Put a little Fire in your Brand

Just as marketers were finally getting comfortable with the idea of a brand being more than just a product name, along comes new economy technology to make life difficult for everyone.

In their new book Firebrands: Building Brand Loyalty in the Internet Age, authors Michael Moon and Doug Millison, respectively a research consultant and a technology writer, posit that Internet features such as chat rooms, messaging and E-mail are leading to a new force in our increasingly networked economy: trust networks.

"Customers, investors, trade partners, staff and the public at large, organized and mobilized through the Internet, now compel all institutions, including businesses to do the right thing in order to earn and keep their trust," say the authors.

For example wired U.S. college students have been pressuring companies that produce school branded apparel in third world countries to eliminate sweatshop conditions, preserve workers rights and respect local ecosystems. These trust networks which have built up around many branded products have had tangible effects on such companies as Nikes.

But how does one identify, develop and build a trust network? The authors offer several suggestions. The first step is to move beyond the vision of pure supplier customer relationships. In their research, the authors have concluded that many consumers just don't have a clue as to why they bought one specific product over another. The authors conclude (contrary to much established marketing consensus) that opinion and product awareness have only marginal value for predicting buyer behavior.

Companies must develop a new type of brand: a firebrand. The fire part comes from our earliest history, when communal fires forced people together to share warmth and company. There they told stories to pass the time. In a networked economy where television and the computer are converging, the Internet has replaced the fireplace, and around this digital fireplace new forms of storytelling are emerging. Firebranding implies focusing marketing efforts more on the trust networks surrounding a brand rather than on the individual consumer.

Netscape Navigator, which made browsing the Web possible for the ordinary consumer, was the first real firebrand of the networked economy, but others such as Yahoo and Cisco soon followed. These products spread rapidly and almost exclusively through trust networks and interaction over the Net. In the future even traditional brands are going to have to move much of their marketing strategies over to that medium.

In fact as a result of the emergence of trust networks, the authors urge companies to completely re-think not just their marketing and advertising campaigns, but their entire business strategies, and this means the involvement of corporate CEOs.

Moon boasts considerable high technology marketing experience and relates anecdotes from many of his clients such as Apple Computer. Having said that, Firebrands is not an easy read. Like most books that force the reader to think, the authors say things you oftentimes don't want to hear. That makes for harder reading than more populist marketing literature that sprouts out conventional wisdom but tells you nothing.

Big companies are in uncharted territory trying to adapt marketing strategies to the new economy. From that standpoint alone Firebrands is worth a look.

Firebrands: Building Brand Loyalty in the Internet Age, 317 pages, McGraw Hill, by Michael Moon and Doug Millison

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