a spotter’s guide to the revolution: attention, trust, and the bottom line

While changing perspective — from looking at automotive brands to looking at media brands — a thought occurred to me: All brands have become media brands.

That is so self-evident that it seems sort of duh. But it’s also outrageous.

The idea that all brands, to be competitive, must create news or entertainment content to generate deeper engagement with their customers is as weird as tulip mania in the 17th century — and it’s peaking in a moment where it is very high risk to be a media brand.

Trust of media brands is at an all time low while expectations of the ethical practices of brands is at an all time high, with Edelman research reporting that 50 percent of consumers now “buy on belief.”

The axiom has been accepted for now: To compete, a brand has to create content, a lot of it. Preferably viral.

Here, guidelines for the spotter:

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Rule #1: Change happens.

Business has accepted, for now, the axiom that it needs to create news or entertainment content to create deeper engagement with its consumers. But what if that isn’t true? What if creating content all the time is as bad for a business as consuming it all the time is for its customers?

According to media futurist Richard Notarianni, our number of connected hours has gone above 14 hours per day, every minute 300 million hours of video are uploaded, and each day 5 billion videos are watched, yet, consumers are expressing a desire to turn off. In a Pew study, 89 percent of phone owners said they’d used their phones in their last social gathering, but 82 percent felt that when they did this it damaged the interaction.

Does every brand have to compete by these rules, or has business slid as unwittingly as consumers have into the attention economy engineered by tech businesses like Google and Facebook? “You can see where this is going. Technology is not neutral,” says Tristan Harris, a Former Google design ethicist who founded the group Time Well Spent. “It has one objective: to capture our attention. And it becomes this race to the bottom of the brain stem of who can go lower to get it.”

I believe we’re witnessing a content burst. Ninety percent of the content on the internet has been created since 2016. People are saturated. The axiomatic “truth” that a brand needs to create fan-friendly content all day every day is going to appear as crazy in retrospect as did having an investment portfolio comprised of 90 percent tulip bulbs in the 1600s.

Rule #6: Context has consequence.

“On the positive, your brand footprint is bigger than you think. On the negative side, your context is usually not what you think.” -Kenyatta Cheese, CEO and Co-founder, EA1

Years ago, as the idea of digital was beginning to crest, the agency I was with was pitching to add the digital business of our client Jaguar Cars. The pitch was lead as a joint effort between the brand and digital teams inside the agency. The digital team was lead by Jeff Brooks, now CEO at Casper, and he asked the prescient question: “What is digital when everything is digital?”

At the time, all advertising content was beginning its march onto the web. TV still held sway, print and OOH far out-stripped spend on banner ads… It’s a context that seems archaeologically long ago. Digital was a silo lead by a few who understood its mechanics — and its potential. We won the business, and the question “what is digital when everything is digital?” sparked turf wars within the agency. It has also been a mental niggle for me ever since.

Recently, I’ve been asking myself, “What is social when everything is social?”

Today everything, absolutely everything, is up for grabs because everything is social. Legislation that has been held in place for decades by a minority with big money has been cracked wide open by intelligent, outraged teenagers with mobile phones.

All brands are media brands. All brands are competing in the attention economy. And, according to Kenyatta, “You don’t control the context of your content because your content is always social even if you don’t know it — even offline. These are the lessons from meme culture.”

Rule #3: Be where your fans are (aka: Relevance is a fan thing.)

Fan culture is values-based. Both community and business leaders are seeing the same truth.

According to Andrew Benett, CCO at Bloomberg, “We can’t lose sight of what binds [our customers] together. Smart marketers get that. Segmenting offers overarching insight on behavior, but how people live that insight does differ, especially from a media perspective. I’m seeing a change — from [clients and partners] believing they need to be always on, producing as much content as possible, to being much more thoughtful about what and how much they create.”

“Fandom is almost a training ground for how you develop your ethical or moral compass for the real world,” says Molly Templeton, co-founder of EA1. “I use Harry Potter as an example all the time: There’s a generation of people who are now in their 20s and 30s who grew up reading Harry Potter, who have a very distinct view of the world.” A generation that’s now assuming the mantle of leadership on right and wrong.

The vitality, or value, of a fandom is generally agreed to be defined by fans who care passionately, take action, and want to be a part of a community with a high level of shared values and trust. For them, it’s always about the community or the moment being an expression of themself — giving them the opportunity to proclaim, “I’m part of this.”

My take-away on relevance with fan bases (when 50 percent* of consumers are “buying on belief,” and everything is social) is that trust and hope pull people together. Business relies on a group of people pulled together around them — that’s what a consumer base is. And while, for instance, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ has power, it doesn’t tend to play out with the same vital market force as does ‘the friend of my friend is my friend.’

* According to the same research, 60 percent of millennials “buy on belief.” (Edelman)

Rule #4: Vision is a skill.

Research is proving out that “ethics is the new luxury.” People are aligning around their values and demanding the brands they buy from do, too.

Business is being called upon to put their values on view. 

Everything about a business is in the tiniest bit of it, wherever it turns up. This is a real world test of the marketing shorthand of “brand DNA.” All of a brand is in every part of a brand. Businesses, by being very clear and consistent about their values and how they bring those values to life, are actually creating protection for their content when it shows up in environments which they cannot control.

Delta has experienced the momentum of being behind this DNA curve, and ahead of it. The world has told them that taking a toddler’s seat away was not one of their finer character expressions, and that standing up for their convictions in Georgia is.

“While Delta’s intent was to remain neutral, some elected officials in Georgia tied our decision to a pending jet fuel tax exemption, threatening to eliminate it unless we reversed course,” Ed Bastian, Delta CEO, said recently. “Our decision was not made for economic gain and our values are not for sale.”

As Forbes has noted, “Social media, among many other platforms, has led to unprecedented corporate transparency and leadership accessibility; as brand stewards, CMOs at many companies have become the faces of those brands, and they are using that exposure and brand weight to push change around hot-button issues such as gender bias, diversity and inclusion, and gun control.”

Trust and hope are at an all time low. I’m being both an opportunist, and deeply true to my own values in saying: that sounds like a great opportunity. Trust and hope bind people together, fear and dread pull them apart. For the time being, all brands are media brands competing in the attention economy. All of which points to the best strategy for a healthy bottom line being a focus on our shared values, and action to make our shared hopes and dreams a reality.