.
As I said, that’s what I’m hoping to explore both in this blog and eventually in a book. If branding is really dying, then perhaps this will be its obituary. But if branding is simply going through a transformation rather than its death throes, future marketers will need to know which branding rules still apply, which rules will change, and which rules will spell disaster in this new era of branding.