(This essay was co-written by Michael Cayley, who recently released the ebook Introducing Social Capital Value Add: Value Based Management for the Networked Age. He blogs here and here...and here, I hope, when the mood strikes him).
Lincoln and Roosevelt are heralded as great American leaders in times of crisis, and their vision and fortitude are recognized as drivers of their historic accomplishments. However, we think their greatness had far more to do with their abilities to be catalysts for network effects.
If we're right, it reveals a very different interpretation of the calls we're hearing for "leadership" to restore confidence in our economic system. In fact, there's a good chance that no government policy gesture or announcement will mollify the worries of businesses and consumers, let alone stabilize the markets.
Confidence must emerge from the networks in which we all participate. We need to lead ourselves.
This raises intriguing issues and opportunities for corporate marketers looking to craft a way forward.
"In times of uncertainty consumers rely more on trusted relationships when making purchasing decisions," says Dr. Brent Simpson, an expert at the University of South Carolina who specializes in understanding how social order is formed.
Stanford University's Matt Jackson, a leading social network theorist, adds: "People's friends and trusted social relationships are important in influencing their behavior, and people learn from and emulate their friends. Attitude certainly can play into that, especially in turbulent times."
So what does this mean for businesses directly impacted by the financial crisis, like banks, brokerages, and insurance companies, as well as any consumer business facing the prospect of declining (or less profitable) sales?
First and foremost, you can't brand your way out of it. You can't rely spin doctors to declare your path through the crisis; your customers must see and verify it. While your hired guns are hatching ads and press releases to statically position the situation, your networks are trading information and defining it in real-time.
And that information, whether accurate or not, has absolutely nothing to do with how the brand has been envisioned, promised, or promoted. Every network is founded upon the tangible realities of action and reaction, just as the mechanism of their function is cause and effect.
How do you empower these networks to step up and lead?
- Know your networks. Invest in software to map connections between people and content
- Move your enterprise closer to customers, employees, partners and investors. In the past we talked about flattening hierarchies; now it is time to integrate internal & external sources of value
- Trust opportunities that emerge from the exchange (don't just talk, and certainly don't lecture)
- Make information a utility as ubiquitous as electrical light. If what you share isn't affirmed and forwarded, don’t repeat it...instead, recast or reimagine it, and find new ways to prove it to your networks
- Demand feedback and ideas. Stop looking for home runs and play singles and doubles by finding small wins, frequent trials. Make constant adjustments. Allocate resources to winners, and abandon losers without blame
The larger revelation of today's various crises is that the era of symbolic branding is waning, if not over. The woes of the financial institutions have graphically illustrated to us why.
It was always untenable for lenders to ignore the details of weak/bad relationships and to expect instead that homes or property (i.e. commodities) would appreciate in value with no accord to the strength of home owners (i.e. the source of value that differentiated the commodity). Instead of accessing and fostering the relationship to make the loan a better product, the banker chooses to focus on the derivatives.
All businesses face similar risks. From toothpaste to software services, consumer brands invite significant downside threats when they focus on manufactured identify and perception, and not on the drivers of true business strength: connection, interaction, involvement, collaboration, consumption and the other aspects of human behavior.
There are no brands, or businesses, without the networks of people who make them real. It is in, and through, the behaviors of these networks that the Lincolns and Roosevelts for our business and social communities will ultimately arise.