Andrew Keller, Chief Executive of ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, shares his point-of-view on how digital is changing the "social contract" between consumers and brands.

October 2012

Think with Google: What do you see as the fundamentals of brand building?

Andrew Keller: Whether we're talking about a single person or an entire company, a brand is the sum of an entity's actions and interactions: What they make; what they do; what they say; how they look; and what they believe in. These actions are the result of a POV they stand for, even when - or especially when - it puts them at odds with prevailing culture. Love it or hate it, the tension this creates is what makes people feel something for the brand.

TwG: Have these fundamentals changed in the digital age?

AK: No, but the opportunities, touch points, access, and speed with which we can take action have changed dramatically. But that's really only part of the story.

The digital age, and social media in particular, have changed the social contract between people and brands. The expectation of the relationship has become far more intimate.

This creates huge opportunities but it also means every action is under scrutiny, and every decision is subject to widespread public debate. The upshot? Now more than ever, you have to know where you stand. You're going to have your beliefs challenged - whether because of product recalls, out and out brand terrorism, or just simple missteps and accidents that reveal a chink in the brand - and you need to be ready. Every interaction needs to be seen as a branding opportunity.

From a consumer's point of view, social media and digital tools are more closely related to a brand's products than a brand's 'advertising'. They are the company.

TwG: What role does social media specifically play in this mix?

AK: From a consumer’s point of view, social media and digital tools are more closely related to a brand’s products than a brand’s “advertising”. They are the company. That makes them huge branding opportunities but also liabilities as well. If you can create a digital tool that becomes an important part of people's lives, you've connected people to a system they won't ever leave.

This has left announcement communication feeling antiquated - not because people don't watch TV but because that kind of advertising can feel socially stunted. It's like leaving out a dimension. It's glaringly incomplete. A brand is either interactive, engaging, and social or it's trending toward irrelevance.

Consumer expectations for engagement are 24/7, so if you aren't talking, you're either out of business or hiding something. And with all the talking you're doing, there are many, many more chances to be on brand - and potentially off brand. In that case, brands need to expect a response and be ready to deal with it instantly. It comes back to knowing who you are and expecting to be challenged.

You can also expect your voice to be augmented, which is why some “targets” are worth more than others. If you can connect with brand ambassadors who will spread your message, that makes up a significant media “buy,” and one that’s far more credible.

TwG: How do you make those connections? And where?

AK: It’s about having the right tools in place. Brands need assets and intellectual property that are optimized for digital and social spaces: From characters to “digitized” employees to tools. A brand needs more in its bag of tricks than just a logo and a product.

Today, brands don't have to buy media if they don't want to. They are successfully creating their own communication channels with their consumers. First they have to earn the channel; then they have to leverage it without losing it. This opportunity/necessity has shown brands what can happen when they do it well. Instead of branded content, their brand becomes content in people's lives.

I think that paid media forms convinced us brands had nothing to say, or that people weren’t interested in what a packaged good, for example, had to say. So whereas “content” was seen as a go-between connecting humans through shared experiences, “advertising” was something that was only ever able to stand next to the conversation. Now, great brands are that conversation, while entrepreneurs and start-ups are the new rock stars. The products they dream up and the motivations that drive them are culture’s new aspiration. So in the same way we take it for granted that films and songs are art and entertainment rather than products that need extensive advertising, a well-built brand can create that advantage for a product, giving it the same kind of social currency that can’t be ignored and doesn’t need to be “marketed.” The intimacy and opportunity of the digital age has been a huge contributor to this shift.