Friday, September 18, 2009

Speak no evil.


I am driving a dreary, abused little rental car today. And my lawn is deep enough to conceal ocelots.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been disappointed by a couple of very famous brands in which I’d invested both faith and cash. And I’m not just whining, here, about a lousy customer service experience or some random product quality deficiency. I’m talking about products that failed on precisely the terms in which their brands defined them (Land Rovers aren’t supposed to strand you in the middle of nowhere – routinely - whatever other quirks they may have. And John Deere tractors cost a little more specifically because they don’t just quit without warning, and Deere dealers know that crops don’t wait for parts). These things happen to all of us, I realize. And I will do what I can to exercise my consumer franchise. For my more rugged transportation needs, I have been driven straight into the arms of Toyota. And as for John Deere, word of mouth is actually still a powerful thing in a rural area like this. My neighbour has already bought a Cub Cadet.

But it got me thinking.

I can punish a brand that doesn’t mean what it says by depriving it of my own future business, yes. But let’s be honest: That can be, in this short horizon business world of ours, kind of an abstract threat. How can I make them blush with shame? How do I make them try a little harder for the next guy, even if it’s only to prove me wrong? Where is the soapbox on which I can stand for a minute and say, “The big green tractors might be awesome, but the little green tractors might be just badge engineered boat anchors”? How is it that some guy in Flemington, WV, selling a used lawn mower on eBay bears more public accountability for keeping his promises than the biggest heavy equipment manufacturers on the planet?

I think this is a gaping hole in an otherwise brilliant system of commerce. You see, a brand’s commercial value lies fundamentally in its reputation. Whatever other arcane nuances make branding interesting and get consultants all lathered up, the foundation on which a brand stands is its putative community of happy customers. When we see a big company, we assume that it got that way by succeeding more often than it fails. When we see fame in a brand, we assume that this is because a lot of people have said glowing things about it in the past. Success, whether we’re conscious of it or not, is supposed to be a cue of competence. But these assumptions only make sense if the opposite outcomes are also possible. They’re really only valid if a company can’t get big by having its mistakes go unnoticed. Can’t get famous simply because the people it let down were mute.

We’re entering an era in which the influence of advertising is receding like the polar ice caps, and with it the power to buy reputation. In its place, we’re promised a glorious future of consumer information empowerment, enabled by the internet. But we also live in an era when lots of the things we buy aren’t even built by the company whose names they bear. Brands are curating and mediating more often than they’re actually building things. That means that the provenance of a product is becoming more important than the product itself. And while there are lots of scraps and crumbs of user feedback online for those willing to slog through it to try to form an impression of that provenance, there is no repository of feedback on the companies behind those products.

In a speech last fall, Eric “Don’t be evil” Schmidt said of the web, “Brands are the solution, not the problem. Brands are how you sort out the cesspool [of false information online].” I fervently believe this. But if brands are going to be our beacons of credibility in the information age, somebody’s got to keep them honest. That somebody is us, of course. The question is how.

Cyberspace teems with geniuses who write code that rates eBay sellers, predicts what songs and books we might like, and ruthlessly assigns blog authority. Someday, one of them – maybe even one who works for Mr. Schmidt - will do the same for the authority of brands. Some late night, one of them, buzzing with idealism and Red Bull, will figure out how we can collectively, objectively keep score.

That would change everything.