In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re awash in photos. Whether it’s the number of new photos uploaded to Instagram (150 per second), the number of photos on Facebook (approx. 90 billion) or Flickr (approx. 6 billion), or the number of megapixels in the next iPhone camera, seems like everyone is talking about photos. And investing in the category – photosharing is one of the hottest categories for VC investment this year.
People are taking pictures of all kinds of things…pets, food, family, friends, everything and nothing. (Like my Instgram photo of the Bay Bridge in the rain on October 6, 2011 above). Virtually all are taken on digital cameras or mobile phones making their uploading and sharing much easier than photos taken in the more traditional way. Not only are there more, they’re created faster and cheaper. Compared to just 30 years ago, the relative time and cost of each photo has declined substantial. In fact, these days you could almost say the cost of a single photo has dropped to virtually zero.
This tidal wave of digital photos is also changing the very nature of what we use photos for. In the past (due to the time and cost),photos were for ‘special occasions’…birthdays, weddings, funerals, key events in our lives to be memorialized in permanent form. But these days, in addition to special occasions, we’re taking pictures of our everyday life. Instead of memorializing, we’re using photos to share and tell the stories of our lives – the day to day existence of lunches, and dog walks and cooking and babies. Add to that the phenomenon of “reality” television and you can see folks creating the documentary of their life through snapshots – and connecting with others in a social network of just pictures.
It’s been almost two weeks since Google acquired Zagat, creator of those little burgundy guides to local restaurants, rated by actual customers. Since then, there’s been no end to the speculation regarding the acquisition: a good deal, a harebrained deal, a multi-faceted deal. Google seems pretty excited about it, as do the Zagats.
Who knows what Google has planned for Zagat. Maybe it becomes part of Google Places. Or Google+. Or the content gets folded in to the myriad of ways that Google serves up information for people. But what struck me about the Zagat’s acquisition (along with the relatively recent launch of Google+) is a seemingly growing appreciation on the part of Google that there is more information than can be assimilated into their algorithm – information that is created, shared and appreciated by humans, not machines.
To me, Google has always been the ultimate data wonk’s brand – the ‘Spock’ of the internet, relying on cool calculating logic to know what you want when you ask…and maybe even before. In fact, Eric Schmidt, Google’s former CEO, once claimed that Google could “know what you’re thinking about”. Which is impressive, cuz I’m not sure I can even make that claim for the majority of my waking hours.
But cool calculating logic can only get you so far. One only need look for a reliable local plumber to understand the limitations of a calculating algorithm. For many decisions, human’s look to other humans for advice. Which gets us back to Zagat. Quirky, idiosyncratic, (perhaps even a little unreliable compared to your own experiences), the kind of ‘data’ supplied by Zagat and other ratings based on human experiences must be a supplement to the fact-based logic of Google’s calculations. As with many things in life, the two together are more powerful than each separate.
My primary hope is that the Google brand learns how to be a little more human – to rely on the qualitative, opinion-based, individualized, extremely human information that Zagat has always provided and integrate that into it’s own brand…rather than try to ‘assimilate’ Zagat into the cool, calculating world of the Googlesphere.
As a long-time Apple fan, I followed a live blog of Steve Job’s keynote speech at the Apple Developer’s Conference yesterday. By then, the world knew most of the Apple news: iCloud and a new operating system plus a few other shiny objects. In his set up to the iCloud announcement though, Mr. Job’s made another proclamation that struck me as profound.He reminded us that just 10 years ago, Apple had worked hard to position the desktop computer as the digital hub. But going forward, the iMac (and the PC) were destined to be relegated to being just another device – not the ‘one device to rule them all’ anymore.
Feel free to say what you want about Apple. Brilliant, controlling, freeing, restrictive – everyone has a point of view. But what struck me was how bold it was for a company that grew up revolutionizing the computing industry essentially starting the countdown clock on one of their core products.I think its rare for a company that has found great success at something being willing to start the discussion of sunseting that first core product, particularly if that core product as defined the company from the start. In fact, there are still other computing brands working hard to make it all about the computer – as the hub of digital life, home life, work life. So despite iMacs enjoying continued market share growth, Apple tells the world the computer isn’t ‘IT’ any more.
Of course, it’s easier to relegate the computer to ‘just another device’ when you have two of the hottest devices in the world, both which revolutionized a category just like the Macintosh did way back when. In fact, from a business standpoint, it’s probably smarter for Apple to focus consumers on iPads and iPhones and iTunes and iClouds as the margins are probably better. But I still think it’s an indication of how forwarding thinking Apple is to essentially say “That thing you thought was so cool 10 years ago? It’s not going to be very important in the future.” What it tells me is they must have great confidence in their ability to continue to create the next.
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.