Marketing used to be about having a message, and throwing it at people. If you had a big budget, you could throw it hard and throw it often. If you had a good strategy, you at least knew the optimal size and shape of the ball, and who to throw it at, for maximum impact. But people, as we know, are not pins. They have been undergoing a revolution - emboldened and equipped by technology, knowledgeable, confident and informed, they have been seizing control.
Brands, now, are in a game of pinball. Brand managers and marketers do not control the ball. They can put it into play, by starting conversations, launching new products and new campaign ideas. And they only to share and shape and influence the brand stories that start to emerge from consumers, by manning the 'flippers'. These stories evolve and morph and great brands respond and build on them. Strategy now means deciding on a whole number of new things on top of the old classics of single-minded brand propositions and USPs, such as: what conversations to get involved in, what kind of content to share, and how to build participation and advocacy into its deliverables.
Pinball is responsive. Brands need to innovate and test, scour other markets for new ideas, take leaps of faith and learn from their mistakes. The analytical tools at their disposal are powerful, enabling brands to see what is working with their market in real-time, and adapt to it. The importance of creativity cannot be overstated, but nor can the need for real intelligence and piercing insight.
A great game of pinball is one in which the ball is kept in play for as long as possible. Brands these days have to think long-term in all of this immediacy, activity and responsiveness. In order to keep the ball in play, brands need to be building shared value for themselves, the planet, and the communities they impact. Great brands are demonstrating generosity and allowing their customers to do the same (think of Vodacom waiving the SMS costs and enabling their users to donate to famine relief in Somalia). They are building sustainable value-cycles. Nothing short of reinventing capitalism, these brands enjoy long-term, sustainable success and loyalty from an appreciative audience.
This brand pinball is hard work. Marketers can no longer rest on their laurels, happy with the year's marketing plan and some good creative. Brand marketing is constant, live, real-time. It needs to be both proactive and rapidly responsive, sparking ideas and responding to relevant issues in their community's lives, explaining and apologising when things go wrong. A few hours is enough to be accused of non-response, at the expense of the company's reputation.
Brands also have new 'bumpers' (to continue the pinball metaphor) in the form of brand advocates and other users. These days, so much of the work of traditional marketing is done by consumers themselves, and this is where your consumers place their trust. Word of mouth is becoming increasingly important, and brands need to understand and build relationships with their advocates, impartial experts and vocal critics. And there are powerful social influencers that go well beyond peer recommendations, to subconscious and emotional cues. Seeing people you respect or admire use a brand, for example, is likely to influence you to do the same. And brands need to consider how to create the subtle sensory reminders of brand usage, such as the iconic white earphones of iPods, or the sound of a Harley, that can act as social bumpers.
Successful, valuable brands are those that engage their customers and communities that drive deep emotional and rational relationships. There is no ad campaign that will buy you that, unfortunately. But understanding the rules of pinball just might.