A Literacy of the Imagination

a deeper look at innovation through the lenses of media, technology, venture investment and hyperculture

Filtering by Category: rapid innovation

Designing (For) Trust


A few years ago, I discovered a conversational framework in pre-marital counseling that opened my eyes to how trust might actually operate in relationships (you can already guess what happened to my marriage... ;). One of the revelations I had was that you don't just build trust in relationships, you go into relationships having trust in yourself.

I sometimes cringe when people talk about trust as though it is a given, as they tend to gloss over the realities of physical and mental interaction. This is especially the case when people wax on about social business or social technology innovations. But that is all well and good, because it is all part of the process of awareness, and I think the concepts tied to trust are important for people to build upon in their own ways and at their own paces.

We all know that relationship dynamics can be very complex, but I do believe that trust itself is quite simple in its faculty. I've also witnessed some very interesting transformations, both in the startup work I've been doing, as well as in some of the innovation work I've been privileged to be a part of. This is one of several scientific studies I've researched that seem to corroborate what I've experienced in different entrepreneurial and corporate settings. And there is always the inimitable Csikszentmihalyi (tongue-twister!) from which to draw inspiration.

If I were to reduce the essence of trust down to single equivalent, it would be this: love of self. A natural extension of that would be confidence in self. This confidence is expressed quite clearly at the personal and collective levels, and takes on various forms of creative and cognitive energy. Some questions to ask ourselves (per the graphic) might be:

- How do I feel about myself when I enter group environments?

- How do I choose to communicate those feelings?

- How do I express my values in such a way that they can be understood?

- What are my true intentions?

- What are my perceptions of self as I interact with others?

- What are other people's perceptions of me (how do I 'occur' to them?)

- What am I willing to do or contribute to change those perceptions?

- Can I empathize with others and align my values to theirs?

Self-love, of course, doesn't refer to a reliance on Ego (the self-consumed part of it), but rather a completeness or a mindfulness that one can share love and be loved. Confidence, therefore, can manifest as an organic expression of that self-love, and can literally permeate a room or physical space with an incredible aura. In online spaces, it can certainly catalyze the visions or perceptions of what a relationship might become.

Lest we forget that we can design platforms, experiences and/or ideas for trust-building, and we can engage in trust-building exercises, but there is a significant awareness factor that cannot be ignored.

Admittedly, I've made a lot of mistakes in this respect; it's one thing to want to trust someone, but it's another thing to hold trust, earn trust and share trust with other people. I've had a few situations over the last several months in which trust was broken, in part because I failed to see what the the potential for trust could even be. That is something I've had to own as a part of my self-responsibility, my own learning experience. I also have to reconcile with the possibility that perhaps, to those people, I just wasn't trustworthy, for whatever reasons there may be (some of those reasons I'm still trying to figure out and incorporate into my own realm of understanding). On a more positive note, I've also repaired a couple of broken relationships because I was able to communicate my ownership of the issues, and was able to align a set of values with those people.

So, it seems we can design for trust, but we don't actually design trust itself, nor do we really engineer its mechanisms. Then again, who knows what today will reveal. In the meantime, perhaps the graphic at top will help you in your own design work.

.

 

Sorry Jason Calacanis, Google Isn't the Only Game in Town (The Amazon Principle)

Next month, I'll be delivering a keynote at TruEffect's Brand Partner Summit in Boulder, Colorado, on the topic of storytelling and advertising. I've talked a bit about the future of ads in general, in particular as a service industry.

The real context I'd like to address right here -- and what will serve as the backdrop for my talk in Boulder -- is what is actually driving the media ecosystem and respective information systems as a whole.

Right now, Google seems to have the upper hand. But this won't be the case for much longer.

As you may recall, late last year Jason Calacanis wrote a really interesting piece entitled "#googlewinseverything".  The post generated quite a lot of buzz in technology and venture circles for obvious reasons. In the piece, Calacanis provides a list of truisms about Google, saying rather emphatically:

"In truth, the 10 ‘facts’ I’ve outlined above are not mine; these are the opinions I’ve collected over the past year asking intelligent folks, ‘So what do you think about Google?’ These are the 'facts' as the people see them. Although, I haven’t found anyone who disagrees with these 10 facts – do you?"

Well, I'm not going to disagree with Calacanis per se (he has access to a lot more inside info than I do and I have lots of respect for him as an entrepreneur and investor), but I am going to challenge the list of assertions he provides within context.

Here they are, point and counterpoint.

1. No company has as many smart people as Google. -> Define 'smart'. In a 'wicked' complex world, creative intelligence (or 'EQ', emotional quotient) is just as important as quantitative or purely scientific chops.

2. No company is as ambitious as Google. -> Define 'ambitious'. Do you mean to say that a host of companies without Google's market cap or footprint aren't taking on significant cultural mores, or attempting to create massive social change (for the better) -- like Amazon?

3. No company is working on as many hard problems as Google. -> Define 'hard problems'. Defer to counterpoint #2.

4. No company makes as many big bets as Google. -> What kind of bets? With what intentions? Defer to counterpoint #2.

5. No company is willing to make as many crazy acquisitions as Google. -> Maybe so. But there are lots of companies that don't have to acquire as much in order to 'push the envelope' as it were (i.e. market ownership is not the same as market creation...). Defer to counterpoint #2, with the caveat that Amazon is buying a lot in order to strengthen its infrastructure and market positioning.

6. No company has more data than Google. -> Perhaps. But is it all the right/best kind of data? (i.e. Is it clean? Can it be parallel processed? Is it behavioral? Does it seamlessly connect to the knowledge/social graphs? Is it scalable through reference/inferential databases? etc.). Defer to counterpoint #2.

7. Few companies understand how to play the government better than Google. -> Probably the case. But in Google's position, and given backdoor surveillance (as just one example), is that a good thing? More importantly, is Google really influencing policy in the best interests of us (its users)?

8. No company has more global influence than Google. -> Right now, probably true. But that won't remain to be the case. Defer to counterpoint #2.

9. No company is as ruthlessly efficient as Google. -> From my own experience working with Google (Google 'proper' and YouTube), that's simply not true. Great company and great people, yes, but 'ruthlessly efficient', no.

10. Only one CEO is more ambitious than Google’s Larry Page.* -> Jeff Bezos?

As you might've gathered, I have a thing for Amazon. Don't get me wrong, I think the world of Google, but Amazon is a special kind of dark horse (if you can even call a company that big a 'dark horse'). This Atlantic piece, which came out right around the time Calacanis wrote his post, was a really good, balanced take on how Amazon is making seismic moves.

The basic premise -- and my firm belief -- is that any company which thinks the way Amazon does long-term, to include massive financial risks, will 'win' long-term.

Now of course, pundits will say that Google has always thought long-term. That's debatable. Per the (counter)points above, Google has thought long-term about experimental domains like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, sustainable cities and transit, but I would assert that it actually hasn't thought that way about its own $28bb+ core search/ad business.

Here's why/how.

Amazon has just about every asset in the new commerce toolkit, and it's only a matter of time before its search product catches up with its capabilities in content, storytelling (journalism especially), publishing, purchasing, production, cloud/quantum computing and network distribution (private, social and virtual).

Bottom line: with its advanced ecosystem, Amazon doesn't need ads or impressions to rule the web like Google does currently.

If you'd like more validation on this position, check out a wonderfully curated thread my friend Alex Schleber put together in early February -- he poses a great list of questions (probably better than those I did here), and there's lots of contextual grist to explore, replete with great data-points.

The 'battle' between Google and Amazon, as it were, will likely produce cultural tensions that will push all of us to think differently, consume differently, produce more thoughtfully and tell stories with more of a bent towards real social utility. As a result, I think we will see the emergence of a truly co-opetitive economic landscape, in which ecosystems amplify these tensions and create amazing new ways to improve our world.

It will be exciting to watch and participate.

Socially Conscious Investing, Work & World-Building

Happy New Year! 2014 has already proven to be quite fruitful and full of new roads for discovery.

As a follow-up piece to previous posts on conscious capital, co-op investments and discovering value in the age of bitcoin, I thought I would share a video of my talk in Grasse from October. Some of the corporate examples of sustainable innovation you're probably familiar with, but it goes a bit more into how these kinds of efforts can scale in a global marketplace. Many companies are still hesitant to invest in sustainability efforts, and I believe that's because disciplines like CSR are more about good branding than good business models. But that's all changing.

The real emphasis is on how people can transcend their roles and responsibilities at work and in everyday life to become progenitors of change. This has been the core philosophy behind the innovation experiments we've been running around the globe, and it involves much more than good technology and fancy methodologies (although those elements are, of course, important).

In this case -- enabling executive stakeholders in the cosmetics industry to imagine a different world through their products -- we were able to spend four days developing creative muscles, nurturing personal and group awareness, as well as running through role-playing scenarios. The participants literally built worlds or ecosystems that reflected ecological and emotional connections to their companies, and the economy itself. One CEO even remarked that in doing so, she envisioned a new world without economic bubbles.

(*sidenote* we're editing a documentary film of the whole experience which we plan to distribute in Q3...)

Related to 'anti-bubble' economics and scale, Marc Andreessen was featured in an insightful piece in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago. That said, I thought the interview with him below is a terrific view into the immediate future (what I call the 'Future Now'). In particular, it's interesting to hear his thoughts on globalization and how value is created in competitive markets through an entrepreneurial mindset. I wish that he and other innovative investors would address more of the 'human problems' we face (Mr. Andreessen does touch upon on it in spots), but their intentions seem to be headed towards more of a socially conscious approach to investing, alongside of building sustainable companies and economies.

As I've mentioned in other posts, the concept of work is completely transforming, and not just as a by-product of repatriation, disintermediation and other production or transactional efficiencies (which are becoming more and more obvious). Passion and empathy are co-opting 'work' as a cultural edict and a form of social responsibility that embrace the complexities of human discourse. People want to change the world -- they need to, and they're figuring out how to make it happen for themselves and their communities.

And what a wonderful thing that is to see.

 

The Power of the Co-Op Investment Model

Following up on earlier posts regarding brand economics and ecosystemic investment, it's been interesting to witness (and advise on) some shifts in the startup investment landscape.

One such shift involves what can be coined as 'co-op investment'.

The basic premise of a co-op is to provide a structure that aligns various resources, operators and assets such that the investment itself has shared value. So, in the case of a corporation subsidizing a co-op investment, you would have entrepreneurs, marketers, researchers, lawyers and supply chain folks inhabiting the same space, sharing resources and making sure that their collective efforts produced demonstrable results.

Co-Op Investment.png

This has been the case with P&G's Cintrifuse project in Cincinnati. What started more or less as a $60mm write-down a little over a year ago, has blossomed into an ecosystem of 23 upstart companies and a funding mechanism that pairs up strategic partners with smart money, smart resources and tons of possibility for scale (a new form of a fund-of-funds).

A friend who is close to the project and I are developing ways to expand on the model, to see how this might scale in other markets around the country -- the idea being that we can develop new civic infrastructures, create new jobs and right some of our inherent social ills such as income inequality, poor education and skills development, as well as urban decay.

More to come as this model evolves...

Conscious Capital & Collective Intelligence

I just returned from Grasse in the south of France, where I took part in curating an experience to reinvent the perfume industry with executive leaders and stakeholders in the supply chain. I really didn't know what to expect (a common feeling when doing 'innovation' work), and I can honestly say that I was blown away by what transpired.

Human-centered design processes are obviously important in the work we do, but what's often neglected or left out is some sort of a human evolution in connecting to the intentions of what is desired as an outcome or set of outcomes. One of the themes we explored in this discovery process -- a new economic construct, really -- was conscious capital.

conscious capital.png
capital iterations.png
Human Capital.png

The magic of this event was the people and the interactions; in short, we were able to co-create a system that defined what capital is and can be in terms of value through the collective. Here's what was reinforced as we did the work:

Collective intelligence is an actual science that bridges conscious thought with conscious action.

There are a number of collective intelligence camps around the world that are advancing the notions of how we cultivate and manage information, and this was the first time I had experienced 'CI' as a real science. Part of it was the methodology applied in bringing conversational data from the web into the physical space, and coordinating a relationship between the 'outside' and the 'inside' information (in essence, making the 'big data' accessible, relevant and collaborative). Another very important aspect was making participants aware of what is happening 'out there' and what is happening 'in here' -- here being their own consciousness and a relatedness to others, especially those in the room (or in the field).

Centifolia.png

Storytelling is at the fore of product and system design -- it feeds off of heightened awareness through concise mental and physical play.

As various groups got deeper and deeper into developing a new perfume ecosystem, their interactions -- emotions, touch, communications, understandings -- went directly into their thought processes. It was as if they didn't have to think about what they were doing... they were just doing it, creating it, manifesting it. As such, their storytelling capabilities were amplified and they were literally able to express their insights in incredibly inventive ways. And when I talk of story, I really do mean the telling of it through agents, actors and archetypes... Which was omnipresent throughout this experience.

iConnect.png

Creativity, and thus innovation, is truly collective.

This might seem obvious to some, but in an executional realm it isn't, nor should it be. Truth is, we still ascribe much of our creative powers to some form of ownership ("I came up with this idea, not you..."), and innovation tends to be thought of as some 'special practice' that happens 'somewhere else'. For all the participants it became abundantly clear that they could remain in their specialty areas (executive management, R&D, production, sales, etc.) while wearing multiple hats. As one participant shared with me: "I always knew I was an interdisciplinarian!" Another participant astutely pointed out that owning the process of creation is counterproductive and counterintuitive to building a market: the more you give away the more you get back. This led to some fantastic explorations of commons practices and shared IP. 

There will be lots more to share on this (we're making a documentary film of the experience because it was that transformational), but it seems that we have a whole new territory to explore in how we reimagine corporate and social ecosystems... and how we can peacefully bring them together.

Until next time... 

Some Truth About 'Big Data', Agnostic Storytelling & Journalism

A couple weeks back I gave a talk at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on how to use data and the stories behind the data to build intelligence and sustain markets.

It's an hour-long, so I thought I'd summarize some key points for you:

 - Immediacy and importance with information leave us, as readers and media participants, grappling over the choice of information we want to consume or with which we want to interact;

- Data isn't 'big' so much as it is curatorial and relevant given a particular context or set of contexts;

storytelling in 21c.png

- Normative methods for measurement (clicks, views, page rank etc.) don't represent true or scalable value, and actually commodify the media market, to include 'content' and the creators of it; 

- Discovery and serendipity (not filtering) are vital for critical thought processes;

- Stories are in actuality the predicates for markets and their growth; the question becomes how we look beyond the need to push content out into media environments and instead look at how storytelling is used to leverage cultural and business behaviors;

- We need to relearn how to think, and ask better questions, knowing that the 'answers' may not come to us right away or ever;

- Central or 'meta' narratives have been constructed over time to influence our perspectives of the world that often run in conflict with what we know to be true in our hearts; the choices we make (our freewill) can shift these perspectives and create new realities through personal and collective stories;

Whole Self & Narrative.png

- Cognitive bias can be reframed to look at 'truth' and 'circumstance' as inferential; the idea is that information streams have phases or stages that provide pivots through which we can understand operating context -- the thing that enables us to understand information and make better decisions;

- The future of the media business as a whole hinges on three things: 1. emergence (allowing stories and ideas to flourish without media or advertising bias), 2. socialization (syndicating information streams as part of the storytelling process), 3. learning (adapting to what we discover, when we discover it). 

Be vigilant in your pursuit of context. Think and act critically. Always consider your fellow (wo)man. Be kind, be generous, be unreasonable in protecting your civil rights, and those of others. Make great, inspiring media. Most of all, always be informed, and if you’re not afforded the opportunity, then trust your intuition... All fundamental truth resides in your heart. And with that, the stories you tell, the information you share, can only be, and will only be, magnificent.

 

Participatory Publishing

As some of you already know, yesterday Alvin Djunaedi and I launched a new BETA version of Paperlet, the “world’s first participatory publishing platform” that allows you to develop a story with your audience -- the audience being your friends, family and other people in your social network.

What is participatory publishing?

Well, we hope that the concept was explained to some extent above (and in the video). How this functions as a market behavior, now and in the very near future, is something we find most intriguing.

The ecosystem of online or digital publishing looks something like this, and has what I call a “double diamond” effect:

Double Diamond.png

Basically, this construct puts users (people) in the middle of a wonderful web of service interrelationships. As market disciplines like advertising and publishing become more and more disintermediated by a host of utilities and exchanges (real-time curation, programmatic buying, mobile-enabled and geo-targeted content creation, etc.), creative, strategic and distribution services become more dependent on each other, and their networks, to provide value.

In that sense, the “diamond” is the nexus of providing behavior that allows the creator or storyteller to leverage the best of the ecosystem to serve their needs and that of the market itself. As this hybrid service becomes an actual product, the diamond doubles down on the direct and indirect relationships that the ecosystem provides. There’s a reciprocal and sustainable effect, if you will.

For example, imagine that you are a storyteller -- specifically, a journalist -- and you develop a piece on urban farming. You have a means to write the story, a way of editorializing it, even a way of turning it into a product of sorts. Why and how? The story has potential value in its uses across social or digital networks, as well as your value in the fact that you wrote it, you have experience in the field and you've provided unique insight. Inversely, the marketplace is empowered because that insight can be used to tell more stories like it, and place you in a position to make connections with more publishers who are looking to place or curate good stories. So, whether the story originates from you, a publisher or an agency is almost irrelevant... what matters is that present or realized value can be tracked and measured within the ecosystem.

It's interesting to note the effect on publishing itself; I have referred to 'publishers' here as anyone or anything that publishes content, online or off (newspapers, magazines, portals, etc.). Self-publishing has emerged as a means to democratize distribution, but I would assert that without network services, this is just another tool or channel to create more content without the right readership. Further, the bar on storytelling quality is challenged as more content is created and 'pimped out' across media channels. Therein lies the core logic behind Paperlet's business model.

Where platforms have historically acted as destinations (“Over here! Come check out our great content!”), the ubiquity of creation and distribution has enabled a shift in how platforms come to be. This essentially means that the macro services of purchasing, storytelling and utilities (applications) reconfigure themselves as people customize and partner with each other -- as they become participants in the development of new markets.

This is why companies like Amazon are so formidable, because they are figuring out that their real power lies in how quickly they adapt their service products to the needs of the marketplace, and that of course hinges on who is operating within it.

Valuable.png

It’s a brave new world for storytellers and publishers alike… that is, if they can look at their networks and actually see the possibilities.

----------------------------------------------------------------------

RELATED POSTS:

Content’s New(ish) Context

The Real Money is in Ecosystems

Connecting Brands and Networks to Make Content Matter

The Future of Advertising Isn’t Advertising (As We Know It)

On Storytelling & The Challenges of Multi-Platform Media

5 Really Important Shifts in Media & Technology

Building Intelligence: How Data + Storytelling is the Ultimate Act of Creation

I waited a bit to post this (not really sure why), but it's from a talk I gave late last year in Sydney, Australia at the StoryLabs event run by the multi-talented Gary Hayes.

It covers off on unique methods and use cases for developing story-driven platforms that comprise various uses of data, content and media, along with considerations for revenue opportunities and scale. There's heavy emphasis on co-creation with audiences and stakeholders, and how we can enable people to participate in meaningful ways. 

Deck is below, audio podcast can be found here.

Enjoy.

from

Gunther Sonnenfeld

The Future of Advertising Isn't Advertising (As We Know It)

My good pal and The Big Pivot co-author, Sasha Grujicic, and I ran a series of discussions at the Banff World Media Festival earlier this month (June 9-11) that pulled together stakeholders on the brand, media, creative and technology sides of the business.

To kick off the day, we gave a brief preamble to the overarching theme: The future of advertising. The discussions went really well, so we decided to take some of the insights and blow this theme out for y’all in the websphere so that we could keep the thought generation flowing.

The following is a Slideshare presentation with embedded audio; it’s more of conversation format than narration (a wee bit on the rambling side, but oh well). You’ll see that we placed a lot of emphasis on the notion of what an agency service model(s) looks like in a business landscape that is flattening and whose resources are becoming more distributed.

We hope you get a lot of value out of it, and secretly, we hope you bother us about it. Cheers.

P.S. Our work with nextMedia (Banff event organizer) went so well that we are developing a new format to get the stakeholders mentioned above and investors to advance these discussions and rapidly prototype new business ideas. Stay tuned.

Attention Marketers: The Real Money is in Ecosystems

What people really think about “brands” and “ads”.

There are a host of studies that address the ways in which people are affected by ads and onslaughts of marketing messages, as well as how they feel about them. Most of the data and insights are inglorious; probably the most telling are the studies based on “native advertising”. This one from MediaBrix and Harris Interactive is a pretty good indicator of why consumers have become activists in editing and avoiding ads altogether.

Granted, many of these studies don’t even ask the right questions, or questions more oriented towards cultural behaviors or daily rituals. Choosing between the better or lesser of evils ("Would you rather go with option A, B or C in this rotation?") isn't exactly leading marketers in the direction of enlightenment.

Brand studies are even more elusive; my favorite (I’m being facetious) is this series conducted by Interbrand, which provides geographically designated results on brands in different markets based on variables that have little to do with company operations, sustainability or customer relationship metrics, and everything to do with “brand perception” based on fixed (and arguably irrelevant) variables.

The Bhutan approach to relationship metrics (specifically GNH or Gross National Happiness) is really where these survey questions should lead... But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

brand studies.png

What this says is, as an industry, marketing and advertising is still talking to itself in a giant echo chamber, and is making huge, sweeping assumptions about customer behavior when it doesn’t have to. In short, companies, via their brands, have an opportunity to ask far better questions. And this is precisely where companies will continue to make or lose money.

Marketing is intended to actually build markets.

One of the smartest things I’ve heard recently came from General Electric CMO, Beth Comstock, who unapologetically proclaimed that "Marketing is now about creating and developing new markets; not just identifying opportunities but also making them happen".

Comstock looks at GE as the world’s oldest startup, and this is the kind of thinking that has sustained GE as an innovator across industries for decades.

If you were to look more closely at the word marketing, it would seem that this approach in building markets is a given, but of course it isn’t.

Developing an ecosystem of ideas and resources (not just ads and inventory).

The big talk at the CM Summit this past week (May 18th, 2013 onward) has been around building a new kind of ad ecosystem. This ecosystem specifically refers to things like a “native advertising” or “programmatic advertising” format, which basically focuses on real-time bidding in exchanges that peddle inventory or content for cents on the dollar.

While I think these discussions are important in transitioning our broken ad models to better places, I think they also miss the bigger picture.

For one, they presuppose that innovations in developing the company-customer relationship are predicated on technological advances (read: fancier features). For another, they almost completely ignore the power of people, their communities, and the ways they are willing to participate when the terms for consumption are more equitable.

This includes our functional uses of content, data, and the contexts through which we can build customer relationships, engender trust, and monetize channels without grossly manipulating the market itself.

From a content perspective, here’s what an ecosystem would ideally look like:

content's new context.png

If we can accept the Kurzweilian precept that technology is an extension of biology, then we might be able to reframe these efforts more constructively.

What this really points to is a profound shift in priorities, one that takes us from models based on opacity, forced messaging and a reliance on commodified inventory, to models that place openness, adaptivity and conscientiousness at the heart of marketing and communications.

The Coca-Cola problem.

Many of you are probably familiar with Coke’s escalating issues with obesity. If you’re not, you should be, as this represents a classic example of how traditional marketing and communications (to include “social media”) can’t solve real world problems -- problems that are not only complex, but those which require a whole new way of doing business.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the idea isn’t so much that brands and their products or services need to be perfect, but the overarching idea that they do need to be more humane. This means that operations must be far more empathic in how they treat people (customers and employees), and means that companies must do their best to empower hyperlocal economies.

I will make a much stronger economic case for this in an upcoming white paper, but suffice to say that things like P/E ratios, EBIDTA, market capitalization and increasing profit margins are hardly leading indicators for a sustainable brand, or a profitable brand, for that matter. Further, it will be impossible for companies to maintain the types of margins they have now without more earnest investments in the socioeconomic environments on which they lean, directly or indirectly.

What Coke can do to align its business and brand interests.

A lot of the work I do involves creating scenarios, or imaging possibilities, so that more positive and productive futures can be realized. So, I thought I would take the Coke use case and provide a snapshot of what “newer” disciplines like data journalism and participatory storytelling can do to revitalize the socioeconomic relationship between brands and consumers. (It is also a central use case featured in the book I’m co-authoring, “The Big Pivot”)

story as a lived experience.png

The graphic should be fairly self-explanatory; it basically takes you on a journey from the moment a perceived issue erupts, and shows how a different way of extracting and cultivating a story lends to the consensual development of ideas that not only become authentic brand artifacts, but those which provide a basis for product development and job growth.

You’ll notice that we go from a phase of understanding an issue, to uncovering its intentionality, to finding the purpose behind it in actions on the ground, and ultimately, developing the true meaning of its impact in the form of actionable solutions.

Under normal circumstances, the usual suspects -- media agencies, PR companies, social media vendors, product innovators, sustainability firms, et al -- would work mostly in isolation. More critically, the idea of storytelling reverse engineers a very staid and cumbersome set of processes that doesn’t actually move the needle of the business or nurture stakeholder relations. In this case, notice how real world solutions can be crafted from mostly closed data loops to those that reflect a group or collective intelligence.

Welcome to the future, which is right now.

It is not difficult to see what is possible. We have the tools and the means. What is difficult is to shift the mindset away from a heavy reliance on automation and quantitative reasoning and towards interactions on the ground. These will allow people to become true advocates of a brand, and influencers of ideas that matter, whether they exist as messages, stories and/or pure informational utilities.

 

Brand Economics

In preparation for a series of roundtable discussions I’ll be leading with Sasha Grujicic at the Banff World Media Festival in June, I’ve been giving considerable thought to the near-term future of brands, and the economics associated with them.

It’s certainly fair to say that brands have taken on a far more vulnerable position with consumers given the adoption of social technologies and forms of activism that put consumer groups more in control over their choices and purchases. It’s probably even more timely to concede that branding as a discipline is far less about marketing, and far more about actually building markets. Not only do leading brands own their media ecosystems, but they are building new products and services as extensions of their constituent businesses and business units.

As for the notion of what a brand really is nowadays, perhaps it's best to first contextualize a significant shift in how companies operate, how they build consumer relationships, and how value is co-created and monetized more altruistically. This shift is a direct result of how money is exchanged, how debt and credit are moved around or leveraged, and reflective of the unique ways those constructs are being disintermediated by alternative currencies, crowdfunding, virtual credits and the like.

Put another way, corporations have more cash on the books than banks and governments, when you consider that they have real assets along with their own credit systems. The shift they represent is one in which they can create the most change, and many of them are, as we'll see in a moment.

The business models of today and tomorrow will constantly change.

The agents who recognize this shift are of course poised to survive and thrive in a heavily commodified marketing industry, one still mostly reliant on bulk media buys and creative services that have a hard time justifying bottom line value within the current landscape. Saneel Radia has co-founded Finch15 to capitalize on the needs of brands who seek guidance and partnership with new, emergent business models. The folks at Invention.ist have boldly put a stake in the ground in prototyping product ideas rather than simply launching slick campaigns. Others like Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners and Rockfish have established venture arms that allow them to make key investments in emerging technologies. There are a host of other agencies, like Given, that are committed to changing the brand paradigm to one in which values are developed organically rather than through the superficial attempts found in a lot of the art and copy we see in the streets and on our screens.

These new models are far from perfect, but that is not the point. The point is to embrace experimentation, and to constantly adapt these models such that innovation can become a profit center in various ways.

Another point to consider is that products and services are far from perfect in their own right, and are naturally under intense scrutiny. This means that brands must evolve beyond open dialogues and actually change the function and substance of those products and services. To be more pedantic about it, if a soft drink can kill you or a clothing brand is killing its factory workers (intentionally or not), then we have a significant problem on our hands. Coke's escalating troubles with obesity are a classic example of how communications can't solve complex, real world issues.

Designing systems to take on complex problems.

I liken all of this to a single equivalent: We are moving away from a campaign optimization space, and straight towards one that has us building emergent systems.

Think of a system as one that has a bunch of interrelated and interchangeable parts. That system may contain traditional branding elements and ad campaigns and social media content and PR stunts and all that, but more importantly, it is comprised of tools and platforms and utilities that allow people and companies to connect, learn and transact more meaningfully. Further, these dynamics call for communications to be multi-dimensional, such that push messaging is being replaced by emerging disciplines like participatory storytelling, data journalism and other forms of ‘new media’ which break through the boundaries imposed by traditional media gatekeepers. Therefore, a system is much more than the sum of its parts -- it is at once a means to educate, inform, entertain, prospect and experiment in ‘perpetual beta’.

For those corporate stakeholders who are fearful, consider this: Systems are not only sustainable, but they are scalable. In other words, there’s real money at stake.

Brand Economics in 21c.png

Leading brands like Nike, for example, are capitalizing on social movements to better understand market behaviors and sources for new inventions, and are even accelerating business ideas that are extensible with utilities they’ve successfully built (like Fuelband). Nike still makes beautiful ads, but its real stocktaking has come in the way it builds products and services with its customers. Others, like Target, are using social platforms to crowdsource design. Others, like P&G, have created joint-venture funds to build up local economies through entrepreneurship. Even more interesting are the efforts of smaller brands like Dermalogica, that benefit from outsourcing infrastructure and by building up value in the supply chain itself. And where government or educational institutions are slow to task, new co-ops and special interest programs expedite development and allow more people and more entities to fail forward.

Creating value means making investments in people.

The combination of building 21st century skills inside and outside of corporations, and the ability to effectively generate policies to advance those efforts is critical, especially to a consumer marketplace that faces rising unemployment, economic volatility and unpredictable market variables compounded by technological and social acceleration. To boot, we are witnessing a similar stratification between rich and poor in first-world and third-world economies alike (Been to Detroit or Camden lately? What about Kolkata?).

All of these examples, most notably, point to the development of systems that can scale by virtue of what the market does, rather than how it is dictated or manipulated. If capitalism and industrialism are to persist on any level, we must reinvent what they mean to those who produce and those who consume. They are not mutually exclusive.

Additionally, all of this presents an interesting challenge for ‘brands on the fringe’ -- they can take incremental, more measurable risks to which the rewards can be magnificent, or, they can wait and watch others get into the mix, and by the time they are ready to make a move, they’ll most likely lose out on time and revenue.

As the saying goes: “If there’s money on the table, then it’s already too late.”

Brand economics are here and they are very real. It’s time for more companies, of all sizes and functions, to think about how they can create a consensual reality... transparently, authentically and emergently. It’s time to build markets of real value, like we did when advertising was directly representative of the products and services that were sold in town squares, train stations and on residential doorsteps.

It's time to create real change that benefits everyone. If they are willing to become more than marks and fancy taglines, brands can resoundingly be the conduits for that change.