Friday, February 27, 2009

Synchrony for the Devil.

I am not a fan of Walmart. To be frank, I think that the fundaments of this company – universal entitlement to a limitless supply of cheap stuff, and the ruthless, monopolistic driving of costs out of their suppliers’ business models – have, in the long run, done a lot more harm than good to the economy and to the planet. So it’s a bit galling to see them luck out the way they did with their mid-2008 ‘rebranding’. Apparently, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

The story goes like this: In the middle of last year, Walmart treated itself to a new logo. The logo was friendlier and mellower than their previous, chunky Ministry of Greed livery. The new look also gave fresh life to a slogan change they’d made in the fall of the previous year, an admonition to the throngs: “Save money. Live better.” Design wonks were predictably critical. But hardly anybody else paid much attention.

And the Dow was above 11,000.

But it’s not above 11,000 any more, is it, kids. And suddenly, context has utterly changed the meaning of this ‘rebranding’ and made it accidentally brilliant. You see, in a time of rampant consumption and groundless optimism, preaching bargain hunting is an inherently differentiated thing to do. Of course, Walmart was never unique in this, but they certainly became the dominant and defining voice for tightwad consumerism. But in a matter of a few harrowing months, the need for frugality has ceased to be a choice for a lot of us. And so, not being a matter of choice, it thereby loses its value as a basis for branding.

And in the very nick of time, in what seems like a stroke of sheer, dumb luck, Walmart reframed bargain hunting from being a competitive sport for greedy people, to being a way of living well despite the troubles. Had they not done so, their “Always low prices” message would have become a dreary reminder to consumers of the hard times; having done so, the brand now seems to be cheering them on.

Of course, a slogan is not a brand, and I doubt it’s in Walmart’s nature to invest a lot in giving this one meaning. But the whole affair is a potent reminder that no brand exists in a vacuum.

And that fate has a funny sense of humor.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A little bird told me.

From the Things I Thought I’d Never Say department, this: If you want to know what the future of branding looks like, try asking a geek.

Unless you’ve been locked in your basement watching Bewitched reruns, you’ll know that the flavour of the past couple of years in marketing circles has been ‘social media’ , that bucket of online environments comprising brands like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter (about which more in a moment). For sure, it feels like this phenomenon has finally ‘tipped’, to put it Gladwellianly. A perfect storm of critical mass, plus the epoch making election campaign of Barack Obama, plus the legions of newly unemployed and insecurely employed suddenly networking their brains out to cope with the anxiety, has made doing this stuff seem suddenly very, very normal.

Now, you’re thinking, “Yawn. Hey, cowboy, 2006 called, and they’d like their blogging topic back.” But it’s not the fact of social media that interests me. To which you might reply, “Don’t tell me you want to write about how to monetize these spaces with ad models?!” Please. As much as I’m enjoying this imaginary conversation, don’t insult my intelligence. I think the only people who are going to directly monetize social media will be the clever ducks that build the sites and then sell them to desperate 20th century media companies like Florida real estate.

No. What’s fascinating about this environment is that you can watch how a brand really happens, in accelerated real time. It’s like one of those stop action films that depicts a hibiscus growing from seed to blossom in 60 seconds. And nowhere is the lesson more acutely delivered than on Twitter.

Live there for awhile, and you’ll see what I mean. Scan someone’s update page. What do they talk about? Well, if all their posts have to do with the mood they’re in, then you’ll write them off as narcissists. If too much of their posting is self-promotion, you’ll stop following them. If they post exclusively for the benefit of their little clique, likewise. If they’re all business, then you wont relate to them; if they’re all simply amusing, then you’ll cull them mercilessly. And you’ll judge them. For the ratio of following to followers. For the quality of their followers. For the frequency of their tweeting, and for their artfulness with 140 characters, and for the frequency with which they’re honoured with the coveted re-tweet.

But the best ones, the real Twitter geeks, have a genius for it. Read over their update histories, and you see deftly rendered mosaics: Information, amusement, heartfelt opinion, trivial personal insight, friendly support, impassioned debate, all narratively constructed as painstakingly as if they were writing code. They don’t say the same things over and over. They say everything in careful proportions, in the process creating either an authentic portrait of themselves, or a brilliantly synthetic one. Believe it or not, there are even corporate Twitterers out there for whom the same formula seems to work, and the results are just as engaging.

Put simply, in the Twitterverse, your personal brand is not a stated claim; it’s the aggregate effect of every observable thing you say and the company you keep. It is the perfect, perfect metaphor for how commercial brands happen in the post-mass media era, no matter what they told you at Cannes.

Geeks, despite the wedgies they may have had to endure in the schoolyard, might just be ascendant in the world of branding.

I really hope smart-asses are next.