John Gerzema, world-renowned social theorist on consumerism and the president of BrandAsset Consulting, talks about the promise of big data, social as a business model, and the end of "digital marketing."

June 2012

Think with Google: What do you see as the fundamentals of brand building? Have they changed in the digital age?

John Gerzema: While everything has changed in terms of tools, channels and strategies, the fundamentals of brand building remain unchanged: Marketing creates value when a brand builds an emotional relationship with its customer. It's still about being different, better, special - and then fighting to prove it over and over again.

Brands used to command fairly consistent positions in the marketplace, so brand building was linear: Functions were silo'ed. Messages were controllable. And brand managers had annual plans in nice black binders.

But today brand equity is in continuous flux, making brand building a messy and ever-changing affair. The best marketers today are open, honest and a bit vulnerable. They kind of embrace the chaos by being quick learners and good experimenters, who like a scientist is willing to admit failure in the process of discovery. But many don't believe this. They're still trying to persuade, rather than engage.

TwG: Why don't they believe this? Why should they?

JG: Marketers need to understand just how important authenticity is to a brand. In our data from BrandAsset Valuator, trust in brands and companies has declined by 50% since the global financial crisis. Today, people trust one in four brands on average. This is because everything is connected and searchable. Cisco estimates there will be 50 billion things connected to the internet by 2020. That's a lot of potential fans, or critics.

We're moving from social marketing to social as business model. This means that the best-run companies are built to be inherently listening, filtering, sharing and evolving. If you think about brands you admire, chances are their customers are the center of their organization. From Shultz to Hseih, the CEO is also a brand manager who believes that marketing is everybody's job. The social company shares insights, feedback, reviews, user-generated content across their organization to guide new product development, customer service improvements and community building.

TwG: How are companies using digital to build and strengthen their brands?

JG: Great companies are thinking holistically about their brands. They're understanding that their brand voice isn't built through advertising alone, but through all the new digital channels, be it Google search, Facebook fan pages, employee blogs, etc. These are all avenues to build a brand's voice and engage customers.

Great companies are thinking holistically about their brands. They’re understanding that their brand voice isn’t built through advertising alone, but through all the new digital channels, be it Google search, Facebook fan pages, employee blogs, etc.

TwG: What's working? What isn't?

JG: What's working is that companies are doing a lot better job of fostering communities and creating bespoke strategies and creative by channels based on engagement. The old model started with a TV or a print idea and resulted in "let's lift the print to make a banner" (a.k.a. "matching sets of luggage"). Marketers are starting to think about the channel first. - But legacy organizational structures are a common barrier to evolution to a new model. Building a model that enables integration across all channels will be more difficult if "digital" is silo'ed within marketing or e-commerce, or if social media resides within the public relations function.

TwG: What other challenges do marketers face?

JG: Integrating specialist partners is like "herding cats" for clients. There are agency planners, agency creatives, social media experts, media planners, communications planners, consultants, media-buying agencies, search specialists, web design partners, digital creative partners - the list goes on and on. And each function has their own philosophy, metrics and P&L. I think it's really hard to be a client in this environment today. They're facing shareholders and quarterly reporting cycles while trying to master all this internal integration, idea integration, etc.

The solution to me is in the data. The data you can capture on consumers and behavior go way beyond optimizing your data analytics (search, display, creative, etc). If you examine that data, it can tell you a lot more. You can better define your target. You can better understand your most engaged consumers or advocates as well as how your products, services and creative are connecting (or not). Big data is here, but it takes equally big people to listen to, harness and collaborate with what it offers.

TwG: How should digital fit in with other brand building efforts?

JG: I look at it the other way around. Too many marketers still see digital as a channel, when it's really the technology that powers everything. To see a digital function is to think your brand building is television or a print ad. Maybe we need a new language.