January 31, 2010

Why Brands Are Embracing Haiti Is it me? Or have marketers jumped on the Haiti charity-tie bandwagon in huge numbers with amazing speed and intensity? Overnight every business—from local delis to national brands— seems to be brandishing the Haitian flag and figuring out ways to engage customers around funding relief activities. On one hand, the response from media and marketers is a beautiful thing, though I’m skeptical about how much of the cash will actually get to the point of delivery and help the poorest of the poor. From another perspective it’s a remarkable teachable moment; an unfortunate but unique and compelling opportunity to remind everyone that we are all connected and we are and should be our brothers’ keeper. And while I don’t remember as much immediate reaction to the tsunami, perhaps it paved the way and prepared brands to connect themselves to or capitalize on unanticipated philanthropic opportunities. I also suspect several fundamental changes have taken place in our markets and in the minds of our consumers that might be driving the charitable impulse. We Are Connected. Social media has provided an instant digital link that hundreds of millions have embraced. Popular sentiment and collective expectations are transmitted at the speed of light. Consensus on what is happening and what is the expected response is virtually immediate. People are voting and exercising their voices with a mouse click. We Want a Break. After two years of sustained recession and bad economic news, we’re beat up, mistrustful and expect everyone to cut us a break. Consumers expect deals, discounts and offers. Charitable tie-ins are just another promotional flavor and another new way to meet this consistent consumer demand. The emotion-charged novelty breaks the monotony of me-too offers and monkey-see monkey-do promotional offers. We’re Looking for Good Guys. When all the news is bleak and the papers are filled with daily revelations that our favorite politicians or celebrities are crooks, liars and perverts, brands have the opportunity to do well by doing good. We are burned out on bad news and desperately seeking a reason to believe, a confirmation that we can overcome our troubles and a glimpse of the inestimable human spirit. It’s a window of opportunity for brands to make us feel better. We Are Sick of Being Helpless. The economic crunch happened to us. We feel helpless in the face of powerful and mysterious global forces. Many of us feel the same about choices in domestic and foreign policy made by Obama and/or the Congress. Presenting your brand as an active “good guy” engages customers by speaking to their psychological needs and by helping them feel like they are doing something. Aligning your brand with a charity makes your customers active players who are instantly part of the solution. The tragedy in Haiti is of epic proportions compounded by the absolute lack of infrastructure or reliability in public institutions or political leaders. It will be interesting to see which brands grab a quick association with the relief effort and move on and which brands opt for sustaining associations. In either case, our customers’ expectations about brands have been permanently altered.
Social Media is Driving Online Product Reviews Social media rests on a fundamental democratic premise; that collective wisdom can discern the truth. It’s the same premise that undergirds the jury system – the idea that you can only fool some of the people some of the time and that regular people pooling their experiences, education, insights and pure brain power can sort out facts from fiction. In social media everyone is a critic or a reviewer. Everyone has the right to rank, rate and review products, services, service providers and brands. By reading the posted comments of peers, many of us find others confronting like situations, people who have already experienced what we are about to undergo and like-minded folks with similar tastes, perspectives and outlooks. But as grassroots ratings begin to pop-up in almost every field, I’m not sure I know who is doing the scoring or what criteria are being used to assess performance. And as these ratings get circulated on the Web, they are apt to get blanket acceptance on their face by a public eager to search and find data on-demand, without careful consideration of the sources or bona fides of those creating this data. On eBay or Amazon you can find ratings and reviews of all types. The problem is you don’t know who these reviewers are other than people who have the time or the ego to write reviews. In some cases the reviews are themselves rated for usefulness. But the same problem of meta data exists; we don’t know who the reviewer of the reviews is and other than their command of the language have no way to assess bias, credibility, intention or expertise. Imagine how this spirals out of control when every brand and every product or service from doctors and dentists to retail stores to plumbers, roofers and electricians has prices, performance and reviews posted online. How can we compare one rating or ranking scale to another? How can we compare one restaurant-ranking site to another? How could any reasonable person sort through them? Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are quick-response visceral media. People express momentary and sustained emotions. So sorting out immediate frustration from deeply considered warnings are difficult. If you doubt me just pick a favorite brand and search for “ Brand X Sucks.” From the marketer’s perspective, how could any brand efficiently follow the conversations much less influence or respond to them? And while many brands are making customer service and customer intimacy claims for social media activities, there’s no convincing cases to show that they are either keeping up with the issues or persuading anybody. This is a serious marketing challenge in the evolving world of user-generated content. This is particularly vexing because there is nothing more credible than a word-of-mouth review from a trusted source. And it looks like the criteria for “trusted” online source is getting looser and looser by the day. The same issue underlies the debate about customer reviews on manufacturers’ and retailers’ web sites. Independent review sites like Zagat.com and review aggregators like Judy's Book, Angie’s List or Buzzillions are flourishing. In these cases site visitors know they are getting a pig-in-a-poke and read the reviews with a grain of salt. They also understand that the reviews are monitored and edited to insure some kind of balance and to screen out obvious wackos and shills. On websites of firms making and selling things the expectations seem to subtlety shift. Visitors expect that the reviews are from real customers even if they aren't sure if the worst ones are edited out or if the company flacks quickly respond to the nastiest ones. These days it takes a fairly secure organization to air dirty laundry on the official site. Most don’t. And you can assume that behind-the-scenes battles range between those arguing for the a pure party line (e.g. "Everything we do is great and so are we.") and the user-generated content digerati who argue, "We are real. We sometimes screw up. Our customers love us because we are real so if we show our flaws, we confirm and validate their expectations and extend their brand loyalty." It seems to me that if you make or sell anything of value, you need to stand behind your products and services. You need to give your customers the opportunity to respond to your sales process and your products by posting reviews. And while you can screen them for civility or legality and impose language standards you ought to let the public speak and let...

Danny Flamberg

I am a veteran marketing consultant working with leading and emerging brands

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