Friday, December 01, 2006

Don’t fight the power shift, embrace it!

Sitting in Apple’s new Fifth Avenue store at 1am a few weeks ago, it struck me that the people were not shopping as much as just being. The space felt more like a progressive public library or piazza, than a retail store. Rather than controlling the experience, Apple simply facilitates it. There’s clearly something quite different here. People are free to surf the net, take photos (something that would get you kicked out of most retail stores), and simply use the space and the tools as they wish. The transparency of the building’s façade is an apt metaphor for the open and welcoming energy of the store. By facilitating the experience and then stepping back, Apple has created stores that really are more like fashionable rec centers.

So, how can your business create a community that will, in turn, breed more community?

I don’t believe the answer is a superficial one. Apple stores are not just retail entertainment. People at the Apple store were engaged through their own productivity and discovery, not just because the elevator is a beautiful clear cylinder. But, let’s not underestimate the power of the Apple brand image. Just as every aspect of its computers and iPods is thoughtfully designed, the stores are beautifully designed and visitors feel cool by being part of that cool image.

Of course, Apple’s advertising plays into this aura of hipness. But, Apple’s brand building retail strategy demonstrates the need to focus on far more than advertising to bond consumers to brands. With audiences scattering due to infinite media choices, marketers are scrambling to find the right places to put their ad dollars. But, instead of focusing on the tactics of dealing with these ever-fragmenting audiences, marketers should really be concentrating on the vast shift in the elements of influence and trust. The changing media is just the symptom. What’s really behind the fact people are watching YouTube instead of network TV is a new consumer behavior that regards overt marketing messages as noise and the actions of those they trust as gospel.

The confluence of several trends contributes to the shift: increased number of media channels, the shear amount of limitless online content (products, ideas, news, and stimulation of every kind), corporate and political scandals that breed cynicism, and a new consumer who has quickly adapted to the power of knowledge through collective research and peer review.

Rather than moving advertising money around to scattershot marketing messages, marketers should take the time to understand—even embrace—this new consumer behavior. All marketers should ask themselves:

How can I share control of my brand with my audience?

It can begin with small gestures like letting consumers vote on what the next M&Ms color should be. Or, it could take the form of letting a customer of a professional services firm set the fee structure to reward positive results.

Apple does it by allowing customers to feel the space in Apple stores is theirs.

What a brand means to people and how that meaning is established and nurtured helps delineate the truly great brands. Inspiring a blog posting that extols the meaning of your brand is far more potent marketing than placing a banner ad.

Of course, Apple still owns its brand, but it is sharing the experience in ways that allows it to avoid the pitfalls of companies that are still just trying to figure out where to advertise.

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