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July 14, 2008
10 questions with Rob Walker
Study after study shows growing immunity to advertising, led by the march of DVRs into living rooms. We're shutting the door to the influence of brands, right?
Not so, according to New York Times Magazine “Consumed” columnist Rob Walker. He argues in his new book, "Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are," that people are embracing brands like never before. Yes, we're tired of advertising, but we're attaching ourselves to brands in new ways that affect our cultural, political, and community activities.
We asked Rob 10 questions about brand-building in today's hyperconnected world:
Q: What's your take on why a brand takes off?
A: That's a big question to start things off!
My short answer is that the brand/consumer relationship is always a dialogue. Nothing takes off without consumers making the decision to embrace something, to believe it has value. The dialogue is frequently subtle and indirect. Thus I call it a "secret" dialogue.
This has always been true. It's easy to lose sight of that, and I'll cop to doing so sometimes myself. I describe in the book how my original research on the iPod focused too much on locating some magical property of the device, rather than on the various ways consumers responded to it. As technology changes the dialogue in some ways, the core dialogue remains: buying or not buying. Meaning what? Well, in the case of New Coke, released at the height of mass-advertising power and with the full weight of one of the most potent companies in the world, the dialogue was short: "No."
I'm oversimplifying, and the dialogue gets much more complicated in other cases, but I hope you know what I mean. It's never been a one-way process. Let's be honest, too: the right timing and pure luck can affect dialogue, too.
Q: Is a brand today, then, the sum total of how a company defines it or how its customers talk about it?
A. Maybe it's more basic than that: what consumers think about it. Sometimes those thoughts lead to talk, which can be quite powerful, but sometimes they don't -- they just lead to not-buying X and buying Y instead. Or nothing at all. Brands and products don't exist in a vacuum. The world changes around us, so the tactics that worked for one brand at one time may not work for another brand at another time. Competitors adjust, the broader climate shifts, novelty fades, etc.
All of these factors play into your second category, how customers talk about a brand -- the nature of their talk might change for reasons that have nothing to do with the brand. Let's consider Starbucks: How much of the apparent "change" in the meaning of the Starbucks brand in the last year or two has to do with the company, and how much is based on actions of its competitors, and the culture at large?
Q: Will we as Americans, the targets of an unstoppable torrent of unrestrained advertising, ever rise to the level of the British and impose more regulation upon it?
A: Polls consistently tell us that Americans can't stand advertising, don't trust it, are annoyed by its incursion into and murkier venues -- and yet there appears to be no particular popular interest in regulation. I don't know why. The FCC is looking at ad placement, but it's unlikely that tough regulation will ever occur in the U.S. without serious public demands for it.
There's much talk about tech-enabled consumer power these days, but it takes the form of "complain about a product on a blog and get a free replacement," rather than more broad-based and wide-ranging reforms that might benefit everyone. Maybe that will change.
Consumers truly do have a lot of power -- movements of the past demonstrate that repeatedly -- so maybe we're just learning how to use the technology more effectively.
Q: You talk about the Livestrong bracelet as an example of a niche idea growing into mass appeal. How did that happen?
A: It's difficult to isolate any intrinsic property of the Livestrong bracelet that made it a hit. Clearly, the meaning of this rather low-utility object came from us, and it's a good example of the importance of dialogue. That happened many ways: For some people, it was about paying tribute to a loved one. Or supporting a good cause. Or identifying with Lance Armstrong's amazing story. Or participating in a trend by emulating the many celebrities who wore it. All these motivations came together in a thing that was almost arbitrary.
The Livestrong bracelet has replaced the "lowest common denominator" idea in a more fragmented culture and become the "murkiest common denominator."
Q: In several places in the book, you throw in historical context and precedents for what’s going on in the consumer marketplace today. Are you saying nothing has changed?
A: No, but I think it's important to understand that consumers have been complaining about and skeptical of advertising for as long as advertising has existed. Marketers have complained about consumer resistance the whole time, too. None of that's new, and it's important to see what's not new if you want to figure out what is.
Media coverage of how technology empowers consumers has tended to gloss over how technology empowers marketers. Marketers see the various threats to traditional modes of persuasion, and have invented new ones, ranging from product placement to online campaigns to word-of-mouth marketing.
As for the latter, we've always trusted our friends more than television ads. Only recently have marketers figured out how to tap that directly by signing up tens of thousands of folks who volunteer to get products early and talk them up and so on. This leverages the "endowment effect" (the tendency to overvalue something simply because we own it), and, in effect, converts your friends into a marketing medium. That's new.
Q: Is "I buy, therefore I am" just as common today as it was 100 years ago?
A: I think it's more true. A century ago, you wouldn't sell deodorant as pop culture. But that's how Axe, to cite one example from the book, is sold today. The ante is upped on what a brand can "mean," and consumers keep buying it. Another example from the book is Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, which took on a meaning as a protest brand -- a brand protesting branding. That's a meaning consumers created.
Q: Conventional wisdom tells us that time was all a company had to do was put a 30-second ad on television and bingo-bango, market share. But is advertising really dead?
A: I reject the premise of your question!
I've always wanted to say that.
Seriously, it's easy to exaggerate the past effectiveness of 30-second ads. After all, brands failed and agencies got fired in eras past, as they have in every era. Consumers have never been zombies who would simply buy anything the TV set told them to. Yes, some dubious stuff succeeded along the way -- but dubious stuff is succeeding now, too. Any marketing campaign that relied exclusively on 30-second ads would have a tough time. But there aren't many campaigns like that -- the need to be "media neutral" is universal, as far as I can tell. Is anyone left saying that their brand should be promoted only by 30-second ads?
Then again, I'm not sure if the 30-second ad will ever disappear. Apart from shows like "American Idol," and sports events, there's news channels and the proliferation of TV in public places, like the gas pump, where it can't be TiVoed. Let's not forget only a fifth of American homes have DVRs. If TV ads ever disappear, it won't matter because the marketing industry has adjusted far more quickly, and aggressively, than consumers have obtained DVRs.
Q: Great products and services don't need to advertise while inferior ones do. Agree or disagree?
A: For Apple -- a company that's widely lauded for innovative products -- wouldn't agree. I remember talking to someone at Apple and expecting him to say something about how the iPod "sells itself" or whatever. When I floated that, he laughed at me.
So ... draw your own conclusions!
Q: Customer collaboration is a hot topic these days, especially for defining the meaning of a brand. You say this isn’t so new, and one of your examples is Timberland. How so?
A: Timberland once had a specific and well-defined meaning: functionality. In the 1980s through the early 1990s, it was adopted by a different consumer for different reasons. At first, it was a hip-hop consumer, then a style consumer as the hip-hop aesthetic rippled out into the broader culture. Timberland didn't understand what was happening and was afraid that if they started chasing this consumer, they'd alienate their base and lose the meaning of the brand.
Eventually, the company capitulated -- it started making style books and is in search of new style hits to keep up its $1.6 billion revenue. The days of declining to advertise in Vibe are over.
This had nothing to do with the Internet, and nothing to do with Timberland "allowing" customers to "collaborate." Consumers determine brand meaning whether anyone "allows" them to or not. And they don't need a special website to do it.
Q: You think we're not so immune to branding and logos as some of us think we are. How so, and do you include yourself in that?
A: Sure, although I didn't used to. For me, the breakthrough was Nike buying Converse. I'd already been writing about branding and approaching the subject as an above-it-all journalist. I was the outsider, the detached observer, unaffected by things I was documenting. As a business journalist, I have great respect for Nike. As a consumer, I would never, ever, wear the swoosh.
I'd always worn Converse sneakers since my teen years. I never said to myself, "I wear Converse sneakers to identify with my rebel rocker heroes." Nobody has those conscious thoughts. But I was bothered that Converse would be owned by Nike. I wasn't sure I could wear Converse anymore because somehow its "meaning" had changed.
Then I caught myself: If I'm so immune to "brand meaning," why am I having a crisis over sneakers?
It was a reality check. It's something I consider every time someone tells me that brands mean nothing to them. It affected my approach to the book, which is aimed at people who have the mindset I used to have. We're better off if we get over being brandproof and embrace the idea that this stuff does have meaning.
Even people who resist brand meaning recognize that material culture and consumer decisions have consequences for the planet and our own sense of satisfaction. If we really want to be in control in a meaningful way, approach the dialogue with eyes open. That's the only way to make decisions we really want to make.
Interested in a free copy of Rob's book? Go to the Society for Word of Mouth (registration is free) and add a comment to this forum post about Rob's book. Deadline for the book giveaway is Friday, July 18 at 5 pm CDT. We'll give 5 copies away (to be drawn randomly from forum participants).
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GREAT interview. If the book is half as good, I want a copy.
I think the most interesting part of the interview his Rob's "Converse Comparison."
How absolutely true that brands mean something to us. Not all brands mind you; for example, I don't really care if I'm wearing Levi, Gap, or American Eagle Denim (I don't think I could tell you which brand I'm wearing as we speak without taking them off and looking at the tag).
But when we DO care about a brand, it says something definitive about us--our lifestyle, our preferences, who we associate with.
For example, for as universally praised as Apple's product lines are, I will always be a tough sell to Apple. Why?
During my college days, I did computer repair work to put me through school. And without fail, Apple owners were always the whiniest, most arrogant, unreasonable computer hardware owners on the planet--and it wasn't even close. Now I'm sure not all of you Apple owners out there are like that--but due to my experiences, when I think of the Apple "brand," the words that come to mind are "narcissistic poseurs who think Apple is cool because someone told them it was." And whether reasonable or not, I don't want to be associated with the Apple "brand." In my mind, the Apple brand is not associated with "cool," "trendy," "elegant," or "best computing solution."
Am in the process of building a new brand. This post has given me lots of food for thought.
Terrific interview, terrific book as well. Rob is super sharp and a nice guy to boot. If you're interested in hearing more from Rob, he was kind enough to do an interview with me as well. Click on my name and you'll find the interview on the right hand channel.
Hey Rob, these are some great thoughts! I have my own theory about the Livestrong phenomenon, though. I think that, just as with "cause ribbons" (or any other sort of symbolic jewellery), it's about belonging. People want to belong to a team or a tribe. But that tribe isn't necessarily about age or geography or social strata any more (although it can be). It's about coming together with others who share some sort of ethos with us--in this case, that we believe in any or all of those things you mentioned. At its heart, it's a message of "don't categorize me, thanks, I'll categorize myself". I see your Converse-Nike dilemma (ok, maybe not serious enough to be a dilemma) the same way--you want to belong to the rocker-wearin'-my-Converse-folk, but not to the (fill in blank here) Nike people. So to sum up, it's about belonging, more than about believing.