Very many years ago, my M.Phil dissertation on the Middle Eastern oil economies, which subsisted on ‘unearned’ bounty of oil that nature had graciously provided, opened with a chapter titled ‘The Wings of Icarus’. Greek mythology has it that Daedalus and his son, Icarus, fled from the wrath of King Minos by attaching wings to their bodies with wax and taking flight. As they were escaping, Icarus flew too near the sun. The wax melted and the boy fell into the sea.
Today, the digital world looks like a merry conglomeration of Daedalus hastily fastening ‘digital’ wings to ‘fly’ in the digital space. Let’s face it. Until Facebook came along, most companies and brands were at their wits end, apportioning minute spends on experimental banners and search engine and browser trackers.
For all the lip service (and podium stomping!) that brands provide to digital efforts, the much lamented truths remain: no one is willing to put real money into it; much of the effort is dovetailed to ride print and television campaigns; the ‘like’ buttons often mean no more than “seen it once”; less than 5 per cent of the much touted ‘number of likes’ or followers engage on any series of posts; brands continue to struggle to ‘fit’ in the medium and oscillate wildly between phenomenal creativity and crippling conservatism; companies struggle to fit the play between marketing and corporate communications…
My submission is that companies and brands are simply like Daedalus (companies) trying to fix wings (loosely social media, mostly Facebook, Twitter, bits of YouTube, some blogs) on to their Icarus (brands). Problem is, like all borrowed wings, the wax will give way sooner rather than later and Icarus’ digital efforts will be swallowed in the sea of digital junk. This is not to decry the very many efforts at flight that are surely building knowledge amongst ‘digital marketers’, but much of the science currently is tactical, scarcely a part of strategy or an organisational outlook.
Where then is the solution? It is simply not possible for companies or brands to turn their back on the digital world and pretend it does not exist. The market is a harsh and unforgiving master and every tool counts. Much of what is being done is right and gives the brand gains, albeit short lived ones, in making themselves a part of the ‘social life’ of their customers.
However, I think most companies and brands need to recognise the larger truth hidden in their own efforts: The fact that their customers ‘like’ to relate to their brands ‘socially’. Current consumer and behavioural philosophy understands that people today are organising their identities around their brands. Digital media is strengthening that identity adoption of ‘know who I am by what I associate myself with’.
Social media does not merely “bring” customers to brands, but actually “takes” users from brands. What that essentially means is that after most people have exhausted their natural extension of friends and acquaintances, clients and colleagues, they seek to expand their engagement by relating to ‘like’ people.
The corollary to this is available in any search analytics. After sex and stars, religion and politics, the highest searches are for brands. The more serious discussions on brands are taking places in blogs and forums, discussion boards, news sites and video sites. Most such conversations are built around brands or category of brands. When these digital spaces combine with the other carriers of digital information (feeds, viral mails, news alerts, content aggregators), the effect can be a devastating. Dell, and more recently BP, faced severe challenge in the digital space when the digital eco-sphere combined against them.
Most companies and brands that command a large retail following find themselves challenged by their audience becoming participants in independent digital spaces.
What companies can do
Which brings up the question of what ought to be the grand digital strategy to command spaces where customers sit? The answer lies in the simple proposition that companies, and their brands, need to build their own digital real estate. As Dell has demonstrated, the best bet lies in owning spaces which are strong watering holes for people who want to talk about them, talk to them and talk with others who see a commonality in their brand association.
While social media offers companies an opportunity to ‘source’ their audience, they need to replicate ‘social’ spaces while creating strong ‘mastheads’ for their brands. They need to create their own spaces that not only provide creative, social and marketing engagement, but also a fair and free space for their constituency to hold the brand accountable, provide insights and, mostly, let them be themselves as they relate to people just like themselves, with similar interests and values. A lot of it is happening by default as these brand aficionados have set up digital interface platforms recognising the power of collecting people around the brand. Most large companies are troubled by these ‘people owned’ brand mastheads but have failed to take a leaf out of their book.
For that to happen, companies need to make two fundamental changes in their outlook to the digital space. First, they need to recognise the need to build their own unique spaces because they are the mastheads of the digital world, not simply search tags or social media ‘like’. (In other words, people go looking for them on the web just like people go looking for their favourite newspaper in the offline world). Each brand and company needs to build its own grand strategy of owning all its constituents and making their own masthead the most powerful gathering point for the brand.
The architecture of these spaces will be distinct for each brand and based upon the power of the content that drives conversations around the brand. Just as advertising has learnt that the most effective way to build memorable brands is by creating cultural connects, the task for digital brand architects is to create de novo spaces where their constituents are offered the whole panoply of experiences that one obtains offline from a newspaper, a gossip session in a café, a hyper mall, a throbbing neighbourhood, a well-stocked book shop, a debating hall and maybe even a gaming zone. The current approach of easy engagement is dangerously shortsighted for the simple reason that brands are failing to engage the real conversations on the brand and the ‘wings’ that are giving them flight are ‘borrowed’.
The new architecture will require companies to think differently about how they handle their communication because the old rules don’t apply. For the real future digital platform, companies need to make the second fundamental change: Companies need to start thinking of themselves as angel investors in the digital space. They need to invest in experimenting with a variety of platforms, seeking out digital outfits which have deep brand appreciation and are able to create not just momentary smart or ‘wicked’ ideas but long term mastheads. They need to think of the investment from the point of view of ‘docking’ in the entire range of customers in a concerted enough fashion so that the brand has its own online version of real people living out in the brand owned space the entire spectrum of their virtual association with the brand.
(Supriyo Gupta is Managing Director of Digilogue.)