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Musing, marketing, and meaning in the connected world.

Smart Brands in the Connected Age

Social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn yield unprecedented actual or virtual valuations. Social media empower and propel social revolutions such as the ones we are witnessing in Arab countries. Enabled by broadband technologies and mobile devices, entire industries are connecting with customers – and each other – in entirely new ways. Clearly, the Connected Age has arrived. A world population connected through ubiquitous, real-time, and social computing, and through more than 50, 75, or even 100 billion devices. A world where every thing is connected with everything.

Connectedness has become a cultural and business meme. Clay Shirky’s seminal Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age sparked it, and several authors elaborate on the concept. Peter Merholz has repeatedly written about it, and he cites other voices such as Dave Gray’s musings on the “Connected Company” and Social Business Design, or Tiffany Shlain’s new film, Connected, a documentary that explores “the visible and invisible connections linking major issues of our time” and relates them to personal interconnectedness.

The internet of things with its unprecedented level of connectivity does not only catalyze the rise of “social” but also the rise of “smart.” And smart means complex. Increasingly, products and services are multi-functional, multi-layered, and connected to a broader ecosystem of services, serving as a platform for added-value applications. Companies, across industries, are beginning to develop smart solutions – from smart phones, smart energy, smart healthcare, smart housing, to smart mobility, and more. Smart ecosystems have emerged as the lynchpin of innovation – as the holy grail for user experiences that brands can truly own.

But what about the brands themselves? What do the new paradigms of “connectedness” and “smart” mean not only for the products and services companies bring to market but for the way they behave and interact as brands with their constituents, employees and customers alike? What if “connectedness” was a new modus operandi for brands and required them to be “smart brands”?

By textbook definition, smart systems are self-organized systems with built-in feedback mechanisms and the ability to constantly reorganize themselves in order to adapt to their ever-changing environment. They are capable of describing and analyzing a situation, and taking decisions based on the available data in a predictive or adaptive manner, thereby performing smart actions.

How can brands do that?

Here are some initial thoughts:

Networks: In the networked economy, marketing’s value lies in identifying and activating valuable connections, in networks inside and outside of the organization. These networks include other brands, which constitutes a whole new type of B2B marketing: brand-to-brand. Marketers need to ask themselves the question: Which brands’ company do we want to keep? Which halo do we want? Which brands should we market to (both for partnerships and talent)? In the business-to-business space, and in particular in professional services, this kind of lateral marketing is almost as if not more important than the typical buyer-targeted marketing. And the concept of brand-to-brand goes even further: brands must not only treat other brands like partners, they must also market to consumers as if they were brands. Consumers have their personal brands to project and cultivate, and the image rub-off, the brand value transfer they earn by interacting with a brand is as important a motivator as any material or utilitarian gain. Smart brands map out the “network of brands” of which they want to be part, and it doesn’t necessarily include only competitors. Smart, connected brands reach out beyond their own industry, constantly, to forge unlikely alliances at the fringes of their own networks, because today’s edges are tomorrow’s core. Or as Allison Fine, author of Social Change in the Connected World, puts it aptly: “It is counterintuitive but true; the more decision making we push away from the center, the more powerful our social networks become. That’s the power-to-the-edges concept.”

Social intelligence: Connected brands are social brands, and if they are smart, social for them means to be “socially intelligent.” The term “intelligent” comes from the Latin “intelligere,” which literally translates to “to connect” or “to interlink.” Social intelligence, in the most wide-ranging definition, is the capacity to “get along with people in general, social technique or ease in society, knowledge of social matters, susceptibility to stimuli from other members of a group, as well as insight into the temporary moods or underlying personality traits of strangers.” Applied to brands, social intelligence can be interpreted as the art of detecting the most subtle cue in understanding an individual’s behavior, and the ability to not only receive constant feedback but to convert it into changed behavior. The socially intelligent brand can link the social desires and motivators it identifies in the “Other” and respond to them with its own palette of social interaction modes and stimuli. Isn’t marketing all about the “Other,” understanding “Otherness” in order to be different(iated)? The socially intelligent brand is empathetic, trained in detecting behavioral cues, and has what I call the “network affect” (yes, with an “a”). It can identify and easily join conversations, and therefore recognize, activate, and move networks through its behavior.

Platform: I know it’s become a cliché, the notion of “being a platform,” but most clichés are truths that recur. And it is definitely true that smart brands need to be not only trusted but also built upon, in other words, be a platform. If you are a platform, you have the “power of pull,” and the evolutionary forces work in your favor. This means opening up for outside influence, and it means sudden directional shifts if necessary. This means that your service is a utility others can leverage to create their own assets. The line here is fine, as you can imagine. Being a mere utility is the opposite of being a brand. Smart brands provide just enough value to the ecosystem to defend their position in it, but they also make sure to retain the very source code of their value.

Super-flexibility: Smart brands operate like software organizations in the way they structure themselves and operate, shifting from a linear, static, and robust model of planning and executing on strategy, to a more fluid, non-linear, agile, and distributed approach that allows knowledge, the capital of the 21st century, to quickly flow through their networks. Stuart Evans and Homa Bahrami have coined the term “super-flexibility” to pinpoint this new set of capabilities and define it as “the capacity to transform by adapting to new realities, underpinned by the ability to withstand turbulence by creating stable anchors.” They propose that instead of thinking about strategy as a single best approach, “developing super-flexible strategies involves switching between a portfolio of initiatives.” Smart brands ‘maneuver’ their strategic trajectory, like changing gears in a car.” Further: A super-flexible brand is “multi-polar, with several centers of gravity. Today it is white, tomorrow it is black. It is not the form that matters, it is the substance. It is much like a living organism with multiple brains, but these move in the same direction, like a flock of birds or a school of fish. Just like an individual, a super-flexible brand has “three core building blocks: the ‘anatomy’ (the accountability and reporting structure), the ‘personality’ or its culture and identity, and most important of all, its ‘circulation’ or how people interact and how information moves throughout the organization. The biggest challenge in a dynamic world is to monitor and synchronize the three building blocks, and make appropriate adjustments as priorities evolve.”

Presence: Sherry Turkle coined the term “Distributed Presence” in her 1995 book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, describing a multi-channel, always-on marketing strategy to reach target audiences. Subsequently, marketing shifted from broadcasting to narrowcasting, from mass communications to social distribution, from prime time to real time, from paid media to earned (or increasingly) owned media, and from awareness to engagement. With the burgeoning age of hyper-connectivity, it may evolve further: Presence is now the non-plus-ultra of all marketing efforts. Brands that are highly connected are able to be at the right time at the right place as they are omnipresent not only because they deploy multiple channels but also because they are able to cover all their relevant networks. They are like a rubber band stretching in multiple directions while not breaking. This concept of presence allows brands to master what my colleague Adam Richardson calls “preemptive knowledge management” – the awareness of knowledge inside or outside of the organization before it becomes externalized. This gives them a crucial competitive advantage: Smart brands are “in the know” about the lives of their customers, but in a different way than before. It used to be that knowledge was power. In the connected age, the real power comes from fast knowledge, faster than real-time. Presence, in this case, is the absence of visibility, it is all intuition.

Unpredictability: Smart brands are also good at dealing with events that are unpredictable. As Peter Merholz writes: “Businesses must grapple with the messiness of humanity, because when people are freer to interact, unpredictability occurs. And the decentralized networks that form the substrate of the Connected Age lead to emergent properties that, by their very nature, are also unpredictable.” Unpredictability is the new brand consistency. Good brands stay unpredictable and help their organizations embrace the unknown. Management performance shall not be measured by how much uncertainty it can eliminate, but how much uncertainty it can tolerate.

In summary: Is your brand adaptable, connectable, and sociable? Can it be easily upgraded? Does it, like a smart system, bring together interdisciplinary approaches and solutions in an “integrated design”? And does it have the courage to ignore the formulas offered by analytics? It seems counter-intuitive but the Connected Age is not the Age of Data. Smart brands remain ephemeral for they know that brands, despite the deluge of data at their disposal, are more substance than form, more chaos than structure, and more intuition than knowledge. They are viral because they are driven by passionate people, and their passion spreads through the connections they activate. They make a lasting impression because they have the ability to connect people with people, people with brands, brands with brands, stories with people, stories with brands, and stories with stories, all the while constantly evolving their repertoire of interactions based on their intuition and the faster-than-real-time feedback they receive from the members of networks they own, activate, or join. Hyper-connected, hyper-social, and omnipresent, they can anticipate desires, sense mood shifts, pre-empt knowledge, and quickly direct attention to significant events and conversations – because whenever something happens or is being talked about, they are already there.

A final note: You may wonder why I don’t give any examples of smart brands. Rightly so. I don’t know of any. If you do, please comment below.

[Image: Susan Kavicky]

Tim Leberecht is the CMO of frog and the publisher of design mind.