Like cats, brands clearly think of themselves as people; fully anthropomorphized, they describe themselves as "we," they speak to us as intimate friends, and when necessary they apologize (often profusely and insincerely, like the real people in our lives.)
So it seemed only natural that at this time of the year, brands should look backwards at their failings, forward to the clean slate of 2014, and set themselves some New Year's resolutions -- which I am delighted to put forward on their behalf.
1. Resolved! Stop asking so damn much.
From Facebook to Twitter, it seems like every social media manager has been trained to generate engagement by continuing annoying people about their preferences. This McDonad's Tweet is just one example of a deluge of feeble attempts to provoke a response. It's like the entire consumer economy is chanelling the annoying parent who can't stop asking "What happened in school today." Yeah, and we know how far that gets them.
How do you prefer your @McCafe Peppermint Mocha: Whip or no whip? #MomentsOfWonder
Brands need to recognize that barraging consumers for responses is eventually self-defeating.
2. Resolved! Recognize that the sun doesn't rise and set on your brand.
Social media creates a dangerous solipsism, where your brand is the center of the universe, and the rest of the world revolves around it. The disastrous Spaghetti Os Pearl Harbor Day Tweet, one of the year's biggest Twitter fails -- featuring the corpulent little brand icon proudly holding an American flag, blissfully unaware of the death and destruction on Omaha Beach he is celebrating -- is self-centeredness in extremis. But lesser violations happen every day.
3. Resolved! Calling it innovation doesn't make it so.
America needs innovation, but the real kind; marketers have demeaned the word through reckless overuse as much as politicians have beaten "American Dream" senseless. The Wall Street Journal ran a piece dripping with irony, raising the philosophical question of whether Kellogg's Gone Nutty! Pop Tart truly constitutes an innovation. They also note, dryly, that when Boston Consulting surveyed 1,500 executives, more than two-thirds ranked themselves a 7 or higher on innovation. (That's out of ten, not 100.)
The problem with innovation inflation is that its risibility undermines consumer trust at the same time as it creates a false sense of accomplishment inside your organization, elevating mediocrity so that no one knows the difference between a quantum leap and a superficial step. Would be far more effective to say "We wouldn't call our 'Gone Nutty' Pop Tart an innovation, but if you love Pop Tarts and peanut butter, it's modestly astounding."
4. Resolved! Stop hiding your CEO.
Why the opacity when it comes to CEOs of consumer product companies, why the remoteness? You have millions upon millions of customers who are interested in who's running the companies they support. But LinkedIn recently ranked the top 60 CEOs on social media, and there's not a single one present from the consumer world. Why should only tech CEOs, venture guys, celebs like Branson and Murdoch and the occasional straggler -- like the CEO of the engineering consultancy AMEC -- dominate? What a lost opportunity.
Whether it's P&G or Coca-Cola or Church & Dwight or Wrigley's, the invisibility of the boss is stunning. That's particularly dumb given that most CPG companies target women, and all the latest research consistently shows that the female brain is wired to connect the hemispheres that manage the interplay of logic and intuition -- which may make an emotional connection to leadership all the more valuable.
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6. Resolved! Big shouldn't pretend to be small.
The trend line is so clearly in favor of the small, the scrappy, the artisanal and the challenger brand that our giant, lumbering behemoths can feel insecure, immensely un-cool. So un-cool, in fact, that they might be tempted to cozy up to the consumer by adopting the affectations and mannerisms of products like the Best Made Company's American Felling Axe or small batch Brooklyn Gin. We see that pretend chumminess all the time.
That's a mistake. The consumer landscape is not a monoculture. Big brands have a role and they should be proud of what they can do. Who else other than Wal-Mart could have taken the responsibility of bringing water and other supplies to New Orleans after Katrina? America has big problems that only big entities can address. What GE is doing with off-the-grid energy production is just as cool as bringing back our axe industry.
7. Resolved! I will explore in public.
Your brand doesn't have to know everything. The opposite. It should always be learning. It should have a visibly insatiable curiosity to discover more. There are social channels and blogs and other platforms to reveal how you think about your own business, about people who interest you, about subjects that have no relationship to what you offer other than the fact that they mean something to you.
This is virtually impossible for traditionally trained, claustrophic brand people to understand. If you sell socks, why should anyone care about your passion for switchel? Well, maybe because switchel is just interesting, a fascinating, richly-historical Vermont drink, and maybe because people who are care about such things are passionate people who make more interesting socks. And maybe because brands that have enough confidence in their consumers to take an excursion will create a special kind of loyalty.
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