The current seismic shift in marketing budgets away from traditional media and towards digital reflects the fact that  people spend more time online and less in front of the TV. This is predominantly a channel issue: how to best reach a target audience. But rather than playing to the strengths of each channel, we now seem to attribute digital with superior abilities across all aspects of marketing. And the biggest loser is brand building as we adapt our theories and practices on this to comply with the inherent properties of digital. 

With the rise of digital followed the view that online conversations, word-of-mouth and peer-to-peer recommendations are the superior means by which brand are built. At the same time, one of the most important and proven aspects of building a brand, fame, is neglected and has come to be viewed with contempt and suspicion.

Here are some thoughts on why the prioritisation of online conversations over fame is problematic.

1. It assumes people spend a lot of time talking about brands.

They don’t. There are more fun things to do online than interact with and talk about brands. Sure, during campaign periods we see spikes in conversations that correlate with the spikes in bribes on offer, but the long-term effects are mostly negligible. Besides, most branded conversations take in fact place off-line. But since these are difficult to measure, and go against current trends and agendas, few dare speak of it. 

2. In online conversations, the brand gets lost. 

The nirvana of online effectiveness is when someone recommends a brand to a friend. But what they’re really doing is recommending the product. Every aspect of the brand, emotion, values, personality, humour, attitude, etc is lost when mediated by a third party. Left is functional product features. While person A may have based his decision on a desire for the brand, he will justify this desire based on the brand’s functional benefits and emphasise these in his recommendation to person B. Word of mouth in other words, devalue the brand and commoditise the product. Which brings us to the next point…

3. It assumes people are rational

While there’s little doubt that our emotions and subconscious are by far the most important aspects of purchase decision making, the digital way of building brands reveals a marketing worldview straight out of early 1900s textbooks, which insists that people are rational beings. Just because it comes from a friend doesn’t make it emotional, it just makes information slightly more credible. 

4. The potential to become a leader is lost.

People look for leadership and guidance. Not on what products to buy, but what to say, think, feel and do about all sorts of topics. Brands have the potential to be leaders in a way similar to celebrities and other cultural icons. Indeed, the most powerful and successful brands in history are all cultural leaders. The ability to become a leader is lost when instead of appearing on TV, the brand appears in a friend of a friend’s fifth Facebook update of the day.

5. Fame gives brands a shared meaning 

The symbolic power of brands is lost without a society-wide shared meaning, and without symbolic value, brands are essentially reduced to its nuts and bolts. Shared meaning for brands, can, like any symbol, only be created through fame. Our online behaviour, however, are too fragmented and individual to create this. And a shared meaning with your peers is not enough, because meaning is only created in collaboration with the brand’s detractors.  How, for example, can a teenager rebel through fashion if their parents don’t recognise the rebellious nature of the brands he or she wears?   

6. Fame is the best recommendation of all

People are lazy, we want to engage in as little conscious thought as possible. Rather than taking the shape of an argument where you switch on your System 2 to consider and rebut information, brand fame creates a useful heuristic, or a mental shortcut, for us to make our choice. Fame is the implied recommendations of millions, which makes it a safe choice, both functionally and socially.

7. Fame reaches the most profitable customers

As Byron Sharp has demonstrated, the vast majority of purchases of a brand is made up by infrequent customers. Fame reaches the masses. Both physically and emotionally. And it has a continued, long-term effect, ready to kick in when they decide they may want to make a purchase. Digital media, on the other hand, spends a disproportionate amount of money on tightly defined niche segments, and invariably end up preaching to the converted. Who spends time interacting with a brand on its Facebook page, how much added value by constantly these interactions, and what’s the benefit of rewarding these with all sorts of freebies, prizes and discounts?

In summary, digital offers amazing opportunities for brands to market themselves. But we must be conscious of how effects of online efforts can only be achieved in tandem with brand building, and that digital is rarely the best platform for this.

There are exceptions, but before you bring up AirBnB and similar brands, remember that these are vastly different from the majority of traditional brands that try to make a name for themselves online. These brands were born online, and their services are intrinsically linked to the brand values. There’s a lot to learn from these, but that’s a topic for a future post.