The term seems to go back to Reg Lascaris, founding partner of TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris\SouthAfrica. However, since the link to his original 2006 blog post is no longer active, I can only tell by second-hand quotes from Dave Duarte and Mike Davison at 1000heads.com what the originator was refering to. From those sources it seem as though Lascaris was referring to the new power that Web 2.0 is playing into the hands of consumers, but particularly the geeks among them, to influence the fate brands.
I honestly can‘t remember whether I came across the original post or one of his mentioners back in 06 or whether this is a case of parallel minds. But in any case, I use the term in a broader sense because I believe that more trajectories than the impact of internet are heading into that direction.
The first time I dropped the phrase was in a presentation I gave to an audience of web insiders in earlier 2009, earning me a big solid question mark that suddenly filled the room. Later at the bar, however, quite a number of sympathizers dropped their pants. Sure, the idea fits in with the crisis-induced debates about how capitalism can be tamed and humanized. But if it look today like I‘m trying to ride a wave of popularity, may I say to my excuse that my musings go far back before the Lehman crash. Because trends had been moving in the general direction for quite some time now, some of them for many years. (See for instance the original Cluetrain Manifesto, theses #7, 13, 50, 65, or 69.)
At first, it is important to say that this is happening without a revolution (at least not in the historian‘s sense). Brand Socialism is not about the actual redistribution of ownership. No violence, no expropriation – you may now exhale. The premise is rather that, when brands are the dominant source of surplus value, ownership does no longer mean very much. The true authority over a brand is distributed across a widening circle of people and parties: customers; employees; investors and lenders; distributors; suppliers; partners.
Sure, the most obvious factor behind this development is the internet, which facilitates communiation and networking with and within that wide circle. Another factor is a post-authoritarian shift reflecting our growing distrust that individuals, however gifted, are superior to our collective wisdom better at mastering the challenges of our times. And it is again the internet that enables us to syndicate our wisdom and to organize collective processes without the need for leadership.
What does this mean for brands? For the time being, I have little more than a collection of stickernotes. These are my observations and thoughts about how and why brands are becoming collective assets. The list is far from complete and only losely organized. But it should suffice to prove the point and the urgency of adapting our brand management organizations and processes:
- Customers, employees, developers and investors flock around the same big idea. Forget about treating them as different target audiences. Forget about feeding them completely different streams of communication. They are now one community that is, if not yet fully networked and organized, increasingly aware of and cross-linked with each others. Which will soon give them the power to deal fatal blows against a brand, its company or its management.
- Whether or not their brand has a big idea, and what it is, is no longer for a bunch of top rankers in a remote HQ to decide. The infinite research-plan-implement loop, feeding multi million Euro service industries today, can and must be short-circuited. Now the customer wants to speak with the brand directly, not with an uninvolved focus group moderator with a psychology degree. And brands better listen to him, or else …
- Brands, and the organizations behind them, can‘t be managed top-down. Brands only have a life in front of the customer. So it‘s effectively the frontline staff that manages the brand. Top-down management becomes more and more of an illusion. We live in the times of ,post-heroic management‘ (Dirk Baecker). And Steve Jobs may well be the last poster boy of the previous paradigm. Our corporate reality is not heroic leadership but delegation to experts and committes. Now that we‘ve learned to manage brands through committees, it‘s actually a short step to represent the real experts on our boards.
And a few even less organized associations that follow from these points:
- A brand‘s access to fresh capital might soon be directly correlated to it‘s accessibility for customers.
- Listen is a really BIG word for a large organization. It means new infrastructure, and re-orgs. Forget about handling it with a newer, bigger CRM system. It would be easier and better to turn every employee within the company into an access point from outside. Not a service rep in the traditional sense; maybe just a care-taker who can find someone who knows about; maybe just 2 days every month …
- Top-down management is as likely as your CEO can measure up to Steve Jobs.
- We wish him a very long life, but one day someone will have to take over from Steve Jobs. Question to the share- and stake-holders: would you rather have another monomaniac trying to bend the Apple brand around his own ego; or a committee of long-time employees and collaborative power-users? Writing it, both sound equally unattractive and the question too black and white. Have to make a note to look into the grey zone later …
- Bottom-up management is a new paradigm. Do we have the tools and skills? Are there examples? How about DER SPIEGEL, the German news magazine. Back in 1974, founder Rudolf Augstein shared his ownership with his employees in a 50/50 constellation. What looks like a recipe for permanent stalemate has turned out to be the single most successful model in the German publishing industry.