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PR: The Leading Marketing Power Of Our Times?

PR: The Leading Marketing Power Of Our Times?

When people discovered that dropping Mentos candies into a bottle of Diet Coke creates a geyser that shoots 20 feet into the air, more than 800 videos flooded the Internet to document the volcanic possibilities. The firm that manufactures Mentos gleefully welcomed a gusher of free publicity out of the deal. In contrast, Coca-Cola’s attorneys initially tried to shut down the video posts. As we might expect, these efforts were fruitless. Today a Google search for “Diet Coke and Mentos” yields over 2.8 million results.

As PR professionals know, buzz is everything. Today marketers know it, too. Yet when we teach Marketing in business schools, PR typically is just a footnote. Most of my colleagues spend about ½ a class lecture on the topic and move on to sales promotions and other alternatives to advertising. Sorry, just being honest.

But have the tables turned? You’d have to be out of touch not to recognize that earned media has displaced paid media as the key driver of consumer behavior today. The last time I checked, encouraging positive word-of-mouth (for relatively little money) was one important thing that the PR folks do. Yet I haven’t seen any industry professionals step up to assert their new importance in our social media world. You can easily take an entire course on Social Media Marketing without running into a single mention of the public relations industry.

As my colleague Margaret Bruce and I have written, this new digital world offers us mixed blessings. In the “horizontal revolution,” ordinary folks have the power to spread the word (good and bad) about the products, services and stores that catch their attention. As we all know, the impact is exponential and incredibly quick. That’s a sword that cuts both ways, as many organizations have learned the hard way (I’m talking to you, United Airlines).

The dawning of the horizontal revolution means that marketing organizations no longer have the prerogative to manage for coherence — where the goal is to maximize consistency of message content across consumer touch points. The reason for this change is simple, yet profound: Marketing organizations no longer get to define their identities in the first place.

Today it is far more realistic to think about managing for anarchy. Companies—whether they acknowledge it or not—no longer own their brands. They make them; they distribute them and they promote them, but ultimately consumers decide what they mean. Mentos and Coca-Cola learned this lesson, though each reacted quite differently.

Here’s the dilemma: The organization that empowers masses of people to spread a message also relinquishes control over the content of that message. The epic battle between Apple, known for its iron-fisted control over its products, and Google, champion of the open source movement, exemplifies the conflict between high-control and low-control business paradigms.

Foundations Of Media Anarchy

Two fundamental shifts in the marketing landscape contribute to this new reality of crowdsourced brand management. Marketers and PR people need to understand both to be able to manage in an era of media anarchy.

Shift #1: Consumers proactively define brand meaning

Even after decades of brand equity research, most measurement schemes capture only a small set of fairly objective brand characteristics (such as favorability, top-of-mind salience, and uniqueness) to describe the market value of a brand. These qualities are important, but they fall a bit short when they try to explain why an Apple devotee will camp out in front of a store for days to await the release of a new iPhone model, or why thousands of people have their favorite brand logos burned into their skin as permanent tattoos.

Research in the alternate branding paradigm suggests that a brand obtains marketplace significance as it embeds itself in consumer culture. Strong brands “matter” to their users and the worlds in which they reside; they provide meanings that people need to make sense of their lives. The raw material for these stories often emanates from events in mass culture that are well beyond the brand’s control. Harley-Davidson, for example, benefited tremendously from the famed riots in Hollister, California, in 1957, which were later codified in Marlon Brando’s rebel role in The Wild Ones.

Shift #2: Microsegmentation: The fragmentation of popular culture

Conventional approaches to market segmentation originated with corporate pioneers (most notably General Motors) that recognized the value of developing separate business units to cater to the needs of relatively large, homogeneous targets. Today that approach is more problematic. As I discuss in my latest book, contemporary culture splinters into a constantly evolving myriad of microcultures, where consumers find common ground in finely-defined lifestyle or aesthetic preferences.

These groups form tightly-knit communities (even though members may never meet in the flesh). Fandoms typically coalesce around an activity (e.g., skateboarding), a media event (e.g., the television show Lost), or a cult brand (e.g., Nike Air Jordans). As avid fans, they do not just wait passively for the next official press release or product launch; they stalk the creators or even create their own versions (e.g., the numerous Star Trek movies that amateurs have filmed).

A Taxonomy Of Digital Real Estate

When we combine the two emerging dimensions of sponsor control and microsegmentation, we can plot traditional and emerging media platforms into four quadrants of “digital real estate.” In this scheme the regions labeled “Gated Communities” and “Housing Developments” resemble traditional media, where the corporation provides the information and consumers passively process it. In contrast, “Artists’ Colonies” and “College Dorms” embrace user-generated content, where consumers proactively change the meaning of the content.

Here is an overview of each quadrant:

Gated Community: A highly specialized platform where the sponsor tightly controls the content. At Sermo, registered physicians (only) can comment on medical issues and/or offer diagnoses for symptoms others describe.
Artists’ Colony: A highly specialized platform where users’ preferences largely determine the content. At Threadless, community members peruse shirt designs that artists submit. They vote on their favorites and the company manufactures and sells the chosen designs.
Housing Development: A mass-market platform where the sponsor tightly controls the content. On network television channels, the goal is to maximize viewer volume while remaining vigilant about matching programming to the homogenized tastes of the modal viewer.
College Dorm: A mass-market platform where users’ preferences largely determine the content. Auction sites such as eBay match buyers with sellers, and exercise minimal oversight.

Learn To Love Anarchy

From a media anarchy perspective, the emergence of these fluid messaging platforms challenges entrenched managerial philosophies. As we move beyond the initial “wow factor” of social media and start to realize the nuances that exist among different platforms, marketers and PR professionals need consider just what they need to accomplish and what different platforms offer in service of these objectives. A simple taxonomy like this one is a starting point to position the organization in the “metaverse” of media platforms. More important, learn from others in your digital neighborhood. Go beyond your immediate product competitors; locate your organization in the digital real estate taxonomy. Identify best practices among others who live in your quadrant.

On many platforms, we don’t get to dictate what we stand for. We are what our customers tell us we are. In this new world, brand managers share the driver’s seat with those who used to be passive recipients of their messages. But every disruption also brings opportunity. As earned media continues to mushroom, today word-of-mouth is king. For PR professionals, maybe it’s time to step up and take your place at the Marketing table.

Learn to love anarchy.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Michael Solomon, author of  “Marketers, Tear Down These Walls!.”

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