In the world of influencing consumers to try / buy / adopt / advocate for brands, the task in the earliest of days, when “traditional” media was king, was simply to find ways to engage the PASSIVE COLLECTIVE who had both new-found prosperity and idle time as the emerging American middle class. Brands, in particular, were signifiers of trusted quality , and sheer breadth of reach was enough to influence the masses to consume more masses. Brands invited consumers to PARTICIPATE in the upward mobility of the middle class by consumption of products.
Then, in the 70s and 80s and 90’s, in a marketing strategy world most of today’s seasoned marketers grew up in, the epicenter of influence began to lie in celebrity: athletes, actors and public figures whose charisma, market appeal media reach afforded marketers and consumer product companies access to legions of adoring fans who would follow them into the brand-o-sphere. It was a culture where INFLUENCE was the result of INDIVIDUALS inspiring a PASSIVE audience through media. Consumers became SPECTATORS of aspirational lifestyles and looked to brands as status symbols in order to emulate the celebrity cultures they admired.
Then the nature of “influence” changed in the last decade or so as the world became increasingly wired and celebrity could be created with a left-click, a blog and a social network. These charismatic and connect individuals and consumers were/are creators of culture, trendsetters and early-adopters; ahead-of-the-curve, vociferous and able to wield the power of persuasion over their social networks. INFLUENCE, therefore became about INDIVIDUALS AGITATING the status quo, recruiting followers in a more PROACTIVE manner.
Brands became badges that helped consumers curate their own personal brand identities. In a sea of options Consumers had to actively wade through the water and find the hidden treasures that helped them connect to products and make personal choices.
And then something started happening. Now, we find ourselves transitioning into a new era: a renaissance where consumers have realized that they (we) have the power. Networking and the power of the blog have not gone away, but Brand creation, adoption and innovation is no longer limited to a monologue to the masses or even a dialogue amongst a select few trend-transmitters.
Rather, there is an ongoing, cyclical conversation between those who create trends, products and brands and those who consume and them and ultimately contribute to new what’s next.
Put simply, we have evolved FROM A PARADIGM OF INFLUENCE TO AN ETHOS OF EMPOWERMENT. Real influence comes from the ability to be PROACTIVE and ACTIVATE COLLECTIVE consumers. Using technology, collaboration and co-creation to empower others to engage, create and innovate.
The implication for brands in this new era of Empowerment is incredibly profound. Whilst being signifiers of quality and aspiration and personal branding are still foundations of brand hierarchy of relevance, there is an added pivotal layer. Brands must also take on the responsibility of empowering consumers: activating social change by using the power of their collective consumer-bases.
This type of activity will be required for relevance as corporations and brands start to share responsibility with governments and civil society (a nod to my friend Tom LaForge, Global Director of Human and Cultural Insights at the Coca-Cola Company, who has been socializing this type of framework at their organization) for creating meaningful social change that will sustain our way of life (as human on the planet earth, that is).
This perspective on empowerment is central to the way we operate at Northstar Research Partners: why we approach strategic research using the 3 C’s framework for examining context. It’s also why we have a Chief Culture Officer,(taking note from the book of the same title by Grant McCracken; another Consumer Anthropologist) whose job it is to make sure our global organization operates from a consistent examination of context and our clients understand the strategic value of that context.
Musings aside, there is a discipline to empowerment that is rooted first in a strategic understanding of your brand context, consumer and cultural context . If you would like a copy of our white paper on the Empowerment Framework for Brand Strategy Innovation or just have more questions, feel free to reach out!