“If You Follow Me, I Will Follow You Back”

No Consumed in today’s Times Mag, but here’s something if you’re bored:

On May 8, 2009, I gave a talk at a conference called “Blowing Up The Brand,” at NYU. Recently, pretty much all of the talks at that event were collected into a book — except mine. This made me curious to revisit my remarks. Were they really that bad? I went through the text and cleaned it up a bit, and added some “footnotes” to more recent observations by others that are related to the matters I spoke about, and decided to post it here. I guess it’s long for a site like this, but if you have time to read it, I welcome feedback — comments open.

It’s true that in some ways these remarks are somewhat dated — but in other ways I think they hold up pretty well. But whatever. The point is having looked at this again I’m thinking of revising and updating it in connection with something else I’m working on.

Here’s a summary if you want to skip ahead to anything that sounds interesting:

  • Section 1 deals with branding and individuality, and my basic contention that the “grammar of branding” is universally understood (in America).  This is something I’ve explored before, as many of you know, so you can skip that part if you’re tired of it.
  • Section 2 introduces my sense (as of May 2009, anyway) of the “transactional” nature of much social media. I think this core point of the talk is still very important, and under-discussed. So you might start there.
  • Section 3 names three related characteristics of much online expression: The “audience motive”; the escalation of easiness; and the privileging of measurability. Again, I think this holds up, and is more relevant than ever.
  • Section 4 attempts to tie together all of the above to offer a cautionary conclusion on the subject of creativity vs. “thinking of yourself as a brand” in the present social-media era. This section could have been better, but I believe the main message holds true and is worth consideration today.

I’ve been adding links and footnotes to the below, some of which post-date the actual talk but that I think are relevant to what I said in some way. I will continue to do so as things occur to me, or you suggest them.

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“If You Follow Me, I Will Follow You Back”

[May 8, 2009, talk at NYU “Blowing Up The Brand” conference]

In 2008, during a Q&A session at the end of an event intended to promote a book I had recently published, somebody asked me for what amounted to career advice. Evidently my answer included a remark about thinking of oneself as a brand. I honestly don’t remember the details of what I said, but in the months that followed several people who had been at that event mentioned it to me. Clearly they had walked away that night with general idea that I had told them to think of themselves as brands. And more to the point:  They thought that was pretty good advice.

A year later here I am at “Blowing Up The Brand,” a two-day event that aims to explore critical perspectives on “promotional culture,” described as “the extension of promotional discourses, practices and performances into virtually all areas of public life.”

Thinking of yourself “as a brand” sure sounds of a piece with that critique. In other words, I may be part of the problem that I have been asked to come here to examine. This is a surprising thing for me to confront, particularly given that the book I was promoting when I was asked that question here in New York a year ago offered a not-very-upbeat critique of the blurring of marketing and day-to-day public life.

Frankly, I’m not proud of this turn of events. On the one hand I think that as a raw, practical piece of advice, I would stand by what I said to that audience in 2008. On the other hand, with the benefit of hindsight, there’s a big asterisk I would put next to that observation now. My remarks here are that asterisk. I want, now, to put my throwaway comment into what I hope is a more considered context. Read more

How a self-branding expert self-brands

In the months ahead, a certain niche branding consultant may or may not become a mainstream branding guru, as he publishes his first book — and, more to the point, promotes the shit out of it.

When it comes to book promotion, marketing consultants often have an advantage over authors who merely write for a living: employees. In fact that’s how I’m aware of this guy’s forthcoming branding blitz. A couple of months ago one of his employees sent Murketing.com an email (clearly a form letter) explaining that his boss is “trying to get together a promotional bonanza around the [book's] release.” Thus he was being “proactive” and contacting “all the business and marketing blogs and see what we can do for them.” Contest? Interview?  That was up to me; the consultant-author would do anything. “On your side,” his employee added, “anything you do with him is going to get an influx of readers to your blog due to his massive and loyal following.”

I had a hard time believing either the consultant  or his employees are Murketing.com readers — particularly because I generally have zero interest in such schemes, as any actual reader of this site would know — so I asked why he was asking me. He replied that he was pretty sure he’d found this site listed on the Ad Age Power 150 rankings (or whatever that list is called; I’m not sure if I’m still on it, but it’s true that I used to be). In other words, he really didn’t know anything about this site, he was just going through lists, and saturation bombing. I thought that by itself might make for an interesting interview topic, but I never followed through.

More recently, the PR company that is also working on behalf of this same guru-in-the-making sent a fairly fancy traditional promo packet to the author of the New York Times Magazine’s Consumed column,which of course is also me. The pitch explained the consultant’s energetic “honesty,” and his mastery of “the internet and social media.” The release said the book reveals “how to build a personal brand.”

Obviously what’s of interest in all this is what it says about the new world of social-media marketing (this fellow’s area of expertise). Commonly social-media branding is described as, in theory, more authentic, transparent, and precise than traditional forms of commercial persuasion. Yet I’m often struck by how, in practice, it is largely an old formula poured into a newish bottle.

  • The ethos here isn’t precision, it’s volume: If you have the resources to approach hundreds of blogs that might possibly buzz your product (even blogs you’ve never read), you have an advantage.
  • That doesn’t replace the more old-school move of hiring a PR firm to hype the mainstream media, it supplements it. (Again, if you have the resources.) The main difference is that the old-school PR firm’s pitch is largely about your new-school social-media tactics. (Hey, Consumed guy: Check out this interview he did on some blog called Murketing.com!)
  • Having said that, there is something of a new-media twist in “incentivizing,” as business types say, your potential online promoters, by suggesting that they will get more traffic by giving you more traffic, in a kind of word-of-mouth pyramid scheme. This doesn’t strike me as indicative of a new transparency or authenticity. At least when you see an ad, you know it’s an ad; if you read a blog rave about this guy, it might be from a real fan — or it might be from someone who just wanted to jump on the theoretical buzz bandwagon for their own reasons. (Or maybe I should say: For their own brand.)

None of which is to say that this marketing expert doesn’t have valuable “lessons” for all you brand-builders out there. I couldn’t tell you one way or the other. That’s because the one thing I didn’t get to look at, either as Murketing guy or as Consumed guy, was the actual book. Actually, I wonder if there is a lesson in that.

Your content or your life?

“Tweet and FB are making blogging obsolete!,”  writes Andy Serwer of Fortune. He’s not entirely serious, or not entirely literal; he ties his observations into the ongoing debate about whether we’re in a culture of distraction or becoming more smartly connected and all that. In his own case, he says, he’s blogging less because:

I have literally been Facebooking and Twittering all my content away! I get a thought, I meet someone interesting, I go somewhere cool, and then snap crackle pop, I put it up. Crazy right?

Hmmm. The thing that stopped me here was the phrase “my content.”

Thinking, meeting people, moving through the world — this used to be your life.

Now, I guess, in the time of leveraging your personal brand via online social networking connections, it’s your “content.”

Tropicana and the consumer-brand dialogue

Somebody was interviewing me today about the book and the current economy and all that, and the conversation turned to Tropicana bowing to consumer pressure (apparently) to junk its recent redesign. What does that episode say about the present state of the “secret dialogue between what we buy and who we are”?

Well, for one thing it’s an example of one manifestation of that dialogue becoming somewhat more open — in the sense that one of the things the Web does is make visible consumer sentiments that would have been harder to quantify in the past.

More interesting, though, I would suggest, is that the episode underscores the surprising degree to which consumers want to participate in this dialogue. By that I mean: If nobody cares about brands anymore (as various experts have claimed for years, and are claiming once again with the recession as the new rationale), then why in the world would anybody go to the trouble of emailing a company, or starting a Facebook group, about package design? After all, the juice didn’t change. So, you know, who cares?

Lots of people, that’s who. Marginal Utility picks up on a comment from some Tropicana exec that the decision was made because the brand’s “most loyal consumers” were supposedly unhappy: “That they bother to complain is precisely what makes them loyal,” Rob Horning writes. “Others would probably just buy something else without a second thought. Myself, I would prefer to be one of those others.”

To me, that’s definitely a more reasoned response: I mentioned that we at Murketing HQ disliked the new design, and responded by trying some alternatives. While we talk about this kind of consumer/design trivia all the time around here, it never occurs to us to get involved in some kind of Web-enabled protest movement, or at least not about the way a package looks.

After all, it’s not like the aesthetics of Tropicana is some kind of important issue worth rallying around — certainly nothing worth treating like a consumer-rights battle that pitted the grassroots against corporate power.

And yet, there’s at least some evidence that certain observers see this incident in precisely those terms. For example, Marginal Utility also noted the Kottke entry on the Tropicana episode, which declares: “We won!”

Community and connection brought to you by…

Ad Age notes Meetup’s recent-ish decision to start courting sponsors. The article says co-founder Scott Heiferman was originally against the idea, but changed his mind because group organizers “said it makes their meetings better.” Ad Age says:

Sponsorships take a lot of shapes, but all involve a monthly donation to the group to cover organizer fees, buy coffee or just provide a free venue for a book club. The idea is to keep it small, cheap and simple so it can scale. American Express Open, Huggies, Sony BMG and e-mail-device maker Peek are sponsoring thousands of entrepreneur, parenting, music, sports and moms’ groups around the country.

Also using the tactic are smaller brands such as Peek (which I had never heard of), the maker of “an email device” that is sponsoring “about 100 mom-focused Meetup groups.” Apparently it’s the brand’s biggest single marketing expense.

“The goal is to get Peek into the hands into people we build the device for and we think its perfect for,” said Marketing Manager Jeremy Downs.

That meant sending three Peeks to Melony James, organizer of the 224-member Toddler Adventure Group in San Jose, Calif. Peek also started depositing $30 a month in Ms. James’ Amazon account to cover her Meetup dues and snacks for the kids. “I like the Peek because it’s simple to use, not targeted at techies,” she said. “They pitched it quite well.”

Why is Peek doing that via her Amazon account?

Well, anyway, apart from that weird-ish detail, not particularly surprising, but worth noting, and keeping and eye on.

The professional amateur

Funny story in the NYT today about a guy who has won 11 “user-generated ad” contests, “earning more than $200,000 in money and prizes.” A great example of the co-promotion theory of what inspires amateurs to make ads: It’s not about hyping the brand, it’s about hyping the maker.

Mr. Levinson has a Facebook group entitled “Yes, Joel, I’ll vote for your newest stupid contest” and he uses Twitter, blogs, e-mail and text messages, asking acquaintances to vote. He even calls 24-hour customer service lines at night, when he thinks the representatives are bored, and asks them to vote for him.

McCain-Plumber campaign tries open-source marketing

The campaign wants “to hear from you and share your story with the American public. It’s simple … make an ad telling us why you are “Joe the Plumber” in 30 seconds and your video could end up on the air as a TV ad.”

  • Be creative! The video that most effectively tells why you are Joe the Plumber will be featured in a TV ad.
  • Tell us why you are like Joe the Plumber.
  • How would Barack Obama’s plan to “Spread the Wealth Around” hurt you?
  • Etc.

    Details here. Via The Stump.

    Brand names. No, I mean *brand names.*

    A piece in Salon offers a debriefing on the subject of “What’s up with black names, anyway?” Apart from being a generally well-done overview of the subject, it points to a March post on a blog called Stuff Black People Hate, titled “Stupid Names.” The category of interest to me is “Luxury Latch-Ons,” regarding which the blogger opines:

    For whatever reason, black parents all over the country decided that naming their children after expensive things would bode good fortune for them throughout their lives. Consequently, there are legions of unfortunate people (mostly girls, again) with names like Chanel, Mercedes, Chandelier, and even Prada (yes, I did meet a girl named Prada, and it was the worst day of my life.)

    To which Salon adds:

    It is true that an unfortunate culture of naming children after brands of champagne or fancy cars has sprung up over recent years. “But that’s a class thing, not a race thing,” says Cleveland Evans [ID'd as "former president of the American Names Society"], noting that he has encountered twins named Camry and Lexus who were white. If you are poor and wish a better life for your kid, a name like Lexus declares that hope.

    Give me a $4 latte or give me death

    The civic crisis sparked by the closer of 600 Starbucks locations rolls on.

    The L.A. Times mulls the potential loss of access to lattes in inner-city neighborhoods, a column headlined “A closing Starbucks is a symbol of lost hope and luxury.”

    Starbucks is about more than a cup of coffee in many neighborhoods. That block-letter logo on a strip mall marquee can be considered a public stamp of approval, a symbol of hope, a suggestion of brewing economic vitality.

    That’s why a new Starbucks in the inner city tends to produce the kind of excitement that suburban neighborhoods reserve for the debut of a Bloomingdale’s….

    The writer visits a couple of locations in south L.A. that are on the closure list; neither is doing much business. An inquiry to the company gets her a response about “shareholder value.”

    The losers are those loyal customers who considered it a privilege to join the cultural mainstream, sipping overpriced Frappuccinos. For them, losing the neighborhood Starbucks is a rebuke that stings.

    The Dallas Morning News (via Starbucks Gossip) says:

    Starbucks is an iconic brand that means something more than just a company. It’s become a sign of middle-class American modishness. To get a Starbucks in your neighborhood meant that you were validated, in some sense…

    For Starbucks to leave means that your part of town, in terms of social psychology, is downwardly mobile. That, I think, is what most rattles folks about losing their Starbucks, even if they rarely went there. It’s a status thing.

    Well I just hope this continues to gather momentum. I want the presidential candidates to be grilled about this crucial issue at town-hall forums: What do you plan to do, Senator, about the loss of Starbucks locations and resulting status diminution of the affected communities?

    Foreclosures and bank failures — that’s one thing. But we’re talking about a loss of access to the “cultural mainstream” here! Maybe a government bailout is in order. …

    Also: From the comments to yesterday’s related post, Braulio contributes this link to an interactive “Save Your Starbucks” feature on Slate.

    [7/23 Update: Via uncivilsociety.org, more Starbucks lamentation in Newark: "The cafe in downtown Newark is in some ways unique, a high-profile sign to all the people who fear the city that life is normal."]

    Collective action to “save” Starbucks?

    Some say Americans won’t get together to support a cause, to fight for what matters to them. It isn’t so! People are banding together to make a difference — by trying to convince a multinational corporation not to close up shop in their city or town. They’re fighting to Save Our Starbucks.

    In towns as small as Bloomfield, N.M., and metropolises as large as New York, customers and city officials are starting to write letters, place phone calls, circulate petitions and otherwise plead with the coffee company to change its mind.

    Perhaps the Starbucks brand isn’t as troubled and reviled as some recent analyses would suggest? It’s hard to imagine a Save Our Walmart campaign. Then again, you never know.

    Via Starbucks Gossip, which also points out this article, in which an analyst concludes that “about 54 percent of the locations [slated for closure] are within about two miles of another Starbucks.”

    Who’s ashamed of murketing?

    Sprint is offering to bribe YouTubers to include a particular phone in their online creations. First 1,000 people to do so get $20 and a chance to win $10,000. Not surprising.

    Somewhat surprising: Sprint is bragging about it.

    “Shamelessly plug the Samsung Instinct into your home movie … this summer, turn your loved ones into cash with blatant product placement,” a deep-voiced male narrator calls out to viewers. “It’s the greatest product placement home movie of all time.”

    Via Commercial Alert.

    Annals of totally inappropriate brand loyalty

    Who would do this? Do you understand what a tattoo is?

    Anyway: A particularly sad image from a Radar Online photo gallery called “Bad Tattoos,” which is very funny, and connected to a book called No Regrets. Via BB.

    Hipster embrace of Obama reaches logical conclusion


    Finally! Obama kicks!

    I assume this long since made the rounds and I missed it, but just saw and felt compelled to note.

    Earlier: Let Them Eat Font; 4/13/08 Consumed on Obama as muse.

    [Thanks: Mark!]

    Branded burial in the U.S.

    This has been all over the Web, it turns out, but just for the record, to follow up on the post about people in Ghana opting for coffins shaped like large products (beer and Coke bottles, etc.), a guy in Chicago has a PBR coffin. Since he’s still alive, he uses it as a cooler.

    Branded burials in Ghana?

    So, see that giant representation of a beer bottle? That’s a coffin. Apparently.

    Or maybe this is a hoax of some kind.

    Either way, Delicious Ghost points to this Ghanaweb writeup, with more pictures: “The Ga people [of Ghana] believe that when their loved ones die, they move on into another life — and the Ga make sure they do so in style. They honor their dead with brightly colored coffins that celebrate the way they lived.”

    Other branded examples include a giant Coke bottle, and an Air Jordan coffin.