Brand Evangelists

by Rob Horning

24 Jul 2008

Image (partial) from Daylife.com 

Consumer behavior is often mysterious. It’s hard if not altogether impossible to determine why certain products become iconic (the iPod) and others disappear without a trace (the Newton). It’s also hard to figure out why people latch on to certain brands over others, and the degree to which the phenomenon is driven by advertising.

A brand we never heard of can suddenly become an indispensable reference point for orienting ourselves in our culture—it’s sometimes hard to remember that people even drank coffee before the advent of Starbucks, but they did. It’s just that the brand transformed the experience thoroughly, at every level of society, even for those who wanted nothing to do with gourmet coffee. These transformations seem inevitable after the fact, but entrepreneurs are always trying to instigate the next one, even though these events give every indication of being sui generic by nature.

cover art

Conversational Capital

Bertrand Cesvet, Tony Babinski, Eric Alper, Sid Lee

How to Create Stuff People Love to Talk About

(Financial Times Press)

In the ultimately inexplicable triumph of certain brands, marketing consultants smell opportunity. Marketers ultimately profit from the confusion and ambiguity that surrounds consumer behavior, as it allows them to perpetually explicate the mystery, which is always refreshing itself with new perplexities in the success of left-field products. To explain these anomalies, consultants can always promise a company a new set of answers, confident that they will be able to sell yet another set of solutions a year or two down the road, when advertising trends change anew.

Currently, the rise of user-generated content and personalization of pre-existing material on the internet (“Web 2.0” in media-business argot) has made consumer-driven buzz the hot advertising technique, fomented by the popularity of The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell’s analysis of trend-spreading. Marketing gurus now tout ways for making consumers “brand evangelists”, who will spread the magic of a product through their social networks, aided and abetted by online social networking. It helps if companies can make their brands into pseudo-personalities that people might friend on MySpace and “interact with” on company websites. These forces, if harnessed properly, are the current panaceas for any ailing brand.

Conversational Capital, by Bernard Cesvet, chairman of the marketing consultancy Sid Lee, and two other marketers, partakes of this quackery. The book draws heavily on the firm’s good fortune in promoting Cirque du Soleil and attempts to isolate memorable aspects of that brand for universal application—things like establishing ersatz rituals associated with the product, conjuring a mythic back story, making goods seem exclusive, and giving them some weird quality that people might be inspired to talk about—hence the conversational in the book’s title.

Sensing the hype about Web 2.0, the authors, in a sure indicator of ad-business demagoguery, venture a blanket statement about what consumers really want: “Consumers no longer want to be spoken to (or at), even if it entertains, amuses, or challenges them. They want to be invited into a process of interaction and discovery.” But such platitudes are meaningless without any elaboration—in this instance, some exploration of what consumers are supposed to want to discover, and a reason for why consumers want to engage in this process other than because technology makes it possible.

With so many empty generalizations floating through the pages, the book seems full of suggestions that are self-evident (It’s a good idea for a company to deliver what it promises? Really?). But it would be unfair to expect too much insight from Conversational Capital. It’s a business book, and like most other books of the genus, it’s edited so that it insults the reader’s intelligence at virtually every turn and restates its same meager points over and over again as if sheer repetition will amplify their significance and make them somehow more true. The big idea that animates Conversational Capital—that it’s great for companies when they make products that consumers like to talk about—is not exactly on par with the discovery of fire or the wheel (or even Dianetics), but nonetheless the authors spin it out into 21 chapters of oily marketing-guru claptrap replete with unnecessary sidebars and patronizing discussion questions.

Much of this material is redundant and it all ultimately has the effect of leaving readers too numbed and too tired to remind themselves yet again of the shallowness of the case the authors are making over and over. Particularly annoying is the book’s tactic of boldfacing perfectly mundane terms like mass-marketing and exclusivity and encouraging readers to go online for definitions. This is part of a general ploy to make the book enact the techniques it recommends, underscoring a conceptual problem with the authors’ thesis that they seem content to gloss over, namely that contrived efforts to generate consumer participation are often more irritating than involving.

This is a shame, because this problem is worthy of careful attention. Do contrived attempts to make products meaningful to consumers at a level beyond sheer functionality actually inhibit consumers’ ability to make meaning from them? The authors declare that “personal stories are currency in the modern world” (as if narrative hadn’t existed before), and that we spend that currency to shape our identity. They would like to teach companies how to have us tell stories about products when we intend to talk about ourselves, because we have come to invest so much of our identity in the things we consume.

But the marketing efforts that the authors encourage companies to deploy—the “eight engines of conversational capital” they brandish repeatedly—seem just as likely to interfere with a brand’s ability to mean what users choose and thereby meet their communicative needs. New York Times columnist Rob Walker, whose book Buying In explores some of the same ideas as Conversational Capital (only with infinitely richer analysis and insight), calls that capability of brands to mean different things to different consumers “projectability”. He points to the Hello Kitty logo as the epitome of this trait. “Hello Kitty stands for nothing,” he points out, therefore she is open to interpretation. “This is precisely how an ‘ambiguous’—and let’s be frank: meaningless—symbol comes to stand for nostalgia to one person, fashionability to another, camp to a third, vague subversiveness to a fourth.”

But according to Conversational Capital, goods must be hyperengineered in order for consumers to want to start talking about them. They must come with a prepackaged myth and “overdeliver” a specific sort of satisfaction meant to overwhelm customers and leave them gushing with gratitude. That consumers would contrive their own private way of being satisfied by the goods and intensify that satisfaction by keeping it personal and private is a possibility Conversational Capital doesn’t consider, as this removes consumer pleasure from the arena of marketing.

From the authors’ point of view, this personal pleasure is useless. If you are not blabbing about how good a time you had at the circus, then you obviously didn’t have a very good time at all. Cesvet and his cohorts want to convince us that unless we will shill for the things that give us joy, we are not really enjoying ourselves.

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