by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

The mediasphere has exploded with content, splattering screens of every shape and size, and inspiring pretty much everyone with a computer to contribute their own unique whatever to the mix.

I talk about this disaster for traditional branding in my new book, Branding Only Works on Cattle.

It's a perfect storm, really. Not only are people generally more suspicious and critical of advertising than ever before, but now they can mess it all up. It seems that the media conduit – the foundational tool for sellers to tell buyers what they should think -- has been severed, only to be replaced by a complex, undulating web of connections that renders buyers into sometime sellers, sellers into sometime buyers, and lots of people into participants and voyeurs with no business purpose whatsoever. 

Experts try to qualify this trend as the democratization of media, but the indications are that it is more of the anarchification of it.

It turns out that we live in a low art renaissance that blurs the differentiation between professional and amateur, and that the distinction we used to make between the two was due to the limits of old technology. A flourishing continuum of content has emerged, driven and distributed by cheap transistors more powerful than the gizmos that flew the astronauts to the moon. Even the creative process itself has been broadened to include comment, declaration, thumbs-up voting, or any other back-and-forth communication. 

The experience of entertainment has itself become entertaining.

To listen to traditional brand types, this represents a great opportunity for companies to get into the content business. Since there's no good way to throw commercial stuff at consumers, the answer is to create entertaining content -- snippets, shows, chat topics, whatever -- and thereby "become part of the conversation." Commercial communication and entertainment are really one in the same.

I say they're asking the wrong question.

The fundamental misconception is that branding can be refashioned to become content, and that there’s a benefit to being seen by consumers as yet more creative material, no different from the plot of a drama on TV, the characters in a sitcom, or footage of somebody’s boyfriend sleeping on a couch. 

Here's why it's wrong:

  • In our new world, content is inherently more credible if it makes no claims to credibility
  • Relevance is directly proportional to authenticity, and indirectly proportional to expectation
  • Therefore, only stuff that is apparently worthless possesses any value, and
  • There’s no good way to know if it ever helps you sell anything

Huh? And otherwise intelligent business people don't laugh out loud when they hear this? Well, no they don't: the branded entertainment industry, and all of its large and twitter-sized progeny, is thriving.

But presence is not the same as recognition. And casual encounters with imagery (or any content) don't usually result in awareness and retention.

Our psyches are less unbounded cosmoses of thoughts, and more like ordered shopping lists:

  • Choices are thrust upon every waking moment of every living thing, whether we're human beings or squirrels. 
  • Options have to be evaluated in real-time, weighing costs and benefits, and then making decisions to move onto the next choice.
  • Into this constantly updated list we incorporate our direct experience, and
  • Then we both consciously and unconsciously re-order it, based on mood, circumstances, and opportunity.

Consumers experience their lives as wholly subjective and fluid feedback loops. And their experiences are filters...past experiences affect what we choose to contemplate, how we consider it, and the conclusions we derive thereupon. 

Nothing is concrete or unchanging. Our brains are marvelous machines that, quite literally, recreate reality, moment-to-moment. 

Entertainment is not branding.

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