Brands as Sausage Factories

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Much has been said about the legislative process that yielded America’s health bill this week, and most of the conversation has been about the opinions, expectations, and fears voiced in, well, the conversation. We’ve just had our first behind-the-scenes glimpse into how the government makes sausage, and we didn’t like it one bit. Watching also impeded it getting made, or at least getting it made well.

Just wait until the same thing happens to your brand.

It’s inevitable, really. Social media could never remain the purview of playful marketers toying with the clicks of passingly interested consumers. No matter how happily people burn out their retinas engaging with branding, there’ll come a time when the technology enables more useful visibility into what goes on operationally within companies.

That insight into how governments function is a possibility that has already been codified into expectation by the healthcare debate. 

The very premise of representative democracy is that we plebians elect folks to do the dirty, messy, imperfectly realized, sometimes nasty, and occasionally outright indefensible business of reaching the consensus necessary for governance. We never wanted to know how it was done though if we did we could always run for office and see it first-hand. Voters used to be content judging the outcomes: if the sausage tasted good, all was well, and if it didn’t, that meant it was time to vote in a new slate of cooks.

That premise is forever changed: now we can be certain that the page-count of any future piece of legislation will factor prominently in mainstream media photo ops; individual phrases or numbers will get repeated and magnified out of proportion in the echo chamber of chat; coverage of peoples’ reactions, and reactions to those reactions, will serve as a running pseudo-narrative of a process that once got done more effectively behind closed doors. 

Again, I’m not celebrating ignorance of the process but rather suggesting that giving everyone the imaginary sense that they’re supposed to be involved doesn’t necessarily improve the results. 

Yet we citizens will henceforth expect to be intimately involved in what’s going on in government without having to do anything… especially take any responsibility for resolving differences and enabling effective legislation. We’ll just get sickened or thrilled watching the sausage get made, and let everyone else know how we feel about it every step of the way. Good luck seeing anything pass through that machine tasting any good.

Stay tuned for the end of representative branding, too.

If recent experience is any guide, we can look forward to circumstances far more chaotic and dire than any expert "give up the brand to the conversation" nonsense even considers, let alone understands. Just imagine if your consumers rejected your silly video creating social promotion and demanded instead to watch, describe, and often misunderstand your business operations. 

Think shareholders meeting, only worse and 24/7:

  • Your internal documents used a props
  • Pressure groups finding cause to support their worst suspicions
  • Detractors as motivated and loud as your evangelists
  • Routine internal meetings heckled into chaos
  • Your every statement dissected and recast in other, sometimes contradictory words
  • Business processes questioned
  • Your executives (or any employees) pulled into personality-based conflicts
  • A residual belief by the public that they could do your job better than you can

I think consumers would be shocked, and some sickened, if they had visibility into some of the more routine activities that occur behind the closed doors to your corporate office (just imagine the reaction to how your marketers study and target their proclivities, for instance, or the way your supply chain folks measure what’s minimally acceptable for working conditions at your outsourced factories). Their reactions wouldn’t necessarily be fair, or just, or even particularly accurate, but they’d be real…and suffice as fodder to the echo chamber of media that would consume and propagate them. 

Do they really want to know or, more pointedly, do we want them to have such visibility? If consumers become the imaginary "owners" of brands the way they presume to dictate and judge the behaviors of our politicians, it raises fascinating questions about how you’ll get anything meaningful done. When your traditional sausage eaters become sausage makers:

  • Are commentary and consensus what matter most? This is why we’ve heard over the past few  years about the importance of online "influencers" (bloggers, for the most part), and the utility of Net Promoter Scores (NPS measures consumers’ "likelihood to recommend"). The problem is that this amounts to measuring the size and shape of the shadows on Plato’s cave walls; few bloggers do any primary research on what they write about, and the generic crowd tends to produce reviews of things at opposite extremes. So trust in the social sphere is actually declining according to recent studies, and some big sites like YouTube are simply walking away from the presumption that the crowd can say anything more that "this rocks" or "it sucks." If consumers truly want to hear more from one another, they seem to believe less and less of what they’re told.
  • Can branding expect to change preconceived notions? This is where the idea of storytelling for brands finds new relevance, because people’s opinions about your products or services will often be codified long before you ever interact with them (and whatever you do or say won’t really change their beliefs). There could be new utility for brands as stories: not filled with promises of intangible benefits, as we currently see them, but constructed as narratives of behaviors that yield authenticity and purpose. They’re already considered as much whether we like it or not (i.e. they’re conceived by consumers beyond the pale of our expert communications wizardry), so why not figure out how to redefine our approach? If commentary and consensus emerge apart from what we say (see point above) the idea would be for us to focus on the behaviors that prompt those notions vs. trying to manipulate the conversations that follow. Engagement with meaning. Consistency of effort. Ubiquity of purpose.
  • Is the true mechanism of collaboration quid pro quo? Every citizen could claim some legitimate interest in the sausage making in Washington, as it’s implicitly presumed they are voters. Is it the same for brands? Are the people talking about your brand always current or potential customers? Of course not. In fact, there’s some research suggesting that the most vocal fans and critics are not likely costing or paying you a cent. I made a rhetorical statement in my last Advertising Age column in which I suggested that the true test of the value of a "fixed" customer service issue would be if the customer bought something else on the spot. Some commentators noted the inanity of my proposal but missed the bigger question: shouldn’t we somehow link our communication efforts more directly to our selling? I still don’t understand why this is such a radical idea.

I think consumer involvement in brands, however imaginary or fleeting, is inevitable. There’s no escaping the fact that at least some of them are going to hate what they see inside the sausage factory…they’ll be inconsolable, just as your evangelists will provide their undying allegiance. The resulting conversation will make most social engagement strategies to date seem quaint, if not simply irrelevant. 

I haven’t figured out all the angles on this one yet, but I do think it’s time we come to terms with the fact that our brand conversations with consumers is about to follow the direction of their conversations with government.

Brands as sausage factories. Yuck.

Image source: danpeters

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