All Brands Are Politicians

(image) Recently I was watching television with my wife, a baseball game if memory serves, when an advertisement caught my eye. It was for a regional restaurant chain (not a national one like Jack in the Box). The ad was pretty standard fare – a call to action (go…

Obama-kissing-a-baby.jpg(image) Recently I was watching television with my wife, a baseball game if memory serves, when an advertisement caught my eye. It was for a regional restaurant chain (not a national one like Jack in the Box). The ad was pretty standard fare – a call to action (go now!) and a clear value proposition: the amazing amount of tasty-looking food you could have for a bargain price. I can’t find the ad online, but there’s no dearth of similar spots on television – in fact, their plentitude is why the commercial caught my attention in the first place.

In short, the ad offered pretty much all you could eat pasta, fries, and burgers for something like six bucks. Nearly all the food portrayed was processed, fried, and sourced from factory farms – necessarily so, as it’d simply not be possible to offer such a deal were it not for the economies of scale inherent in the US food economy. It’s simple capitalism at work: The chain is taking advantage of our nation’s subsidization of cheap calories to deliver what amounts to an extraordinary bargain to a consumer – all you can eat for less than an hour’s minimum wage!

It’s entirely predictable that such an offering would be in market. What’s not predictable, until recently, is how marketing such an offer might backfire in the coming age of marketing transparency and political unrest.

Allow me to try to explain.

As I watched the ad, and considered how many similar ones I see on a regular basis, I got to thinking about who the chain was targeting.

Certainly the chain wasn’t targeting me. I’m one of the so-called elites living in a bubble – I try to eat only organic foods, grown locally or sustainably if possible. I do this because I believe these foods are healthier for me and better for the world. I know I am in the extreme minority when it comes to my food – in the main because I can afford the prices they command. (And sure, I love hitting a burger joint every so often as a treat, but I also know that the act of considering fast food chains a “treat” is a privilege – I don’t have to rely on those outlets for my main source of sustenance.)

So no, that television ad was most certainly not targeted to me. I’d actually never even heard of the chain (nor had I seen its restaurants near where I live or travel). In short, that chain was wasting its marketing dollars on me, and most likely on a lot of other folks like me who happen to like watching baseball.

So what audience was that chain trying to reach? Experts in food marketing will tell you that the QSR industry is obsessed with reaching young men (and young men do watch baseball). But as I watched that ad, I started to think about another cohort that would clearly be influenced by the ads.

And that “target?” Intentionally or not (most likely not), it struck me that the advertisement would certainly appeal to our nation’s poor, as well as to those in our country who have eating issues, quite often the same folks, from what I read. One in seven people in the US are officially poor (and that bar is pretty damn low – $22K a year or less for a family of four). Nearly one in three are categorized as “obese.” And these two trends have become a seedbed for what are becoming the most politically sensitive issues of our generation: healthcare, wealth distribution, and energy policy. (The link between energy policy and food is expanded upon here).

Now, what happens when marketers like the all-you-can-eat chain, who like most marketers are not spending their money efficiently on TV, start buying data-driven audiences over highly efficient digital platforms? When and if we get to the nirvana that Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, Blue Kai, Cadreon, and countless others are pushing at the moment – a perfect world of matching marketers dollars to audience data and increased foot traffic in-store – we’ll be able to discern quite directly who a marketer is influencing.

And while that restaurant chain’s goal might be to influence young men, what happens if the digital advertising ecosystem proves directly that the folks who are responding are deeply effected by what has become a hot potato national issue around food, energy, and health?

And what happens when digital activists reverse engineer that marketing data, and use it as political fodder for issue-based activism? As far as I am concerned, the question isn’t if this is going to happen, the question is when.

Wait a minute, you might protest (if you are a marketer). What about privacy!! Ah, there’s the rub. Today’s privacy conversation is all about the consumer, about protecting the consumer from obtrusive targeting, and informing that consumer how, when, and why he or she is being targeted.

But that same data, which I agree the consumer has a right to access, can be re-aggregated by intelligent services (or industrious journalists using willing consumer sources), and then interpreted in any number of ways. And don’t think it’s just anti-corporate lefties and green freaks who will be making noise, in my research for this article, I found tons of articles on Tea Party sites decrying federal food subsidies. In short, the data genie is out of the bottle, not just for consumers, but for marketers as well.

Get ready, marketers, to be judged in the public square on your previously private marketing practices – because within the ecosystem our industry is rapidly building, the data will out.

I’m not picking on the food industry here, rather I’m simply using it as a narrative example. Increasingly, a company’s marketing practices will become transparent to its customers, partners, competitors, and detractors. And how one practices that marketing will be judged in real time, in a political dialog that defines the value of that brand in the world.

This new reality will force brands to develop a point of view on major issues of the day – and that ain’t an easy thing for brands to do – at least not at present. I’ve written extensively about how brands must become publishers. I’ve now come to the conclusion that they must also become politicians as well. Brands will have to play to their base, cater to interest groups, and answer for their “votes” – how their marketing dollars are spent.

I’d wager that marketers who get in front of this trend and shows leadership on the big issues will be huge winners. What do you think?


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Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen at Web 2: Apple? Who Needs ‘Em…

Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen has come to Web 2 as many times as Mark Zuckerberg, and like the Facebook CEO, he's had one heckuva year. From the fallout with Apple over Flash to the rumors of a Microsoft takeover (which he's denied), Narayen has had more than his share of…

_@user_64196.jpgAdobe CEO Shantanu Narayen has come to Web 2 as many times as Mark Zuckerberg, and like the Facebook CEO, he’s had one heckuva year. From the fallout with Apple over Flash to the rumors of a Microsoft takeover (which he’s denied), Narayen has had more than his share of challenges this past 12 months. So it should be interesting to hear what he has to say in two weeks time. Tim had some interesting things to say about Adobe in our webcast yesterday, I’ll post a link once the video is live. Meanwhile, what do you want to hear from Narayen?

While you are at it, click on over to my posts for RIM’s Jim Balsillie,  DST’s Yuri Milner, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Baidu’s Robin Li, Yahoo’s Carol Bartz and Google’s Eric Schmidt and add your thoughts there as well.

Here are a few thought starters:

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Web 2 Conversation: RIM’s Jim Balsillie

Continuing my tour of selected speakers at Web 2 this year, I alight upon RIM's Jim Balsillie, the man responsible for guiding the Blackberry brand through the Skylla of Apple and Kharybdis of Android – or is that the other way 'round? In any case, RIM has long been the…

jim_balsillie.jpgContinuing my tour of selected speakers at Web 2 this year, I alight upon RIM’s Jim Balsillie, the man responsible for guiding the Blackberry brand through the Skylla of Apple and Kharybdis of Android – or is that the other way ’round?

In any case, RIM has long been the king of enterprise smart phones, but that grip is arguably slipping. However, a suite of new products and an invigorated approach to developers is showing promise. Also eagerly anticipated: The Playbook, RIM’s first tablet product.

Balsille hasn’t been shy when it comes to Apple, he was recently quoted thusly: “We think many customers are getting tired of being told what to think by Apple.”

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Web 2 Debrief for Media, Marketing Mavens: Please Join Us!

Readers of Searchblog already know that Web 2 is coming in less than three weeks, what with all my missives here about Schmidt, Zuckerberg, Bartz, and others. But what I haven't told you about is the "Web2 Debrief" that my company, Federated Media, is doing after the conference. The Debrief…

web2db.pngReaders of Searchblog already know that Web 2 is coming in less than three weeks, what with all my missives here about Schmidt, Zuckerberg, Bartz, and others. But what I haven’t told you about is the “Web2 Debrief” that my company, Federated Media, is doing after the conference.

The Debrief is an evening event directly after the last day of the show, featuring Tim O’Reilly and myself in conversation about the previous three days. We’ll be breaking down the highlights of the event and taking questions from the audience. There will be a distinct focus on what it all means from the point of view of the marketing and/or media business, given FM’s position in those industries.

The nominal ($35) fee helps to cover the food and drink, as well as the excellent venue – Mezzanine, a short walk from the Palace Hotel, where Web 2 Summit will be held. I hope to see you there!

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Yuri Milner at Web 2: The Man Behind A Revolution in Finance?

Who exactly is Yuri Milner? I've heard this question asked quite a bit over the past year, as the Russian financier and entrepreneur has amassed significant holdings in key US Internet players – from Groupon to Zynga to Facebook (where he now owns around 10% of outstanding shares). His company,…

_@user_95614.jpg.pngWho exactly is Yuri Milner? I’ve heard this question asked quite a bit over the past year, as the Russian financier and entrepreneur has amassed significant holdings in key US Internet players – from Groupon to Zynga to Facebook (where he now owns around 10% of outstanding shares). His company, DST, has more than a billion invested in these social media players. (IT also purchased ICQ from AOL).

I had a chance to sit down with Milner in my San Francisco office, and ask him a few questions about his philosophy of investing, his background, and his strategy going forward. I’m very pleased he will be joining us at the Web 2 Summit – his approach to investing has upended a lot of presumptions about how “mezzanine” deals are getting done. In short, he cares little for the complicated structures and protective rachets of traditional pre-IPO rounds. He’s forced Silicon Valley legends to sit up and take notice. Oh, and by the way, he also owns major stakes in Russia’s most important social networking and Internet companies.

So what would you ask Yuri Milner? Here are a few thought starters:

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Mark Zuckerberg at Web 2: Third Time’s A Charm?

Next month will mark the third time that Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg will sit down with me for a Web 2 interview. (The first is above, the second can be found here). Last year Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg joined me, and she was great, but I'm eager…

http://blip.tv/play/AZrubQI

Next month will mark the third time that Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg will sit down with me for a Web 2 interview. (The first is above, the second can be found here). Last year Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg joined me, and she was great, but I’m eager to speak with Mark again, given all that has happened in the past year. If you watch his interview in 2007, then a year later, and then his recent appearances, you see a guy who’s really matured as a public figure (and yes, that has a lot of nuance when you run Facebook). Yes, he had a uncomfortable (and famously sweaty) conversation at D earlier this year, but lately I’ve noticed a confidence that I’m going to bet will be on display next month.

Not that we won’t have a few items to cover that will test Zuckerberg’s newfound stage presence, what with congressional inquiries, unflattering Hollywood portrayals, and platform outages to discuss. But if you’re CEO of a very public (though still financially private) company, dealing with these things comes with the territory.

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Robin Li at Web 2: Bridging Valley and Chinese Business Cultures

I'm particularly pleased to welcome Baidu CEO Robin Li to the Web 2 stage this year. Li is a familiar Valley startup success story – he left a promising career at search pioneer Infoseek to found a startup that has rocketed to multi-billion dollar valuations and global business fame. The…

Baidu stock.pngI’m particularly pleased to welcome Baidu CEO Robin Li to the Web 2 stage this year. Li is a familiar Valley startup success story – he left a promising career at search pioneer Infoseek to found a startup that has rocketed to multi-billion dollar valuations and global business fame. The big difference? Li did it in China.

A one year chart of Baidu’s stock, shown at left, certainly tells a story of success. I spoke to Li earlier in the Fall to prep for our conversation, and found him reserved, intelligent, and perhaps a bit apprehensive. After all, he’s speaking an hour or so after Eric Schmidt, and Baidu is often called “the Chinese Google.” Not to mention the company has profited from Google’s recent decision to, for all intents and purposes, to exit the Chinese market. And I wouldn’t blame him if he’s worried that the industry might call him out for bowing to Chinese policies regarding censorship. But as Li told me, “We’re based in China. We don’t have a choice on this issue.”

American educated, Valley smart, Chinese native, Li is a fascinating study in two cultures. That he’s willing to come and be part of our industry’s conversation says a lot about the man, and I think we’ll all learn from his visit.

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Carol Bartz at Web 2: Everybody Is Sticking Everybody Else In The Eye

(image) Continuing my journey through the highlights of our forthcoming Web 2 Summit (here's my initial take on Eric Schmidt), today I ask for your help in interviewing Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz. I am particularly pleased Bartz is coming, first because she's very good in conversation (and yes, often…

carol-bartz-surprised.jpg

(image) Continuing my journey through the highlights of our forthcoming Web 2 Summit (here’s my initial take on Eric Schmidt), today I ask for your help in interviewing Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz. I am particularly pleased Bartz is coming, first because she’s very good in conversation (and yes, often salty), and second because she fell ill the day I was to talk with her last year on stage, and we all missed the chance to hear her then.

However, much has changed since then, although Yahoo shareholders might argue not enough – in particular, not Yahoo’s down-to-sideways stock price (for a comparison to Google’s yearlong performance, see this chart). Those arguments have fostered serious chatter that Bartz might once again miss her Web 2 date – and this time not due to illness.

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Identity and The Independent Web

Are we are evolving our contract with society through our increasing interactions with digital platforms, and in particular, through what we’ve come to call the web?  

I believe the answer is yes. I’m fascinated with how our society’s new norms and mores are developing – as well as the architectural patterns which emerge as we build what, at first blush, feels like a rather chaotic jumble of companies, platforms, services, devices and behaviors.

Here’s one major architectural pattern I’ve noticed: the emergence of two distinct territories across the web landscape. One I’ll call the “Dependent Web,” the other is its converse: The “Independent Web.”

The Dependent Web is dominated by companies that deliver services, content and advertising based on who that service believes you to be: What you see on these sites “depends” on their proprietary model of your identity, including what you’ve done in the past, what you’re doing right now, what “cohorts” you might fall into based on third- or first-party data and algorithms, and any number of other robust signals.

The Independent Web, for the most part, does not shift its content or services based on who you are. However, in the past few years, a large group of these sites have begun to use Dependent Web algorithms and services to deliver advertising based on who you are.

A Shift In How The Web Works?

And therein lies the itch I’m looking to scratch: With Facebook’s push to export its version of the social graph across the Independent Web; Google’s efforts to personalize display via AdSense and Doubleclick; AOL, Yahoo and Demand building search-driven content farms, and the rise of data-driven ad exchanges and “Demand Side Platforms” to manage revenue for it all, it’s clear that we’re in the early phases of a major shift in the texture and experience of the web.

The dominant platforms of the US web – Facebook, Google, and increasingly Twitter- all have several things in common, but the one that comes first to my mind is their sophisticated ability to track your declarations of intent and interpret them in ways that execute, in the main, two things. First, they add value to your experience of that service. Google watches what you search, where you go, and what advertising you encounter, and at near the speed of light, it provides you an answer.

Facebook does the same, building a page each time you click, based on increasingly sophisticated data and algorithms. And Twitter is hard on its parents’ heels – to my mind, Twitter is the child of Google and Facebook, half search, half social. (Search’s rich uncle is the explosion of “user generated content” – what I like to call Conversational Media. Facebook’s rich uncle is clearly the mobile phone, and texting in particular. But I digress….as usual.)

Secondly, these services match their model of your identity to an extraordinary machinery of marketing dollars, serving up marketing in much the same way as the service itself. In short, the marketing is the message, and the message is the service. We knowingly go to Facebook or Google now much as we go to the mall or the public square – to see and be seen, to have our intent responded to, whether those wishes be commercial or public expression.

When we’re “on” Facebook, Google, or Twitter, we’re plugged into an infrastructure (in the case of the latter two, it may be a distributed infrastructure) that locks onto us, serving us content and commerce in an automated but increasingly sophisticated fashion. Sure, we navigate around, in control of our experience, but the fact is, the choices provided to us as we navigate are increasingly driven by algorithms modeled on the service’s understanding of our identity. We know this, and we’re cool with the deal – these services are extremely valuable to us. Of course, when we drop into a friend’s pictures of their kid’s Barmitzvah, we could care less about the algorithms. But once we’ve finished with those pictures, the fact that we’ve viewed them, the amount of time we spent viewing them, the connection we have to the person whose pictures they are, and any number of other data points are noted by Facebook, and added to the infinite secret sauce that predestines the next ad or newsfeed item the service might present to us.

Now I’m not against the idea of scale, or algorithmic suggestions – in particular those driven by a tight loop of my own actions, and those of my friends (in the case of Google, my “friends” are ghost cohorts, and therein lies Google’s social problem, but that’s grist for another post).

But there is another part of the web, one where I can stroll a bit more at my own pace, and discover new territory, rather than have territory matched to a presumed identity. And that is the land of the Independent Web.

What’s My Independent Identity?

What happens when the Independent Web starts leveraging the services of the Dependent Web? Do we gain, do we lose, or is it a push? We seem to be in the process of finding out. It’s clear that more than ads can be driven by the algorithms and services of the Dependent Web. Soon (in the case of Facebook Open Graph, real soon) Independent sites will be able use Dependent Web infrastructure to determine what content and services they might offer to a visitor.

Imagine if nearly all sites used such services. As they stand today, I can’t imagine such a world would be very compelling. We have to do a lot more work on understanding concepts of identity and intent before we could instrument such services – and at present, nearly all that work is being done by companies with Dependent business models (this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a thing). This skews the research, so to speak, and may well constrain the opportunity.

The opportunity is obvious, but worth stating: By leveraging a nuanced understanding of a visitor’s identity, every site or service on the web could deliver content, services, and/or advertising that is equivalent in relevance and experience as the best search result is to us today. The site would read our identity and click path as our intent (thus creating the “query”), then match its content and service offerings to that intent, creating the “result.” Leveraging our identities, Independent Web sites could more perfectly instrument their sites to our tastes. Sites would feel less like impersonal mazes, and more like conversations.

But is that what we want? It depends on the model. In a Dependent Web model, the data and processes used to deliver results is opaque and out of the consumer’s control. What we see depends on how the site interprets pre-conceived models of identity it receives from a third party.

Consider how most display advertising works today. As we roam the web, we are tracked, tagged, and profiled by third parties. An increasingly sophisticated infrastructure is leveraged to place a high-probability advertising match in front of us. In this model, there is no declared intent (no “query”) – our presence and the identity model the system has made for us stands in for the query. Because there is no infrastructure in place for us to declare who we might want to be in the eyes of a particular site, the response to that query makes a ton of assumptions about who we are. Much more often than not, the results are weak, poor, or wasted.

Can’t we do better?

For purposes of this post, I’m not going to wade into what many consider the threat of “our privacy being breached” as more and more personal data is added to our Dependent Web identity models (the ongoing debate about tracking and disclosure is robust, but not what I’m getting at here). Instead I see a threat to the overall value of our industry – if we continue to graft a Dependent Web model onto the architecture of the Independent Web, we most likely will fail to deliver the value that we all intuit is possible for the web. And that’s not good for anyone.

As consumers, we understand (for the most part) that when we are on Dependent sites, we’re going to get Dependent results. It’s part of a pretty obvious bargain. On Facebook, we’re Facebook users – that’s our identity in context of Facebook. But out on the Independent web, no such bargain has yet been struck. On Boing Boing, the Huffington Post, or Serious Eats, we’re someone else. The question is – who are we?

I Am What I Say I Am, For Now…

The interplay between Dependent and Independent services may set the table for a new kind of identity to emerge – one driven not by a model of interaction tracked by the Dependent Web per se, but rather by what each individual wishes to reveal about who they are, in real time. These revelations may be fleeting and situational – as they so often are in the real world. If I alight on a post about a cool new mountain bike, for example, I might chose to reveal that I’m a fan of the Blur XC, a bike made by the Santa Cruz company. But I don’t necessarily want that information to presumptively pass to the owner of that site until I read the post and consider the consequences of revealing that data.

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Eric Schmidt, Opening Coversation at Web 2: So Much To Discuss, So Little Time

(photo) As I do each year, I'll be thinking out loud here about some of the key interviews I'll be doing on stage at Web 2 next month. Opening the conference is Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google. Given our theme of "Points of Control," I can't think of a…

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(photo) As I do each year, I’ll be thinking out loud here about some of the key interviews I’ll be doing on stage at Web 2 next month. Opening the conference is Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google. Given our theme of “Points of Control,” I can’t think of a better way to start – of all the major players in our industry, Google stands alone in both its ambition as well as its power. It’s also got a rather large target on its back – everyone, from Microsoft to Facebook, Apple to Hollywood, everyone competes with Google.   

Google’s ambition is breathtaking, as you can see from the image at left, taken from our interactive Points of Control map. From its base in search, Google has pushed into cloud computing, operating systems, television, mobile platforms (both OS and hardware), social media, content, and advertising. That’s not to mention its rather serious dabbling in energy, transportation, gaming, commerce, and just about everything else.

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