Traditional advertising and marketing communications are frequently based on the concept of the objective correlative4 – where an object or person (signifier) represents a value or function that is transferred to the product or service (signified). The link between the product/service and the signifier does not have to be a literal or strong one but the “objective correlative, with its own logic that bonds so well with subjective work [makes] the connections seem plausible, even self-evident”5. Because the Crowd’s connection with brands is inherently weak we need creative actually to become the connection. As David Searls once said, “There is no market for messages.” This is Brand Reality Creative, where useful, usable and delightful interaction engages the Crowd and helps them connect, either functionally or for the purpose of self-actualisation across both real and digital spaces.
Brand Reality Creative has the value exchange firmly in the favour of the user. When applied to online advertising it should lead to semantic windows on personally relevant content and live, real events and features. Interactive creative is not inherently interesting because it is digital, it is interesting because it can provide a way for real people to connect and do things together – social networking was just the village pump on a global scale where we used social media and applications to present aspects of our real or imagined personalities. Reality and content will be sought after and valued by Crowds, and online advertising needs to evolve to account for this or else it will be filtered out and switched off. It needs to be valuable in itself and get people closer to content and reality.
Brand Reality Creative ties in with the post-credit crunch desire or need for tangible value over slick expensive fictions. Traditional object correlative advertising masking underperforming or non-useful products/services is sub-prime. Brand Reality Creative’s goal is to do something useful, helpful and valuable – to show not tell and embody the brand in the process.
“People won’t buy brands as entertainment, they want products that entertain. Brands will need to be something people connect with and will want to engage with”6, something that does something for them rather than interrupts them. It does not have to rely on a blatant do X and get Y message. It can rely upon people’s natural curiosity.
CNN.com’s T-Shirt Headlines Project used small T-Shirt icons next to headlines to draw peoples’ attention to their improved video offer. Clicking on the icon would lead them to a custom t-shirt shop where they could purchase a t-shirt with the headline on it. The shirts were emblazoned with the “I just saw it on CNN.com” tagline, along with the date and time of the headline. People could choose shirts with headlines they liked, were appalled about, found surreal, or just whimsical by actually interacting with the videos. It also spread the wider word as people wore the shirts, gifted them to their friends or broadcasted their purchase on their Facebook News Feed.
Brand Reality Creative like this is organic not viral, it has more usage loops and can be used by people for self-representation. It nurtures and incentivises invites and it cares about the retention rate rather than chasing installs through brute force. It is not the archetypal one hit widget – the type that cluttered up your old Facebook Profile page, the Viral App that is essentially spam. However, it is not just about Brand Utility.
The theory of Brand Utility arose in 2006 from the desire of agencies like Barbarian Group and Anomaly for the valuable communities, sites and experiences they create for clients to live beyond the average three month marketing campaign’s lifecycle. Soon it became the belief that brands should be “genuinely useful to their customers, employees, suppliers and the people they touch”7. Since then it has become a cliché to mention brand utility and Nikeplus in the same breath. Much comment has been made about this technological partnership between Nike and Apple since its revolutionary debut. The great combination of a useful training tool with sharing personal performance and comparing runs embodies Crowd focused brand utility. Yet it is Nikeplus’ recent evolution to form the heart of the Human Race 10k that transforms the campaign to one of Brand Reality Creative. Effectively “it’s translating…intangible propositions into the result of something more basic and useful for society [rather than] just advertising through a medium the individual can use to make it less interrupting”8. The creative is a useful embodiment of the brand that affects the real world, not a metaphor or a distraction. It is not a tool with a logo either.
In its ultimate form Brand Reality Creative needs to offer an experience you can’t get anywhere else. People will pay for things that they see as scarce, not things – digital versions – that they see as intangible and abundant. The digital element has to do more or be used for more. This has been the dilemma facing the music, game and film industries, indeed anyone involved in the creation of the new digital currency – content. The music industry, of all the content creation industries, has reacted to recent advances in the connectivity of Crowds as a threat rather than an opportunity. For every claimed “MyTube/YouSpace” basement success story, the major labels have seem to have ten lawyers with a handful of writs. Instead, it has been left to music’s actual practitioners, grass-roots movements and technology firms like Apple to forge the new business models for the Cloud and Crowd enabled world.
In October 2007 the band Radiohead shocked the music industry almost as much as the birth of Napster when their self-released album In Rainbows was sold online for only as much as people were willing to pay for it. Their digital honesty box confronted one of the downsides of the Crowd – intellectual property theft over file-sharing and peer-to-peer networks – while also generating a huge volume of PR and media attention. The digital version was effectively free but the real, enhanced physical boxed set retailed for £40. The experiment only lasted for 3 months and sales allegedly averaged £2 confirming that consumers, while valuing content, were not prepared to pay the old prices for purely digital copies. When something is “free” it is hard to go back to paying – ironically this situation is probably the ultimate end result of the industry’s own debasing of its currency via years of cover-mounts and newspaper giveaways.
Radiohead’s experiment altered the industry so much that nine months later Prince conducted the physical release of his new album free through the Daily Mail. What Radiohead started, Prince took to the next level by ushering in a new era of business models based on brand association, product placement and live experiences; an era of brands supplying tangible access to content in return for Crowd engagement.
However, the new model does not mean that brands have to give the Crowd everything and expect nothing in return. Brands can use the Crowd creatively.
Once again one of the best example of using the Crowd to generate content comes from the Radiohead stable. After the initial PR success of the In Rainbows launch came the second phase of the campaign: promoting individual singles. Because the band was not signed to a major label they could not rely upon the traditional methods of single promotion – methods similar to those employed by the average fmcg launch – repetitive, expensive exposure of the message/music until it becomes engraved in the audience’s mind and they cave in and buy. Instead, they launched an remix competition – Nude ReMix. While net remix competitions are not new, indeed through projects like Looplabs or even technical mashups they are actually an ingrained part of internet culture, Nude ReMix was smarter. It was done where the audience was – on iTunes and on their Facebook pages – so it felt open and natural. It didn’t exist solely as a self-contained, controlled, exclusive product driven website where everything was approved by the brand team and compliance. The useful parts of the track (stems) were sold – SOLD – for self-assembly on iTunes and people could use their Facebook pages to distribute their work and gain votes.
The campaign to promote the next single House of Cards went even further into this world of open-sourced Crowd creativity when instead of releasing a video the band released the motion capture data of a performance. The data was then turned into beautiful visualisations – Crowd created music videos – using open-source techniques and languages like Processing.
At the end of these campaigns the Crowd had created experiences that could never have been created by a traditional marketing campaign. They had generated networked exposure9 through creative interactions that gave value to digital versions of the real product.
The Crowd based Brand Reality Creative approach also allows effects to last longer and achieve more long-term reach than the “average three month marketing campaign”. After the Nude ReMix campaign had officially ended its influence re-emerged in the form of James Houston’s Big Ideas (Don’t Get Any). This film of a real installation transformed the act of remixing into an art piece that married analogue and digital technologies and took the internet by storm. His reprocessed Crowd piece actually transcended the original and truly embodied the Reader Response Theory that brands are ultimately made by people. Essentially Product + Story + Audience +Context = Content10, or in this case art, proving that “content is the new democracy and we the people, are ensuring that our voices are heard”11.
Despite the obvious quality and success of these examples of Crowd reprocessed creativity it is important to recognize that they are still quite “niche”. The traffic, interactions and attention generated were high but the Crowd communities were still relatively specialised. How do we break away from highly technical/creative audiences and take a broadcast approach to Crowd creation and Brand Reality Creative?
In fact this has already been happening. While the Nikeplus campaign mentioned previously may embody Brand Utility, 2005’s NikeID campaign, where interactively customising the product became entertainment, truly embodies Crowd enabled Brand Reality Creative. As part of the campaign Nike launched an interactive billboard experience that let people use their phones to design a shoe on the Reuters sign in Times Square. Passersby could use their phones to interact with the 23-story billboard, customising and even directly purchasing their own Nike shoe. After designing a shoe on the screen, the user received a text message within seconds. That message contained mobile phone wallpaper showing their shoe along with a link to the NikeID site where they could buy it. People could also create and share their designs in online adverts and on the NikeID site itself. NikeID now forms a central part of the Nike’s overall strategy.
Brand Reality Creative is not limited to so-called “cool”, media or high-tech brands. A similar success story to the Radiohead or NikeID examples is the Lego Factory, an interactive campaign where people can digitally design their own custom creations, share them, discuss them and then order the parts and their own personalized packaging. Crowd based Brand Reality Creative like this, not constricted UGC upload your photo competitions, work on an open, simple mechanic (even/especially if the techniques required are quite specialist) and work with existing communities to drive involvement and the quality of entries. This in turn drives exposure and direct and indirect sales.
“…a sports shoe, a toy. Each has empowered a community of its consumers, and by connecting them together has itself benefited. But these aren’t ‘soft’ [brand] benefits. They’re driving revenue streams, repeat purchase and real engagement – consumer relationships whose strength is founded not on the transient moment of product need, but in the enduring nature of humans as social animals.” Andrew Walmsley, Superbrands.
The potential of Brand Reality Creative for the Cloud and Crowd enabled world is immense but we do need a word of warning before storming this “new utopia”. While it is said that there is wisdom in crowds, the Crowd can easily become a mob. There are already instances of bloggers stopping writing because of over-democracy, because of people hiding behind usernames to flame and indulge in petty arguments. The risk is that sometimes in a crowd no one can hear you scream because everyone is screaming. The Crowd is people – we all got the “brands need to be like people and marketing is now a conversation” memo – and people can be downright ugly. People do not always act with the purest intentions, and the market does not always self-regulate, the great fact you Googled in support of your argument can always turn out to be the fantasy of a teenager from Tipton, something the phenomenally successful Loose Change conspiracy theory film proved. Equally, if an online newspaper were to be generated solely out of most viewed stories it would be overflowing with kittens, sexual accidents and pictures of Britney with no underwear. The next big challenge is how to manage masses of information, how to attribute identity, and how to work out what is truth and what is propaganda – or worse the Big Lie?
The birth of the semantic web touched on at the beginning of this paper, and a new focus on developing filters and aggregators, means we can start addressing these risks of digital fatigue and noise. The issues of identity and authority in crowds are already reflected in projects like OpenID and the move from the freewheeling Wikipedia to Google’s editor influenced Knol. Marketers and communicators need to support and engage with this future if they are going to continue to have any influence.
Brand Reality Creative for the Cloud and Crowd world is just one technique that Brands can use to become a way for people to sort the wheat from the chaff. Ultimately, our job should be to make the Cloud and Crowd work for humanity rather than debase it.
4. “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is evoked.” T.S. Eliot, 1919
5. “The bottle that isn’t there and the duck that can’t be heard: The subjective correlative in commercial messages” Michael Witoski, University of South Carolina
6. Flo Heiss, The way things go
7. Johnny Vulkan, Anomaly
8. Bram De Maesschalck – PSFK
9. “Driven by internet and mobile communications, networks are turning into the major means of doing business… Simply put, networks will make the world go round. So controlling the networks of this world will soon count for more than controlling the capital.” Netocracy, by Jan Söderqvist & Alexander Bard
10. Ian Tait, Crackunit
11. Brian Solis