One of the most enduring pieces of professional advice I have ever received was this: consider a brand as if it were a person; one who needs to make friends, build relationships, be liked – even, loved – be remembered, and influence others. Ultimately, to mean something to other people.
The advice was given to me by a generous mentor back in 1993; when – at the cutting edge of innovation at Cambridge University’s Science Park – my firm faxed press announcements to journalists in ‘real time’ using a list of pre-programmed numbers stored on the fax machine. Wait for it…. The fax machine was linked to my Amstrad computer via Ethernet, so we never needed to actually print anything! Yes, ‘dematerialised’ PR, as we called it. I would always follow up to ensure receipt; but ‘Excuse me, I’m just calling to check that you received my fax…’ sounded so much more cutting edge than, ‘Has my press release arrived?’!
Anyway, the advice is absolutely as relevant today as it was in the days of fax machines, email addresses longer than telephone numbers, dictaphones, golf-ball printers and stapled press releases. If you wanted to meet and influence people, the first thing you’d probably do is find out about them, their interests, their personalities, their hobbies, where they went on holiday, what music they like…. Then you would find something that you have in common; a shared interest, a mutual friend, a shared experience. It’s as old as humanity; humans work best with other humans to whom they relate.
Then why is it so hard for brands – or brand managers – to understand that? So many brands continue to behave like our egocentric neighbour whose conversation never ventures beyond the success of his progeny, his golf handicap, his amazing pension plan, or the killing he made on the stock market. You know the type…. Other people’s conversation is simply a trigger for him to talk about himself. I call it ‘projection’; the habit of projecting oneself on to every single subject of discussion rendering it…ultimately, all about you. This can’t be the optimal way to win friends and influence people! So, let’s turn to the people that Homer Simpson turns to in times of doubt – rockstars! “…Is there anything they don’t know?”
In communications terms, at least, no; rockstars and celebrities have understood the oldest communications paradox of all. Thanks to research provided by my tireless colleague, Devang Solanki, the evidence is conclusive. Referring to an indicative — i.e. not exactly scientific — study (see above) from last year’s Twitter feeds of a celebrity pop star, a sportswoman and an actor, we can clearly see their understanding of the communications paradox. In the analysis, categories 1 and 2 refer to content about the individuals themselves (their events, their music/films, merchandise etc.), while categories 3 and 4 refer to their response and opinions on external events; in short, the rest of the World. On average, our celebrities spent only 20% of their time talking about themselves, the rest about everyone and everything else.
Celebrities have understood the value of relevance; the more they associate with the world which their audience inhabits, the greater the degree to which they’ll be able to influence them. And brands which appreciate this logic will enjoy the same benefits.
The key is in the paradox itself – the more you talk about yourself, the less other people will; that’s just as true for brands as it is for people, whether or not they are famous!
The more brands talk about themselves, the less other people will. This brings me to wonder, when do we need these other people to talk? When do we need the influencers? We need them in High Consumer Involvement products. So brands like Coca Cola and Pepsi can stay egocentric. But Apple, Samsung, Volkawagen should pay heed to this advice.