Making Branded Content For Humans (Part 1)

We’re now in the era that Forrester Research is calling ‘The Age of the Customer’, where companies cannot survive on the dusty marketing tactics that guided them in the past.

In just a few lifetimes, we’ve seen the culturally transformative modern agricultural, mechanical, industrial and technological revolutions pierce the fabric of humanity to change the way we fundamentally behave as humans.

Today, we’re in the beginning of the next great revolution, and it’s rapidly impacting who we will become as a people as we move into the future. People today are vastly more informed, educating themselves on their precise needs while simultaneously seeking better value for their money by price matching any given brand to its competitors, and self-defining their desires by leveraging the seemingly unlimited digital tools at their disposal.

Social scientists generally refer to a "generation" as the average period between birth and reproduction.   While perhaps that is getting longer today, generally it is considered about 25 years.

With no hyberbole intended and in just the past few years, the marketing landscape has changed faster than in all previous generations before it combined.   Most notably to marketers, the real power in the relationship has dramatically moved to the customer, the consumer and the end user from media, message and frequency.

The customer revolution began at the dawn of the Internet

 Just 25 years ago (one generation), almost no one had a computer in the home. Those who did bought it at a store, or through a printed catalogue. Even Fortune 50 companies did all their purchasing of tens of thousands of computers a year in a seemingly archaic way, through sales representatives and over a fax machine.

And then along came Dell.  Simply by providing people with what they actually wanted (options and convenience) Dell became the first million-dollars-a-day e-commerce store within seven months of opening their virtual doors.  I was lucky enough to be one of the shepherds of that early movement and I would like to say that our finger was squarely on the grasp of the technology-fuelled human evolution that was happening around us. I would also love to think that, based upon more evolved research, we were able to pinpoint and understand the direction we were all taking as humans. But that would all be a lie.

In reality, all we knew about the
early days was that people
like us wanted more choices, options
and price points to pick from. We wanted
to be able to decide for ourselves.   
And that was one of the first cries of the future customer revolution.

As product providers, we knew that technology was outpacing the manufacturing cycle and that with the advent of Internet technology, we were almost capable of delivering upon the dream of on-demand delivery. We also knew that there was a price people would pay for that service and for that luxury. The largest PC vendor at the time by far, IBM, was evolving its product line only a couple times a year. In contrast, Dell built its business to be capable of evolving its product line on a weekly basis for as long as the pc component manufacturers and consumers would allow. As marketers, this forced us to keep nimble and constantly think about how to push the evolution of customer desire in a very early Internet culture. Around the same time, and out of that same culture of desire, came several of the online-only shops that have secured their place in most of our lives, like Amazon and eBay.

The marketing shift from ‘push’ messages to ‘pull’ content

 Just as commerce was irrevocably changed in those early days of the digital enablement of shopping, marketing too has shifted in the past generation from the calculated brand message delivered several times by an optimized media plan to the conceptually simplistic ideas of influence and content engagement.

For the first time in over 100 years, or at least a handful of generations, humanity is observably changing directly in front of us.

Interestingly, this change goes beyond the expected demographic shifts in behavior or the expected adoption of trends; it represents a deeper cultural change in the way people communicate and who they choose to establish their relationships with.  Today, in many ways, people you may not have seen in a generation can be as close to understanding your life as some of those people you consider best friends. And they’re achieving this closeness without putting any effort into the friendship. You’re giving it to them freely and you likely feel as much a part of their distant lives as they do of yours.

For marketers, consumers are openly telling you what they want, need and expect of you more than ever before. As people move faster, create content in real-time and communicate daily with hundreds of people on just about everything from their pet’s personality flaws to the births of their children, the meaningful, personal, professional, casual and observational are shared with both best friends and people they don't even know, oftentimes in equal weight. Despite our great distances, or the nonexistent nature of our relationships outside the communication vehicle, we frequently share our most intimate daily thoughts and experiences with the world – a world of difference from even just 20 years ago.

This rapid change has caused many brands to muddle their KPIs with platonic likes and self- appreciative shares in a misguided measure of marketing efficacy across their communication channels. What were some of the most memorable and shared cultural moments of the past few years? Did it involve kittens, puppies, or Oreos? Did we see them as posts, videos, gifs, or jpgs? Yes. All of that.

However, while we all remember the
Oreo Blackout, most of us probably more
fondly remember the impact of the
ALS Ice Bucket Challenge or the insane cuteness of the Sneezing Baby Panda.

Few people actually bought more Oreos because of that ill-fated Super Bowl moment, despite millions of us ‘liking’ and perhaps even ‘loving’ that Oreo had the circles to go there.