Thursday, October 27, 2011

Brand America

In these fractious and partisan times it’s interesting how U.S. politicians of all stripes are eager to distance themselves from their chosen profession. Democrats and Republicans alike, no matter their actual tenure, are all suddenly Washington “outsiders.” Many have also developed a newly found appreciation for how businesses are run, and think government could learn a trick or two from corporate America. We don’t need a President, they seem to be saying, we need a CEO.

Government-as-business is an interesting concept, which got me thinking: Why not elect an American CMO, a kind of Marketer-in-Chief?

The question isn’t as facetious as it might seem. Lots of countries actually do elect or appoint someone – often a “president” with limited legislative clout – to represent their country without having any overt political baggage. Truth is, in Europe that’s what royalty’s for.

America desperately needs a Marketer-in-Chief. America the Brand isn’t so brave anymore. You don’t need to conduct an audit to see the signs of dwindling brand loyalty and a confused brand identity. A good CMO would have read the signals long ago: The latest Rasmussen Poll shows that only 16 percent of likely voters think their country is “heading in the right direction,” while only 35 percent think America’s best days are to come. This is Quickster bad. The truth is, behind all the Tea Party bluster and Take Wall Street theatrics, there’s a shared disquiet that the US has lost its way and compromised on some ideals.

Overseas, Brand America is being bashed as bad as tainted Tylenol or New Coke. A couple of foreign wars certainly don’t help, and a worldwide financial pandemic is also souring the mood. Interestingly, Obama’s reputation abroad remains strong – his personal brand is relatively unscathed.

But Brand America has dealt with crisis before and come through, so, what’s the problem now? I blame the politicians. As some famous American once said, “a house divided cannot stand,” and Brand America has some deep-sea-trench divisions on strategy and values. No self-respecting CMO would stand for this. It used to be that the country coalesced around a universally accepted brand promise: Liberty, justice and the pursuit of happiness, etc. This was considered enough. Now, while we might agree on the brand promise, we dogmatically disagree on how to deliver on that promise. Even the role of government is being questioned. Meanwhile, as our fearless political leaders seem to encourage polarization, we flounder dealing with looming competitive threats from Brand China and the rest.

As any CMO knows, brand equity is a fragile commodity, hard to earn and too easily lost. However, in the case of Brand America, I think the gloomy prognosis is overstated.

A couple of months ago I was sworn-in as a US citizen, along with 260 others from over 30 different countries. It was a moving and sobering experience РI sat next to a Somali woman and a Nigerian man, both with harrowing stories of lost relatives and exile. An Indian man told me about the Pharma start-up he was creating Рin the US. That same week, I listened to American scientists from the Kepler project describe discovering the first planets from other solar systems. And this year U.S. citizens netted seven Nobel prizes. On the global stage, America is still a place of invention and promise. The old clich̩ is true: American is a land of opportunity.

All we need is a Marketer-in-Chief to sell it better.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Is social media saturating – and what are the implications for marketing?

According to the latest data from Nielsen Research and Experian Simmons, the adoption of social media in the US has skyrocketed to 80 percent of those with online access, or over 40 percent of the overall population. Putting this in perspective, among those 35-and-younger, the adoption of social media is approaching that of US car ownership. Safe to say, it is clearly foolish to think of social media as something new or novel – it is an everyday part of most people’s lives.

Collectively, Americans now spend almost a billion hours a month exchanging news, information and gossip at social media sites. Last I checked there are still only 24 hours in a day: As you look at these stats, especially for the college-age set, the use of social media starts to look like borderline addiction. For many teens and tweens being connected online is an umbilical necessity for sustaining life. You wonder if Facebook and the rest shouldn’t carry warning labels, like cigarettes: Using Social Media Is Not A Substitute For Food, Sleep Or Reality.

More seriously, as social media adoption becomes mainstream, what are the consequences for marketing?

First, marketing pros should understand that media use overall is usually a zero-sum game: If we’re all spending more time online with social media, it usually means we’re doing less of some other media activity. There’s evidence to support this view, with online activities eating away at everything from watching television to reading. Second, we should anticipate that the use of social media is saturating. The amount of time we spend on social media is cresting, especially among those 35-and-younger.

This is a familiar scenario for marketing folks who have lived through other communications and marketing revolutions. I can remember when email marketing was a novelty, with response rates for well-targeted campaigns routinely reachig 3-5 percent (I’ve seen similarly impressive stats for the novelty-of-the-moment, QR codes). As social media saturates we should expect it to become harder and harder to create and sustain relationships between prospects and our brands. Saturation equates to clutter, attentions wane, and people become weary and guarded.

We should also remember that social media got that name for a reason – it’s a tool for staying in touch with friends and family, not primarily for finding your company, not matter how lovely it may be. Understand that social media is only one part of an integrated marketing program. Have realistic expectations - and make sure you communicate these to your management teams. As you work with social media, be true to yourself and your brand. The fundamentals of good marketing have not been re-invented: Be engaging, be credible, be trustworthy, and be unique.