Sunday, December 28, 2008

Branding as Commodity Finding Connection Through Leadership

Umair Haque, Director of the Havas Media Lab, wrote in the early part of this year on The Shrinking Advantage of Brands in Harvard Business Publishing. His definition is not universally accepted, as can be determined from the comments section of the piece, but it does give me some ideas regarding social media and collaboration.

His definition: What is a brand? It’s a promise: information from a firm promising you a set of costs and benefits from the consumption of a good or service. Brands shape your expected value.

As I posted in my other blog, I have been having an ongoing discussion of leveraging social media on behalf of the Millennium Development Goals in one of the End POVERTY / Fim POBREZA forums. What the discussion comes down to in my mind is, does one both lead and empower through social media in raising consciousness about a social cause and how? Branding a social cause can either be an empowering exercise or a form of propaganda.

What is different from Haque's definition of branding compared to others is that he seems to see it, at least orthodox branding, as an iconic devise used to synthesis the costs and benefits into one object, phrase or idea. The interaction costs are so inexpensive with Google or other online tools, it makes it easier for consumers to find the information that they seek, especially from each other. "The cheaper interaction gets, the more connected consumers can talk to each other – and the less time they have to spend listening to the often empty promises of firms." Haque's point is that information about expected costs and benefits doesn’t have to be compressed into orthodox branding logos, or slogans because your audience can debate and discuss their expected values in detail. The trouble is that for social causes most don't, they only connect passively.

Seth's Blog also had a post on the rapid growth (and destruction) and growth of marketing back in October of this year. Seth realizes something that Haque left out in his article which is that brands can also provide a vehicle for social emotion and connection, but it is a vehicle in to which the audience can imbue social emotion and connection rather than depending upon someone else to "feed" it to them.

Social media, it turns out, isn't about aggregating audiences so you can yell at them about the junk you want to sell. Social media, in fact, is a basic human need, revealed digitally online. We want to be connected, to make a difference, to matter, to be missed. We want to belong, and yes, we want to be led.

The next day Seth's Blog had a post on Leadership is now the strongest marketing strategy. He again "markets" his new book on leadership called Tribes from the post the day before. He thinks of his leadership book as actually being a marketing book and vice-a-versa. According to Seth, "The next frontier of marketing is in leading groups of people who are working together to get somewhere."

What works is leading. Leading a (relatively) small group of people. Taking them somewhere they'd like to go. Connecting them to one another. It's enough if the tribe you lead knows about you and cares about you and wants to follow you. It's enough if your leadership changes things, galvanizes the audience and puts the status quo under stress. And it's enough if the leadership you provide makes a difference.

It is easier to be merely broadcasters, putting together a list of iconic branding devises and hurtling it out at hoped for followers. Louder is easier not better. According to Seth, "People want to connect. They want you to do the connecting. Now we're leaders." It is not, however, the definition of leader in the orthodox sense. Claiming leadership regarding the branding of a cause can be a matter of hazardous hubris, both the branding and leadership require a high degree of authenticity.

It seems to be to be a matter of encouraging collaboration by first providing information, education and then following with avenues of action, but realizing that everybody else can and at least a small group should be doing the same thing. How to encourage them to do so around a specific branded cause may be the true role of leadership. How to specifically do that is still a matter to be further explored .