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Predictions For The Future Of Branding And Communications: A Conversation With Bruce Philp

PR in Canada contributor Kiel Hume is a PR consultant based in Toronto.  You can connect with Kiel on Twitter at @kielculture.

Bruce Philp is a marketer, branding expert, educator and author based out of Toronto. After nearly three decades working as a consultant with some of the world’s top companies, Philp has turned his experience and expertise into an excellent new book, Consumer Republic. In it, Philp argues that brands what make corporations accountable to consumers and stakeholders, and as a result, consumers are empowered in important new ways.

PR in Canada recently had a chance to speak with Bruce Philp about his book, how new and social media have affected the branding process, and the future of communications.

PR in Canada: The main argument you make in Consumer Republic is that brands make companies accountable and therefore empower consumers with a voice that must be heard. At certain points you compare every purchase we make to a vote: today, the products we buy are an endorsement of a company’s social platform in terms of its position on the environment, corporate responsibility, philanthropy, etc. What first got you thinking about this idea that brands empower consumers and force positive social change?

BP: My ‘Road to Damascus’ moment kind of came in two parts. The first was about twenty years ago, and had a lot to do with being disenchanted with where advertising was going. Then, too, there was a recession, and then, too, there was a lot of talk about how the industry needed to restructure itself in order to survive. Part of its eventual answer seemed to me to be a detaching of advertising creativity from its real purpose – to build brands – and a de-emphasis of strategic relevance in the process. I felt like this was a bit of a fork in the road for anyone in the business. You were going to manufacture ads as little pop culture hors d’oeuvres, or you were going to be a steward of brands. The latter, to me, felt like more meaningful work. The second came when this recession hit in 2009. There was, among pundits and consumers alike, a lot of finger pointing about what had caused the calamity. As I mentioned in the book, before Wall Street’s role became clear to Main Street, many North Americans were prepared to lay blame for the problem at the feet of marketing. I was genuinely seized with a fear that branding’s baby might get tossed out with consumerism’s bathwater. There was plenty of blame to go around, and consumers themselves owned some of it, I thought. But that didn’t mean this system of commerce was inherently bad. The parallels to democracy were and are striking to me. It stumbles and falls, and it gets abused and taken for granted. But it is always its own best hope for redemption. I’m by and large a free enterprise guy, and I know how demand shapes marketplaces just as voters shape societies. Consumers, at the end of the day, are given the onerous but unavoidable responsibility of being the conscience of capitalism. I thought somebody needed to say so.

PR in Canada: You talk about the internet as a turning point that forced marketers to start listening to consumers in a whole new way. For the first time in history, marketers were scrambling to locate and keep up with the way conversations that were happening online and the sentiments they were expressing. Do you think public relations, and its inherent commitment to two-way communication, will take on a greater importance in the marketing matrix?

BP: I absolutely do. So many of the new channels through which we communicate to consumers are two-way, public and beyond our control as marketers. There is only one discipline of marketing communication with any history of dealing with that kind of reality, and it’s public relations. PR people understand character, and they understand narrative. They know how to engage in conversation, and they are accustomed to dealing with the unexpected things that happen when people and institutions talk to each other. When it’s all said and done, I think that not only will public relations take on greater importance in the marketing matrix, but in fact all of us are going to have to learn to think a little more like public relations people.

PR in Canada: Many of the ideas in your book are very relevant to communications professionals. What role do you see for communicators in this new branded democracy?

BP: It’s becoming more and more clear that while consumers are adept and involved in their brand choices, they have far better things to do with their bandwidth than retain and analyze information, regardless of what the wide-eyed digerati might tell you. So, in order to efficiently understand the world they live in and the people and companies they do business with, they’re resorting to a much older and more proven technique: story. Brands are being revealed, at last, to be narrative in nature. That, for me, points the way to the future of marketing communications. We have to see ourselves as stewards of a story rather than simply as salespeople. For some, that’s going to be burdensome. There is a certain kind of marketer that likes to believe every day is a new day, and every selling opportunity is a clean sheet of paper. But for people who are passionate about branding, it’s a renaissance. Brands are becoming characters that carry their pasts with them, and who are licensed to sell things to people partly on the basis of those pasts. We’re managing story, now, and not just information. That’s a thrilling prospect.

PR in Canada: Your book is filled with brands learning to listen to consumers, and you’ve worked with many of these companies yourself. What brands do you currently see doing a standout job of taking their cues from consumers?

BP: I need to qualify my answer by being precise about what “taking their cues from consumers” means. I don’t actually believe that it’s a smart strategy for a brand to let consumers shape it, and I think that after this crowdsourcing fetish passes, marketers and even consumers will reach the same conclusion. Again a bit like politics, consumers don’t want to vote for someone who will then ask them to do his job for him. They want to vote for someone with a clear vision of his own, but a clear commitment to listen and be accountable for it. So for me, a standout job means engaging and listening; it doesn’t necessarily mean surrendering to whatever mob has formed on a given day. By this definition, the answer is satisfyingly unsurprising. The ones that are doing the best job often aren’t marginal, New Economy brands; they’re the usual suspects. Big, famous, successful enterprises that got that way by having pre-existing brand-centric cultures and the attendant obsession with consumer approval. In the wake of the most recent media revolution, I’ve been far more impressed by the Cokes and P&Gs and Fords of the world than by a lot of would-be disruptors. The companies that are doing the most standout job are, by and large, the ones that always knew the true value of their brands.

PR in Canada: In Buyology, Martin Lindstrom looks at marketing and branding from a neuro-marketing approach. His book suggests that, at least at some level, consumers can be swayed by marketing that focuses on the consumer’s subconscious processes. This is an approach that obviously focuses on the individual consumer. In contrast, your book looks at the power of consumers as a collective, either in the social pressures around consumption or the way we can all motivate companies to improve the world. Do you think a purely scientific approach to marketing and consumption can account for something that is, as you very convincingly point out, so inherently social?

BP: Neuromarketing makes me uncomfortable in a couple of senses. For one thing, it seems a bit cynical to try selling something to someone by manipulating their physiological response to it rather than by engaging in the somehow fairer negotiation of desire and rationale. I’m doubtful that people really can be manipulated this way on any commercially viable scale, but I don’t like that anybody is trying. It’s disrespectful. The other is simply that the premise seems to ignore a fundamental truth about branded consumption, that it’s a social phenomenon. Studying a person’s chemical reaction to marketing is like trying to understand the social impact of the automobile by analyzing exhaust smoke. Brands wouldn’t have much utility for people, and perhaps simply couldn’t exist, if humans weren’t so community focused. So, yes, I guess I believe that a scientific approach is valid. I just think the most useful sciences are sociology and psychology, and not neurology.

PR in Canada: Technology, particularly around mobile devices, is changing almost daily. What kinds of new opportunities do you see in the next few years for brands to engage consumers via developing technologies? Is there any particular technology, application or social network that you see pushing the direction of marketing communication?

BP: There is an old, all but forgotten piece of social science that I think everyone in marketing should be forced to read until it’s burned into their minds like their own phone numbers. It’s called the ‘Diffusion of Innovations Theory’, the thinking from which we derive the term ‘adoption curve.’ We all know that new things are adopted first by a few brave people, and then by the masses, and finally by another reluctant few. But this is an incomplete understanding of how diffusion works. The rest of the story is that people don’t wait to embrace new technology because they’re fools or cowards. They wait because their values are different from those of the people that got in earlier or later. The theory even posits predictable sizes for each group, from the pioneers to the early adopters to the masses and laggards. The first in are motivated by novelty. Then come people who are motivated by status (this is the group Gladwell was essentially talking about in ‘The Tipping Point’). Then come the early masses who weigh utility against value, and so on. Here’s why I’m subjecting you to this little lecture: New technologies are important, but they aren’t all important, and many of them are barely if yet out of the pioneer stage of adoption. Pioneer consumers get it wrong all the time (for every Facebook, there’s a Friendster, and for every Twitter a Quora), and just because consumers can do something doesn’t mean they’re going to bother. So, to me, the really important opportunities lie not in what’s new, but in listening hard and sensitively to how society passes judgment on the possibilities. I think people in the communications industry right now have the difficult task of having to both keep an eye on the horizon so as not to be blindsided by new things, while paying close attention to what real people decide is going to matter and be useful to them. Having said that, and at the risk of sounding unimaginative, I think that mobile is the most interesting game in town right now. Immediate, location-independent communication felt instantly natural for us regular people; it felt like the way things should be, rather than like a new skill I have to learn. The computer mouse had that same “what took you so long?” quality about it. So did the iPad. It’s always the hallmark of a transformative technology.

PR in Canada: Your book brings a great historical approach to both the history of brand marketing, as well as the consumer experience of branding. When did companies start to realize that their brands were making them socially accountable and that consumers were in control?

BP: As is so often true of this kind of change, I don’t think that the corporate world recognized it when it actually began. The story of branded marketing as we know it is closely tied to the mass media of the 20th century, over which corporations had a lot of control. Social meaning was a factor in branding from the start, of course, but that meaning was mostly given to brands by their owners, or so they thought. Mass media created this illusion of consensus among consumers so that, in effect, if Pepsi decided it was going to be cool, all it had to do was write a big enough cheque. For me, that started to come apart in the 1980s. Here was a decade in which the idea of mass media had begun to crumble (cable TV and VCRs being the bogeymen of the time), and also an era in which image reached a kind of apogee as the preoccupation of both marketers and consumers. Image grows in importance, while the big collective media campfires start to disappear, and inexorably consumers assume a bigger and bigger role in deciding on social meaning. By the end of the decade, we in marketing were having a lot more conversations about ‘street cred’ than we were about taste-making. That set us up for the rise of Gen X as full fledged consumers in the 1990s, and their determination to utterly reject corporate-imposed social meaning. The decade that followed was absolutely transformational.

PR in Canada: Your book discusses the social desire to conform to peer groups and what this means for how we consume, going into detail about some of the emerging research around the Social Emotion Influence theory of persuasion. This theory says that consumers are motivated to consume not based on reason or information, but primarily by the social desire to conform. If, as you point out, information is less involved in decision making than social pressure and a desire to conform, will marketing and communications efforts shift increasingly to the kinds of communities that form online? Given that online communities are so popular, do you think public relations will start to focus more on these online social groups and less on media, which is based on objective information?

BP: I don’t think we’ll have the luxury of choosing. Online communities are very important already, of course. Consider Google’s quiet but earth-shaking announcement in February that their Social Search algorithm is going to weigh the preferences of your own social network into how it serves up search results just as an example, and you can see where this is going. Even today, if you search for a topic that’s very hot among online communities, not only will you get search returns influenced by all that conversation, but you may even get it in real time. The fact that companies are scrambling to build intelligence gathering capabilities in this space – some estimate that brand sentiment analysis online will shortly be a billion dollar business. I’ve been approached by two startups in this space in just the last few weeks – tells you how critical this will be. But at the same time, we need to bear in mind that online communities are not microcosms of the real world. They are, at their best, influencer communities, the leading edge of a market rather than a cross-section of it. An ‘ordinary’ consumer, if I can characterize her that way, is likely to encounter these communities when she’s already engaged in a brand selection process. In other words, a Facebook group isn’t going to make her want a new television, it’s going to influence her choice from among a list of options she may have formed independently and elsewhere, and it’s going to “imprint” social endorsement on her brand choice, to use Professor Suhay’s well chosen word. That means we can’t turn our backs on passively consumed media. Whether it’s objective news or paid advertising, the channels that have the power to generate awareness from thin air, and to spark desire, they will continue to matter. Maybe more than ever. Marketers who believe otherwise are likely to pay dearly.