“Internet” is an Empty Word

I had thought about calling this ‘Why I am no longer talking to marketing people about digital’ but thought that, though it was clever, it missed the point as this is bigger than ‘Growth Hackers’ and ‘Executive Digital Prophets’. With 5G services launching, voice control going mainstream, the cloud enabling real time translation and genuinely powerful augmented reality applications, it would be easy to assume that we are living in the age of The Internet, heralded by seamless services and near-zero data costs; when was the last time you paid for WiFi in a public place?

It all feels like magic…

Which is exactly the point.

To turn Arthur C. Clarke’s third law on its head, ‘Magic’ is the marker of a fully mature technology. ARPAnet turned 50 last year, and TCP/IP – which remains the internet’s underlying protocol today – was rolled out in 1983, almost 4 decades ago. To give you a comparison, forty years years after all, mesmerising, 2.1 seconds of the Roundhay Garden Scene was created, all 89 minutes of Al Jolson’s all-singing ‘The Jazz Singer’ had already been in cinemas for a year.

When I think back to the dial up of my youth or the WAP of my university years, the current ubiquity of connection is breathtaking. ‘The Internet’ used to be something slow, cumbersome but ultimately useful. It had an off switch. You ‘connected’ to it. The area described by the overlap at the centre of the Venn diagram of ‘life’ and ‘online’ was a fragile ‘quenelle’. Now the reality is the two circles sit atop each other. To make a distinction is pointless. Devices are ‘always online’ by default if not by design. Mobile computing has become a key mediator between us and the world. Rather than an obfuscation, we must acknowledge it as an augmentation. Whether we want to embrace Luddism or champion ‘Postalgia’, like the Stoics, we must accept our ‘wired’ future as neutral (both I and the magazine show our age with this digitally anachronistic term); connectivity is neither good nor bad, but simply more material for virtue to act upon.

This finger-pointing over internet addiction is as pointless as accusing me of oxygen addiction. Yes, I do breath a lot, and no, I am not willing to give it up. But the harmful part – the addictions – may be my compulsive and deviant sexual exploits or enthusiastic Fentanyl habit. The whole ‘respiring’ thing is just a platform for these hobbies. The same can be said of harmful behaviours and the internet.

Life online is now just ‘life’ now. It is just another layer of society settling on the numerous strata that came before. Online dating is just dating, cyberbullying is really just bullying, and digital marketing is just marketing. Sorry Growth Hackers. These verbal distinctions were markers of a transitional phase when you could still see the strings, could figure out how the trick was done.

So if internet is life and life is internet, what are the consequences of this?

Digital marketing is dead; long live digital marketing.

I still struggle every time I see the word to digital in a brief. Shareability, virality, even simply how photogenic an execution is crucial, regardless of channel. We live in an age of ubiquitous photography too. There are some AdTech staples to take care of for sure, but the digital display work that is making so many people so much money off the back of dubious metrics will go one of two ways; either it becomes a hygiene factor, like your website or an obsolescence. It’s up to the same evangelists to decide. Do they want to be IBM, or Microsoft?

Balkanisation will be the norm, not the exception

Yes, few places are likely to be as heavily restricted as China, but regulation, and ultimately limitations, on certain kinds of traffic and locations will become widespread. We will be in a world of many overlapping internets, just as we are in a world of many interlinked, interdependent, but ultimately independent sovereign states. Alternatively we end up in a post-national utopian supra-state powered by limitless clean fusion energy. But I am not sure that will happen in a decade likely to be shaped by continuing Populism and Nationalism.

Alternative spaces will proliferate

Potentially physically as well as digitally. Underground internets will continue to mature and offer an alternative much closer to the original intention of the early pioneers. But this will also become a more and more extreme choice, involving going fully off grid – potentially even identity erasure – in a world of biometrics and facial recognition. 

Mass platforms will be regulated

This is not a question of if, but when. Lobby dollars can only go so far when lack of regulation poses and existential threat to liberal democracy. Capitalism and Democracy have never been coterminous. Companies must ultimately be subservient to states and to citizens. Like banks or supermarkets or newspapers or any other businesses that constantly touch people’s lives, it is not sustainable for them to act like they’re outside of the law. Sorry Facebook.

Blockchain will change the world, but Crypto will remain niche

Decentralised ledgers will increase trust and transparency in moribund democracies and bring greater oversight to dysfunctional one. However Bitcoin and others will remain a volatile and profitable curiosity. They can’t be shut down, but they can’t replace the state. And so long as the polis endures, so will its fiat currency. Sometimes Hobbes is a little bit right about us as humans.

PostBrand Thinking

I came back to the notes for this piece recently and as I thought about some of the things I have been asked to do, I wondered, Are Tech Companies bad at ‘brand’, or rather, have they forgotten that they have already smashed down the old battlements of what brands were…

The Persistence of the Ancien Regime

It scares me the extent to which modern companies, often “tech” companies mimic the old. Like the 19th Century industrialist, who after making themselves rich through disruptive production and facilitating rapid urbanisation, builds a grand country house, pastiching an older style. Here they play the part of the country Lord, clothing themselves in the fabric of the past – literally and metaphorically.  These wealthy arrivistes saw the old ways as both respectable and aspirational. At the same time as the very way in which they created their wealth, the rapid innovation, disruptive technologies and scant regard for regulation (and in this case, child labour) made that old world and it ways anachronistic. Vanity and the weight of history however play their part. Their desire to ape the past, for the legitimacy it confers is as illogical as it is understandable.

What was a brand

In the case of 21st century’s techno-industrialists, the retrograde vanity comes in the form of ‘brand’. A brief historical detour. Brands, or rather ‘branding’ in it’s modern form, was conceived in the mid 20th Century as a reaction to what Rob Walker in Buying In calls “the very good problem”. Previously, product alone made a difference; one thing was almost certainly better than another. But rapidly production techniques improved and costs fell and the reality was from Soap Powder to Cigarettes, almost everything was better than people needed or could tell apart; everything became “very good”.

When quality can’t differentiate, in steps brand, intentionally created distinct value to defend against ‘functional parity’. In an era of mass one-way communication, this proved a hugely effective way of shaping what people thought about and associated with your product. This was ‘branding and advertising’ as most still understand it. Communications across touchpoints (the “5Ps” product, price, place, pack & promotion) were all designed to give an impression, or rather a cluster of impressions that formed some tags – emotional metadata – around a product to help tell them apart. There is of course functional data there too – what is it good for, when should I use it, but for many categories (disinfectant, running shoes) this is pretty similar – a reductive, functional shorthand in a flat media world. Pepsi was Now, Nike was Achievement,  Newport was (infamously) Empowerment.But we’ve come a long way, baby….

The problem is that this is reliant on a one-way-world, where there are few channels to control, no feedback loop beyond sales, and messages can be simplistic and reductive. The reality of the landscape that has been created by the FANG companies and they ilk is that it is no longer possible to be so reductive. A fragmented and individually ‘curated’ consumer and media landscape means that we can look behind, under and inside the ‘brand’, rather than just at it. We can pick it up, throw it against the wall, see what others think of it. This has implication for how we communicate and interact as marketers and how we think about the idea of a (Post)Brand. More below.

New Titans

New technology companies were instrumental in creating this new reality. They both gave the tools and channels through which people could look at, interact with and talk about companies in 3d. That is not to say that people spend most of their time talking about your business – if they spend 5 seconds in a day you are one of the lucky, famous few, but it does mean the ways in which they hear, and what they hear are increasingly diffuse. Rather than a world of Brands, which are reductive, we are entering a time of PostBrands which are expansive.

These tech titans should be best place for this reality, they created it and they are also some of the few companies selling products that aren’t cursed by the ‘very good problem’ – The experience of Facebook through is size, functionality and reach is different to another platform. YouTube excels when compared to Daily Motion in both content and delivery. And if you have ever tried a Bing search, you’ll know…

Yet like the 19th Century Mill owners, my experience of these companies as a consultant has been that they have focussed on old vanity metrics, have talked about values, love and positioning like a soap-powder and looked at their 3D world in a 2D way. They aspire to be loved brands in a world where they have been instrumental in exploding the anachronistic myth of Brand Love

PostBrand Thinking

Ironically, it has been many of the old guard who have been forced to adapt and change. Unlike the arrivistes, the 20th century’s biggest brands have adapted faster to becoming PostBrands because they have not had the luxury of near-monopoly positions, or heavily functionally differentiated disruptive offerings.

Companies trump Brands

A PostBrand doesn’t fabricate a flat emotional backstory, it explains and dramatises the one it has. It makes the company easy to grasp, rather than hides the company inside a ‘brand’ – Google’s use of the Doodle on their homepage embodies this beautifully, but more broadly, this idea that “Companies>Brands” informs the next four points that follow

Augment Equity, don’t write positionings

Positionings are useless. Seriously. As an aspiration they have a use internally, but really they are a purpose statement. And be damn sure it draws on your equity. To both butcher and invert Austen; Positioning is what we would think of ourselves, Equity what we would have others think of us. Positioning is irrelevant if it doesn’t shape equity, and purpose has to align with equity… and where it doesn’t it’s a long journey… Imagine moving Coke from ‘happiness’ and ‘refreshment’ to ‘Sporty Health’ – product is part of this, but equally Mountain Dew aligns with some sporty and active elements – along with a healthy dose of sugary, high-caffeine rebellion.

Apple would struggle with ruthless efficiency too…despite making computers

Think & Act Purpose

Internally, externally, in product, comms, pack. It’s trendy to point out TOMS here, but I would rather talk about the much less sexy 1990s Tesco – the UK supermarket who decided that ‘Every Little Helps’ was going to be their guiding principle. Open a new till when there was more than two people in front, empower store staff to help and inform, bring out own brand ranges of great value essentials from canned soup to school clothes. And this was the 90s. Of course, it slowly descended into distress discounting. Then 2008 and Lidl happened. But the point is Purpose does not have to mean ‘Social Purpose’ (which also isn’t CSR, but that for another blog…)

Build meaning, don’t ‘message’

All of the touch points through which we communicate about our company’s layer towards this idea of PostBrand. It’s impressionistic, layers of fuzzy paint and chiaroscuro, not a photograph and a map. This is liberating – there is no such thing as ‘on message’ or ‘on brand in the narrow sense. Rather you need to be in the right area, helping add to the right association, the right ‘tags’. It also means that what people working on brands find repetitive isn’t. We live this stuff, whereas people live their lives instead

Storytelling, but no Navel-gazing

So naturally, this means tell stories, tell stories about your company and your product and process, but be realistic and be respectful. Start from the assumption of ‘why should anyone give a shit’. Not in a confrontational way (unless you are my employer in certain geographies…!) but because people need to see you as resonant in their lives – and ideally a product that is useful.

And I say resonant here, rather than relevant for good reason. Relevant in a comms brief ends up with audience mirroring in ads. And no-one really wants to look at themselves for that long if at all…