As was only a matter of time, a debunker has arisen from the marketing world to take on the "Influencer" theory, which was brought to mainstream consciousness with Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and is a foundation of current word of mouth marketing. Not surprisingly, there are immediate (and invested) detractors and a lively debate will most likely ensue. I’ve been away from the blog for a bit and had a post started and saved entitled "Apple’s billion dollar WOM success story" in response to a lot of the assertions following MacWorld as to the truly organic nature of the Apple brand story. Needless to say, it seems it’s appropriate to now merge it into this one!
In Sean’s post in response to Watt’s Fast Company article, he says:
Well I’ll be darned. Watts believe that companies can’t will a trend that grows small and spreads large into existence. If Watts then, can explain to be the growth of Facebook, MySpace, Wii, Prius, Starbucks, eBay, Apple, Burton, Jones Soda, Maker’s Mark, Innocent Drinks, Harley Davidson, lululemon and a host of other products that have eschewed mass media and have galvanized a brand community through grassroots experiences and targeting fans, ambassadors and influencers, then I guess I’ll reject most of what I’ve written about in my last 400 posts.
I hate to be a wet blanket on the theories that all the ‘cool, hip’ brands eschewed mass media and are the pure products of influencer word-of-mouth, but, for most of these brands, traditional marketing and advertising was the way they reached critical mass, established their brand identity, and the blended approach they are currently using, in the case of Apple specifically, continues to drive their growth.
In other words:
Influencer cultivation and communication builds long-term and sustainable product loyalty and evangelism.
Brand marketing brings out the over-arching brand essence, reaches a large and diverse audience, and helps discover new influencers.
And the cycle continues.
Let’s take Apple as the classic example of the viral success story… I absolutely agree that a lot of their early success was driven by their niche customer base and that these graphic designers, etc. were evangelists. Absolutely true. But Apple did a lot of TV, print, online, and radio advertising to support their product, because, as a niche product without a wider reaching customer base, it was in trouble. In 1997, Apple, struggling with 3% of the market, received a cash infusion from Microsoft. In a landmark moment Steve Jobs stood on stage at MacWorld, with Bill Gates on the video screen behind him, and said the following:
The era of setting this up as a competition between Apple and Microsoft is over, as far as I’m concerned. This is about getting Apple healthy, and this is about Apple being able to make incredibly great contributions to the industry to get healthy and prosper again.
What a difference 10 years make and a carefully re-crafted brand image and massive amounts of dollars spent in traditional advertising to support the product launches.
When I was in Los Angeles in 1997 – 2001 I distinctly remember the Think Different campaign… it was omnipresent: billboards, posters, TV, Internet… everywhere. And that type of ad spend was replicated in cities across the US and the world. Apple hasn’t stopped using traditional channels since… Mac vs. PC commercials are the latest incarnation and they aren’t only available on YouTube. EarthLink, while I was working there, played off of the edginess of Think Different with their own campaign… they wanted to be the Apple to AOL’s Microsoft. Unfortunately, then Microsoft got in the ISP game and the rest is history.
But I digress…
Even the pure internet (and now name brand) companies advertised through mass channels when they launched, throughout the 90’s and ’00’s – Yahoo! was all over TV and radio with the annoying cowboy spots; eTrade on the SuperBowl, OOH, DM, print; Google out of home ads everywhere; MySpace 100M blast email campaign; eBay was launched with print and radio and added in TV in 2000… and the list goes on. And in so far as Prius goes, sure the celebrities riding around in them gives the campaign cachet, but the classic automaker TV, print, web, OOH, and event marketing certainly helps build the awareness over the long term. I also think I may have seen a few Wii TV spots before the holidays?
Now, all of this being said, word-of-mouth cultivation and, more recently, social media strategies, are hugely important, and are needed to elevate the brand into a true dialogue and value exchange with customers, but it’s not the messiah. It’s about integration and understanding who your brand speaks to, builds products for, and respectfully letting them know about you and finding out how you can help them in their daily lives. It’s about telling a story that is meaningful, making people stand up and take notice, and providing a solid reason for them to do so.
Sometimes that means convincing the high school design geek that Mac’s are cool 20 years ago, only to see him grow up to be Tim Burton and become an influencer to a mass audience.
In the end: Branding still matters. Brand promises still matter. Products always matter. And the influencers and evangelists matter. The lifecycle matters and the integration matters. To do anything in a vacuum, and without understanding the symbiotic relationship between brand and consumer, is a recipe for disaster.
[Photo credit: Paranoid Black Jack via Flickr]