Back in April I wrote that I thought brands today have an opportunity to become media companies themselves:
What is tremendously interesting here, is that consumer brand companies are finding themselves becoming media companies. Not in the traditional sense of media 1.0, but in media 2.0, or participatory/social media. This shift flies in the face of the old “core competency” business strategy where companies focus on what they do best, shedding or outsourcing the rest. But the shift in technology and audience expectations is driving a major evolution in marketing, which, at least initially, is leading companies to develop, purchase and/or maintain/support media properties, be they online forums, blogs, and social networks. (This is already starting to result in brands competing with traditional media, the very places they have supported by their advertising over the past decades. With large consumer products companies in better financial shape than media companies, this might result in some odd marriages in the next few years.)
Since then, I have been putting a bit of thought into what I meant by that, with a special focus on thinking about what Umair Haque has been writing about branding and media economics. Let's start with Haque's definition of a brand:
What is a brand? It’s a promise: information from a firm promising you a set of costs and benefits from the consumption of a good or service. Brands shape your expected value.
A lot of people have taken him to task for this definition in the comments to this post and follow-up posts, but I tend to agree with him. Contrary to what some commenters seem to think, this definition does still keep the idea of social meaning, happy associations etc. The brand compresses information – it is a symbol – for everything a consumer can expect to achieve when he/she consumes the object the brand represents. Economically, this can be broken down into costs/benefits (even if we don't usually think about it in that way).
The challenge facing brands today is that a brand can no longer be only a symbol; it has to become much, much more than that. This doesn't mean it stops being a symbol – its shorthand promise will remain important, simply because not every consumer is going to have the time or desire to read and interact with all of the incredibly rich detail located behind the brand. My argument is that brands have to become media itself – the medium or platform on which the symbol is co-created with its consumers.
Let's back up for a minute and look at this from a couple of different directions.
What is media? The dictionary definition states that it is “a medium of cultivation, conveyance, or expression”; whereas medium is “the means of effecting or conveying something” (a channel, environment, or mode). Let us define it this way: “media is a platform for shaping expectations.” By platform, I mean a place for the production and distribution of information. I think we can agree that this meets our usual thinking of what media is (a newspaper, TV station, radio station, even social networks). This brings us to a few important questions:
Who owns the platform?
Who shapes the expectations?
In what directions does the information flow?
The answer to these questions are quite important in characterizing the media/medium, because as we have known since Marshall McLuhan, the medium itself is a message (especially about power).
In traditional mass media, publishing companies owned the platform and publishers, editors and journalists shaped the expectations (under the influence of readers, of course, but often not directly). The information, for the most part, flowed outwards to readers, with limited incoming channels for interaction. Brands purchased space/time on these platforms in order to distribute their symbols.
Today anyone can produce and distribute information. Anyone can be media: “a platform for shaping expectations.” This is an important opportunity for brands to become something far more than just a symbol; they can become the means for shaping expectations. Haque uses Google and Apple as examples of next-generation brands that are doing just this. Furthermore, he writes that media is a platform where producers and consumers interact.
This brings me to another angle on the story: investment.
Haque tells us that traditional branding activities, especially advertising, imposes costs on consumers. Costs of interrupted attention, time spent waiting for a TV show to resume, polluted visual fields in cities and countrysides, and so on. Culturally, consumers are now expressing their increasing resentment of these costs and refusing to pay them (and technology is giving them ever more tools to easily do so). Haque argues that brands today must invest in consumers instead, using Google's non-ad riddled home page as the primary example of a brand investing in its consumers. What does investment mean? First of all, listening. Then thinking about how communications can benefit consumers.
This is a tricky thing for brands, and requires a dramatic shift in thinking. To restate: One cannot think only about how a product or service benefits its users, but how branding activities themselves can be beneficial. As long as the only option for brand awareness to achieve scale was buying space/time on other platforms, their freedom to create new experiences was limited. When a brand is itself a platform, worlds of possibilities open up. Notice I didn't say, “when a brand owns a platform.” It is very important that old ideas of ownership and control don't pollute this framework. Rather, brands must invest in consumers by providing the infrastructure needed for the co-creation of the platform. The development of the expectations, the development of the promise, must come through the relationships being formed on that platform between (co-)producer(s) and consumers. In fact, the answers to the questions stated above become:
ownsmanages the platform: Everyone
Who shapes the expectations: Everyone
In what directions does influence flow: Everywhere
Let's put it another way: the platform is where value is created. Brands invest in the creation and management (with a light touch) of the platform, thereby “investing” in consumers. The return on this investment is the value that consumers add, by contributing content and ideas, mashing up information – basically by investing their attention. Think about it: the platform receives investment from both sides! The total value created can then be channeled into new products and services. Branding platforms as value generators has a really nice sound to it (and important implications for measuring the impact of branding activities, to say the least).
I am comforted by the idea that thinking about brand as media opens up vast new horizons for the practice of marketing, communications, public relations and so on. While some brands may become media companies themselves (as I previously suggested), I am sure this idea will manifest in other ways as well. I will keep my eye out for examples of brand platforms as value engines, and welcome any suggestions you may have.