2016 has been a difficult year for many individuals and organizations. Political parties, once the pride of organizational design to define leadership in the world now mean less and less after several outlier personalities have begun to dictate a new narrative.
Mass media, once the organizational design to define communication in the world are continuing to struggle for relevancy in a world pivoting to “startup media” focused on feelings instead of facts. Institutions of higher education, once the barometer of success in the industrial economy are now becoming targets as simply debt generators in a world becoming more defined by short term “return on investment” models instead of long term sustainability. Everything we have taken for granted in terms of institutional givens from healthcare to transportation to energy are now all being questioned in terms of their place in our modern society.
Throughout much of this debate it has appeared that brands have kept plodding along, planning linearly for the future, believing they will be untouched by any change.
How wrong so many of them may be.
Brands are simply a definition around feelings and emotions based on products or services in risk-averse corporate hierarchical structures. The reason they existed starting at the end of the 19th Century is because for much of the industrial economy it was a means in which to mass produce, mass distribute and mass define in an era of mass or scaled scarcity economics.
But that world is changing. It is changing or has changed many industries already and will continue to alter lines of business based on human beliefs, behavior and technological evolution redefining what a brand actually means in an era of de-massification.
For much of the agricultural era, tribal culture was the human map to learning and survival. Small groups would settle and live based on where they could survive for long periods of time. In the industrial era, this tribal culture broke down, it packed up and moved to cities where it worked on producing goods en masse. Tribes still existed but were mainly broken down by the nature that survival in the city required everyone looking out for each other beyond identity politics. There was little personalization in this era. This is the period in history where humanity moved quickest toward homogeneity.
Now we’re moving back to the agricultural era. Not in the sense people will become farmers again or move away from urban areas but instead, creatives, artisans, makers, those who produce things that are for small tribes, once again will reign in what is becoming a more niche economy. This explains why movements as unique and different as independent record labels, podcasts, fashion boutiques, craft beers, artisinal popcorn and tech apps that provide one service for an online tribe all have commonalities more than differences.
This era is why defined organizations built for mass audiences will have the most difficult time surviving this oncoming world of personalization, interest-driven economics and identity that thrives beyond geography due to the social web. So how should brands caught in the linear thinking of the 20th Century mass rules all behavior adapt to this new behavior? Take action on these four points:
1. Understand who your tribe is. What is the tribe unified around? Is it based on a variety of factors from interests, budget decision making, education, geography, gender? What is the rallying cause of the tribe?
2. Realize that scaled word-of-mouth from brand to mass audience rarely works. This is why influencer marketing is spoken about so much lately even though it has existed since the dawn of civilization. Because influencer messaging is centered around tribal identity more than mass impressionism. This is another reason celebrity endorsements should be avoided over endorsements from people who actually make up the tribe. One thing never discussed by many strategists is that forced narratives never reach the laggards in a targeted audience. The late adopters have already re-defined the narrative into what they believe suits their identity. They make up a story as it takes the long road to get to them so it suits their feelings and then they use logic later to explain that decision. Brands used to be able to control messaging in a read-only mass media world. But that world is crumbling and may be detrimental to the large brand as a result. They no longer can control the message unless it is to a niche audience of hardcore believers.
3. Be prepared for your tribe to evolve and change its thinking and feelings toward you. Like any relationship, time alters feelings. Especially when other products, solutions and services come into play. While we want to believe that many customers have brand loyalty, many only used your product because they never had many other options at their disposal. Now they do and they may be more likely to vote with their dollars for an organization that is local, organic, sustainable and artisinal or who they identify with based on moral values because they can. They were only supporting the mass brand because that was all that was available.
4. Price points don’t mean as much in the modern era. In fact, 60% of people buy items that are higher priced because they feel they have more of an emotional and personal connection. Behavioral economics only works well when you are trying to convince someone to trial. Once they’ve made up their mind they like or don’t like you (and a number of factors are used to determine if they like you), there is no amount of cost savings that can bring them all back into the fold. This is why losing customers is so detrimental to companies. It’s hard to win them back once the trust is broken. This is also why tribes are so powerful in ousting market leaders for upstarts. If the tribe identifies with the upstart more based on a number of factors, the incumbent is perceived as antiquated and no matter how fast the incumbent changes, it is perceived as a reactive change rather than a proactive one. Tribes expect you to be in pulse with the group at all times. Because big brands are scaled for mass populations and not context, this is very difficult to do even with modern communication systems.