Art & Commerce: Two-Way Street

For today’s emerging brands, says Kay Allison, the USP is not enough
My son, Christian, is crazy about Legos. We used to buy them and play with them once in a while–no more and no less than the other occasionally interesting toys. But now, he and his buddies fantasize about having their creations featured in LegoManiac magazine. After receiving an invitation, we attended an event featuring the world’s largest Lego structure, surrounded by dozens of equally rabid LegoManiacs!
While Legos is thriving, many brands are faltering. Sears, Sony, Levi’s–former marketing legends–are being overshadowed by today’s emerging brands. Amazon, American Girl, Oprah, Martha Stewart and Fast Company magazine seem to operate from a new marketing orientation.
Yesterday’s legends were built on unique selling propositions (USP), product features that were translated into immediate benefits. The result was a product-centered monologue aimed at consumers, which relentlessly focused on product claims. Today, with overcrowded categories, “commodification” of product features and jaded consumers, product claims are simply inadequate.
More significantly, with the advent of the Internet, marketers are beginning to lose control of the brand conversation. While consumers want brands to sort through the complexity, they’re not engaged by product-centered monologues anymore.
Marketers of emerging brands begin by listening to the consumer as a human being, not as a “category user.” They co-create their brands with consumers, resulting in a fluid dialogue in which the brand’s identity is formed and re-formed. This marketing reflects a shift away from product-centered monologues to consumer-centered dialogues.
At the first level, the brand engages the consumer in a new dialogue that resolves a set of conflicting conversations the consumer lives.
For example, Nike’s original “Just do it” work resolved the conflict between the conversations of “Exercise hurts and is boring” and “Exercising makes me look and feel better.” The value Nike put forth allowed the consumer to take new actions (exercise and buy Nike stuff to exercise in).
At the second level, dialogue-based brands take a personal interest in the consumer. Amazon listens to my preferences and makes recommendations that are more on target than the local librarian. Oprah listens to her viewers, and Lego invites my son to play games in its catalogs.
At the third level, dialogue-based brands promote consumer-to-consumer interaction (think auctions on Amazon). These burgeoning communities also connect to common values that resolve conflicting conversations.
This dialogue allows marketers to create new brands, brand re-stages and enjoy more engaging communication by:
– Listening to consumers’ concerns as human beings and the context into which their product fits (rather than considering them only as “targets” who are either loyal or disloyal).
– Co-designing their brand identity with the consumer, based not only on what is, but also what could be.
– Designing a meaningful dialogue with consumers, including public listening and the facilitation of consumer-to-consumer conversations.
Who will create the first dialogue-based brand in your category?
Kay Allison is client development director at J. Walter Thompson in Chicago