Ericsson, the leading maker of wireless network equipment, sees as many as 50 billion machines connected by 2020. Only 10 billion or so are likely to be cell phones and tablet computers. The rest will be machines, talking not to us, but to each other. The combined level of robotic chatter on the world's wireless networks... is likely soon to exceed that generated by the sum of all human voice conversations. "Talk to me, one machine said to the other", The New York Times, 29 July 2012
Techno-rock legend has it that its iconic fathers, Kraftwerk, had but one telephone in their Dusseldorf base, the gloriously-named Kling Klang studio. The phone’s ringer had been disabled. But the band would pick up the handset once a day, promptly, at 11.00 every morning. And whoever was ringing in would get to speak to them. If not, well, too bad … Maybe catch you tomorrow.
Perhaps the greatest pop concert I’ve seen to date – at the Hammersmith Palais, 1981 – was Kraftwerk when they were on tour supporting their (at the time very quirky) Computer World album. Maybe I’m rose-tinted in my memories from all that time ago, but I’m sure that one by one, as the group left the stage, they left a dummy of each member poised behind the bank of computers that made up their instrumental line-up. And it seemed like the dummies were continuing to operate the computers right, through the encores.
The Kraftwerk message seems to have been: “You find machines fascinating, because you are yourselves machines. But there’s more: the role of machines in creating meaning in human life will keep on increasing, and the traditional divide between you and the machines will continue to become smaller. Just wait.”
And we did wait. And sure enough, the rewiring of the world that we’ve seen over the past 30 years has given birth to an always-on experience of human life that brings together flesh, blood and data in ways that only the cyberpunk authors could have anticipated when the process began.
Just Did It
How brands are built in digital, and indeed the cultural and commercial roles of brands in post-digital culture, versus their traditional roles, are fundamental questions that underpin the slightly more superficial weekly debates we hear in media and marketing.
What do we do with all this data? Do search, social and mobile move advertising forward or fatally hamstring it? Who really owns the brand, when so much equity apparently lives in areas that advertising can’t consistently touch?
And of course, Engagement … what is it? Why does it matter? How, why, when and where should we invest in it? What is it, by the way?
But like great art and porn (great or not so great has never been established I gather …), we sure know Engagement when we see it. And one inspirational heritage brand that has nailed it is Nike, in particular with its Nike+ program of runner engagement and activation. Nike+ has built powerful, shareable automated consumer value with an application whose entire impact depends upon shoe - or more recently, smartphone or watch - talking to network on the runner's behalf. All the user does is configure the service - the application does the rest.
This is M2M – machine to machine – technology applied to consumer branding, the Internet Of Things, brought to life. But what, exactly is going on here. And why is it so important?
At the consumer level, Nike+ takes a notoriously isolated stakeholder, the more or less serious runner, and gives them a platform. This platform takes raw data captured from a chip in the shoe, a wristband, or more recently a smartphone, and turns it into visual, shareable narratives of personal transformation.
Nike+, in fact, enables the kind of empowered self-expression that Marshall McLuhan I believe had in mind when he presciently defined media as “extensions of man”. But looking closer, we see the key lesson to be learned here. While Nike+ continues to build powerful equity and loyalty – indeed Engagement, that word again – among arguably the brand’s most critical stakeholders, the runners on which the brand was built, it does so without a sentimental need for consumer love or validation.
All the user does is configure the service and then … let it roll. The brand adds potent value, does all the heavy data lifting, and pops up at the end of each run with a beautiful story of the new, improved us … which if we want we can share, crow about, or just (as I like to think most runners do) quietly chalk up a little more personal progress with a tip of the hat to Nike.
This Engagement, in other words is built not on love from the consumer. It’s built on a crucial paradox, one that we must get to grips with if we are to continue to build brand equity “Behind The Line” in the VIP area of the connected consumer’s tribal life. This Engagement depends on enabling the consumer to Disengage – from both tiresome task and indeed, at least so it seems, the brand itself. (Note, by the way, that the model has this year been pushed out to other sports where Nike seeks traction, for example golf and basketball. This one's going to run and run.)
Loyalty without awareness
Almost 10 years ago to the day, my friend David Stoughton and I published a book – Promiscuous Customers: Invisible Brands – that took as its departure point the hypothesis that information, in and of itself, does not create value, and in many instances will attack it, both for consumers and brands.
To the contrary, the only information that adds value is that which removes both work and risk - perceived or otherwise - for the consumer.
We began the book with a robust attack on CRM – not the technology itself, but the underlying assumption by marketers that, per se, owning information about a consumer adds value to that relationship.
This, remember, was at a time when loyalty models such as Tesco's Clubcard were starting to make a significant impact, and the apparently promising links between digital consumer data, connected markets, and the World Wide Web were the subject of enormous focus: a hypnotic and apparently self-evident data-driven model was bought into by most of the marketing community.
But we said no. You're wrong.
Much of the second half of Promiscuous Customers was devoted to the future impact of what we called "automated value". Our argument was, and indeed remains so 10 years on, that the sentimental assumption by marketers that empowered, connected consumers generally care enough about their brands to engage in repeated displays of active loyalty over long periods of time is entirely wrong.
Brand loyalty is rarely, if ever, about love - one well-known drinks firm even aspires to "brand adoration" - but about utility. The ascendance of the app has cemented the role of Automated Value at the heart of brand-building: "What can you do for me, that I can't (be bothered to) do for myself?" says the smartphone user.
Getting consumers to disengage
The arrival point for contemporary consumer engagement and loyalty is not, I'm relieved to report, that most trite of consumer gestures, the "Like", nor even the marginally more credible Retweet.
It's the point at which the consumer consigns the immensely hard and complicated work of creating information-based value to a brand application.
We may not get the brand love we crave for this typically offhand commitment... but what we get is worth far, far more.
While paradoxically, the consumer actively engages much less with our brand when they begin to rely upon an application for a particular service (let's stick with Nike+ as an example for now) we need to learn to see this as a marketing positive. They may clock off from the often tiresome active engagements via our website, but don't mistake this cold shift in engagement for a drop in loyalty.
This, in any sector where information plays a significant role, is the lion's share of the future of marketing and brand building.
Returning to Kraftwerk at Kling Klang for a moment, we should I believe accept that the connected consumer’s project of self-creation and –distribution is far too important, too central to meaning, for brands to expect to be able to just “pick up the phone” and get through whenever we feel like it. A further paradox of post-digital brand building is an end to promises of more product or service value, replaced by the need to deliver up-front, consistent “life-value” for the consumer. If it looks like creating more work without major payoff for the new king, we can be sure it’ll just bounce off.
We need to put down our need for love, and get with the unconscious loyalty program. It’s the future. (In fact, it’s already here, it’s just not evenly distributed!)