Today's marketing director sits inside a panopticon more brutal than that originally designed by Jeremy Bentham. Based on the premise that the chance of being watched forces the one watched to change his or her behavior, the panopticon was a model for a prison. Michel Foucault took this metaphor (the panopticon was never actually built) and expands on it in his discussion of power in the book Discipline and Punish. His postmodernist view of power (dispersed throughout society but, through observation, acting strongly on us all) offers some insight into how new communications channels are changing the practice of branding.
All of us are familiar with how the mere possibility of surveillance can influence our behavior. How many of us sit at a red light in the middle of the night in a quiet place and debate with ourselves whether or not to actually run it? Most people won't, because we are conditioned to the idea that the cop is awaiting us around the corner at just that moment to nab us.
Today, of course, surveillance is becoming much more of a sure thing. Rather than the remote chance a cop is monitoring that traffic light, you now have cameras that will surely record your misdeed should you choose to go for it. Now, I wonder if the powers that be understand that they could have a cardboard box in place of the camera, and the vast majority of people would obey it? In any case, surveillance is a fact of life.
Now, what does this have to do with branding?
In the recent past, the marketing director had at his or her fingertips an array of powerful tools to develop and support a company's brand. Television and print advertising, billboards, product packaging, even entire stores. Public relations acted in support of the brand, disseminating stories about happy customers, keeping executives "on message", creating glitzy press conferences, and so on. Consumers were the passive audience, sucking up these messages and, hopefully, emptying their wallets in the pursuit of relationships (no dandruff = beautiful date), family harmony (our "meal in a bag" will ensure family table togetherness"), health (take our drug = stay at work, keep the boss happy ), etc.
At the core of all of this "branding" was control. Companies could, with a fair amount of success, control their brand. The model was one-to-many, where the roles consumers played were answering questions in a focus group, participating in a poll and ponying up the dough.
Of course, there were exceptions, and if the product the company produced was a dog, no amount of branding could fix it. Remember New Coke? The Apple Newton?
Today, things are changing. Marketers are losing control over their company's brand as consumers are gaining influence through the interactive channels of web-based communications (newsgroups, blogs, etc.)
A good example is what is happening now with the iPod. First, hip ads, glowing reviews. Then, an upswell of consumer discontent over the captive battery problem, starting in the blogsphere, and then gaining broad media play. When you visit the iPod website there is no response [yet] from Apple. Resolution? Who knows, but the brand has taken a hit and Dell is there, ready to capitalize on it.
Today, the focus of brand surveillance is shifting, with the brand manager/marketing director sitting dead center of a panopticon with thousands or millions of watchers. And each of these watchers has the power to bring in more. The new communications channels -- especially blogging -- has wrested control over the brand from the owner. Postmodern branding, with its implications of distributed power, has emerged.
Now, in most cases [in these early days of many-to-one surveillance], the corporate brand police will fight a rear-guard action through advertising, more "glowing reviews", strategic (read: movie/tv) product placements and lawsuits. But this is, ultimately, a losing battle. The numbers alone work against winning: thousands and millions of people now have easy access to ways to share their opinions and band together to let you know what they think. No marketing department budget is big enough to address this using traditional strategies.
Smart companies will realize that their brand is actually CREATED by their audience, not by their resident "Branding expert". The true "brand" of an organization or product will emerge from interactive market conversations among consumers of the brand. This is the world that the Cluetrain Manifesto describes so well. Smart companies will EMBRACE this new reality, and become partners with their customers in creating their brand.
Note: This post is part of the first grid blogging experiment proposed by Ashley Benigo. All of these posts are being aggregated here. Feel free to participate by creating your own post on the subject of brand.