Friday, August 20, 2010

Counting crows.


If there is one thing that unites marketers and consumers into a single strident, stubborn voice, it’s the firm belief that the social meaning of brands is an irrelevant mirage. Marketers resist it because there’s nothing to count, it’s hard to win at, and it makes for lousy PowerPoint presentations. Consumers resist it because they fear it makes them look vain and shallow, and foolish with their money. And this congruence is matched, if at all, only by the fact that both are egregiously and abjectly wrong about that.

Branding is all about social meaning. Over the last century, one by one, all the practical reasons for brands to exist have fallen away – branding has decoupled itself from manufacturing, from functional superiority and lately even from status – and yet the firmament of brands is more filled with glittering specimens than it has ever been before. And the reason: Social meaning has value to consumers. Brands are a vivid palette we can use to create avatars of ourselves, and we’re willing to pay good money and to humour marketers to keep ‘em coming.

Still, it’s a contention that’s likely to get you that dogs-watching-TV look from people when you float the idea in a boardroom, or a focus group, or at a splendid dinner party. So imagine my delight at stumbling on this little dialectical silver bullet today: Gamers who play immersive virtual reality games are willing to pay more for branded virtual products, and sales of same are growing like gangbusters.

The white paper is worth a read, though it focuses more on the tactical marketing opportunity in the phenomenon. The real story, for me, though, lay in the vast, unintended branding experiment. It was as if someone had created a giant laboratory Pleasantville for consumers in which there were brands to choose from, but it was absolutely impossible to make a bad product choice. The logical outcome of an experiment like that would seem to be commoditization. People would stop caring about which toaster they bought, and the category would rapidly devolve into being like pork bellies and soybeans. But that didn’t happen. People still engaged in choice-making, and they still parted with more money than they needed to in order to make those choices observable.

Fantastic.

It’s not for marketers to convince consumers to admit to this need, though I’m going to take a good run at it in Consumer Republic. But it is something marketers need to worry more about. It’s inescapable that the social meaning of a brand is going to grow and grow as a component of attraction. It’s inarguable that more and more consumer contact with brands is going to occur in a social context, online or otherwise. So it seems to me inevitable that marketing will continue to evolve from being about value… to being about meaning.

Soon, for a lot of brands, that’s all there will be left to sell. The only thing that really counts.