Branding is dead
- Branding is irrelevant in the age of the social networks. The consumer wants facts, not a fictional story about a product, a brand or a company, says the American media theorist, public speaker and author, Douglas Rushkoff, in this interview with MarketMagazine.
- By: Karsten Bengtsson
- Published: 20-12-2013
The American author and public speaker Douglas Rushkoff is an adviser on cultural affaires, not only to the United Nation, but also for corporate businesses. Rushkoff is often called in as a consultant to work with marketing companies and other businesses. His role is pretty clear. Business people want Rushkoff to express something that runs contrary to the public opinion. Something provocative, something out of the ordinary. The opposite of what most people in the profession dare to say.
Just like the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Emperor’s New Clothes.
So there here he is in 2011 at Pivot, a conference on branding, the last speaker at the event. Earlier in the day a lot of marketing professionals has talked about their new “Twitter strategy” and their “Facebook branding efforts” and so on. And then Douglas Rushkoff take the stage with a bottle of water in his hand and tells the crowd that “branding is dead”. The Emperor has no clothes on. He is naked.
Only a handful in the audience is laughing.
Provocative statements like this have become, in some ways, Douglas Rushkoff’s own well-protected brand.
The brand Rushkoff.
The future is now
It is a “brand” that has been built over a long period of time - since Rushkoff’s first novel, Cyberia, was published in 1992 – a book initially canceled by the publisher who feared the Internet would be over by the time the book came out. Rushkoff later coined the term “viral media” in the book MEDIA VIRUS from 1994.
His latest book is called “Present Shock”. In it Douglas Rushkoff argues, that we no longer is afraid of an unknown future, but of the present. In the fifties and sixties, when Alvin Toffler wrote his book “Future Shock”, people were worried about the future. Whereas Toffler said we were disoriented by a future that was careening toward us, Rushkoff argues that we no longer have a sense of a future, of goals, of direction at all. We have a completely new relationship to time; we live in an always-on “now,” where the priorities of this moment seem to be everything.
Wall Street traders no longer invest in a future; they expect profits off their algorithmic trades themselves, in the ultra-fast moment. Voters want immediate results from their politicians, having lost all sense of the historic timescale on which government functions. Kids txt during parties to find out if there’s something better happening in the moment, somewhere else.
So today we are challenged by the present, says Rushkoff, though he does thinks that the present holds great promises and possibilities. But we don’t fully understand the always-on now.
The peer-to-peer economy
- If you asked young people what Facebook is for, they will say, “oh, Facebook is here to help me makes friends”. But, as you and I know, Facebook is not here to help us make friends. Facebook is not designed as a place, where you meet friends, it is designed as a place, where companies can monetize conversations and extract data about you and your friends. That’s what Facebook is for. It is a place, where you put brands between people and their conversations and calls it “social marketing”, says Douglas Rushkoff and laughs.
- That is the funniest thing about all this, that marketing people use the term “social marketing”. “Social marketing” is an oxymoron, because what social marketing actually does is to interfere with people who are trying to be social on these networks.
Facebook is an application that is trying to create a centralized world.
The Internet, on the other hand, was created as an effort to restore the peer-to-peer economy and culture that has existed forever - except for the last 100 to 600 years - depending on how you count it. So you are trying to build a centralized application on top of a decentralized network. Therefore is Facebook and Twitter and all your other so called social media applications something that runs in the complete opposite direction, than what the Internet was created for - which was to the give people a chance to interact directly with one another.
The Internet was programmed to give people an opportunity to create and exchange value directly with one another.
Conversation based on facts
- In the Middle Ages people went to the bazaar. And they went there for all kinds of reasons. They went there to buy stuff, they went there to hear the priest, to talk to one another, to meet other people, to find a lover and so on. So we had a social space in the bazaar where commerce, religion and sex where all part of the conversation. It was an overlapping conversation with many layers of culture in it. But the conversations where all based on facts. “Hallo, over there you can buy very good shoes. Oh, over there, at Joe’s place, there is fresh fruit. And so on. It was a fact-based communication.
But then came the industrial age where big corporations started making the shoes. And how where they going to compete with shoes from Joe - the skilled shoemaker? Brands. That was what brands where for. Brands where created to replace the human interaction that one would experience in a peer-to-peer economy. And the mass media was created to communicate these brands to a mass market in a mythical way so we, the consumers, could feel a human relation to the products, which we brought - not from a human - but from a corporation. And that was all okay. In many ways it was a good thing. It was good for the expansion of the economy; it was good for colonization and so on.
Branding is irrelevant
- But then we got the Internet. And the Internet, by design, restored the peer-to-peer exchange. And in the beginning it was kind of working. People where trading with one another on eBay and on Craigslist. The bazaar was back - with its multi-culture level of communications - but now on a global scale.
But then came the social media revolution and the corporate world tried to ride on this big new thing. They wanted to put their brand into the conversation. “Oh, now we can have a conversation with the consumer. Oh, now we can talk the consumer…”
But brands have no place in an online conversation among people. Branding is irrelevant in the age of the social networks. People don’t want to talk to brands. People on social networks are not on these sites as consumers. They are people, talking about all sorts of stuff with other people. People don’t go on Twitter to talk to Pepsi or McDonald’s. They go there to see if people they know have something to say. Something that is real to them.
So brands have no place in that conversation. Facts about products and services may have a place in that conversation. But not brands.
Creating a myth
- And why doesn’t brands has anything to do on social networks? Because what makes a person valuable in a social network is the information, they put out there. That is how they gain social currency. By the facts, they are sharing. Even if it’s just gossip or small talk - it is still facts. People are trying to share something that other people will value, so their own social value will increase. But brands are fictional. They are creating a myth in order to replace human-to-human interaction. And that is not what people are looking for. They are not looking to interact with the Keebler Elves (Keebler is a cookie brand in the US). If people are talking about cookies, they will talk about the facts of the cookies. Are they healthy? Are they organic? How are they made? And so on.
The Internet is biased toward non-fiction. So if you are an expert at a company, you can share your knowledge and gain status or social currency. If I’m online talking about pizza, I’m not going to gain status by saying, “Isn’t that little character they use in the commercial cute?” No, in the online pizza culture, I’m going to gain currency by being able to say, “Did you know Domino’s is now using organic tomatoes in its sauce?” It’s a fact. Then it’s like, “Wow, this guy knows his pizza.”
- Look at Apple. Most of its ads are showing the features of the product: It does this, it’s this thin, it will operates for this many hours. It’s all about the product.
Whole Foods (an organic Supermarket) and Patagonia (a clothing company) are other good examples of companies that exploit facts. All you need is to be at the center of the culture of the things you do. That’s 21st century brand loyalty instead of 20th, because now you’re getting loyalty to the product instead of towards the brand. The Internet, as a communication space, is transparent. Television is opaque; it’s good for sharing stories and myths. The Internet is good for spreading facts. The one thing that works best on social media is damage control. And why is that? Because damage control is in the non-fictional space. Most brands only use facts, when they’ve been attacked, when something gets exposed and they need to do damage control. Then they use facts.
But facts are what the Internet is all about. Facts will spread. Real conversations will be shared. Brands will not.
So forget your “Twitter strategy” and all that stuff. Go out and have an honest conversation about your product. All these companies come to people like me saying, “We want to become transparent. We want a transparent communication strategy.” And I’m like “Well, are you proud of what’s going on inside your company? Are you proud enough to pull up the shades and let people see inside?” It’s really that easy.
Social media is a good excuse for companies to try to actually do what they do well and to be recognized for it. I believe we’re finally living on a business landscape that, properly utilized, can allow companies that makes good products to communicate that fact to the world at large and become really profitable as a result.
Douglas Rushkoff is the author of Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, as well as a dozen other bestselling books on media, technology, and culture, including Program or Be Programmed, Media Virus, Life Inc and the novel Ecstasy Club. He wrote the graphic novels Testament and A.D.D., and made the television documentaries Merchants of Cool, The Persuaders, and Digital Nation. He lives in New York, and lectures about media, society, and economics around the world.