The Conversational Brand

2 09 2012

There’s an old adage in business that says retailers follow rooftops. Build houses and apartments, and the retailers will follow. It makes perfect sense, because people need to eat and buy clothes, and retailers need customers. It may sound chicken-and-egg, but if you do it the other way around, the retailer will likely founder.

A corollary is quickly becoming established in social media. Companies follow clicks. We have seen how thousands of companies, organizations and individuals have embraced Facebook and Twitter (and, once upon a time, musicians on MySpace). Even corporate YouTube channels have become de rigeur. But that’s all old hat now, because the new hot spots are in the fringe-but-growing suburbs.

Take Instagram, for example. The quirky throwback to Polaroid has captured the curiosity of many an iPhoneographer (be sure to use a cool retro filter with a dollop of tilt-shift). Fort Collins CO-based New Belgium Brewing Company has been using Instagram as a way to colorfully feature its products, and in a way that sneaks right in under consumer advertising radar. JUmp over to Pinterest and the same thing is happening. While the Pinterest crowd is about 85:15 women to men, smart companies are figuring out how to appeal to the legions of females actively pinning recipes, home decor, clothing and more to this highly social bookmarking site.

And now the latest site to attract corporate interest is Spotify, the music listening (and sharing) site that appears all over our Facebook News Feed. “Nick Gerlich is listing to Storyville Radio on Spotify” is what my Timeline now says as I write this blog (“You gotta dig some Austin blues to understand,” he says).

This all became news to me last night while escorting my 14-year-old daughter to the Urban Outfitters store on Albuquerque’s Central Ave. While she tried on every top and skirt in the store, I busied myself looking at the wacky collection of books and kitsch (ever notice how UO has an almost juvenile fascination with anything bearing the F-word?), and stumbled upon a sign at the cash-wrap saying “We’re on Spotify!”

Instant conversation starter!

The clerk was not busy, so I engaged him in conversation. Yes, Spotify has its own fave artists and playlists, and they are all part of the branding of Urban Outfitters.

“So is this music I hear right now from your Spotify site?” I asked.

“Yes it is,” Mr. Tattoed-in-a-Tank-Top beamed. (“How is this guy ever gonna get a real job?” I thought to myself.)

Trick question. Either he was wrong, or they were violating the law and Spotify’s Terms of Service. Turns out the folks at BMI and ASCAP don’t like the public broadcast of their music without payment of royalty fees. It would be nice on paper to plant earworms and send folks home, but it’s not quite that easy without first paying the piper.

But I digress, for there’s a broader point to be made. You see, branding these days is not about companies telling you who they are, but rather it is a conversation…between you, me and the company. And this conversation is playing out on the social graph. It’s an organic process, one that must be cultivated carefully like a friendship. Gobe forever are the one-way Brand-to-Customer monologues of old.

As for Spotify playlists, they give customers a chance to see inside to the personality of the brand, but it also gives us all a chance to interact, applaud the music, or tell them we think their tunage sucks. More importantly, they also give folks a chance to continue the conversation…the interaction…whenever and wherever. Dig that Spotify playlist? Fire up that app on your phone and jam away. Stop by sometime and buy something, too.

So important have Spotify accounts become that President Obama launched one in January of this year. You, too, can rock out to the Prez’ favorite tunes, or at least the songs his staff think will resonate with voters.

If you recall, in 2008 the Obama team kicked McCain’s rear primarily on the basis of social media acumen. McCain was still trying to figure out email, while Obama was stirring up a tweet storm. This time around, the GOP has figured out a lot, and Mr. Romney also has his own On The Road campaign channel on Spotify.

The tough thing about all of this is that Marketing communication is infinitely more nuanced than it ever was, and with those nuances come the risk of falling into a pothole. A Marketing staffer who only knows traditional media may as well look into cashing out that 401(k) and settling in Florida. This thing is changing every day, and while Spotify is the newest kid in town, I suspect that by this time next year the hype will be directed to a site the likes of which we haven’t yet heard.

But the conversation goes on, regardless of the channel. Keep talking to me, baby. I need to vote. I need to shop. And I want to engage with you.

Dr “The Beat Goes On” Gerlich


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