Branding in the Age of Relational Media

In 1989, George Fields (the founder of ASI Market Research) gave me a copy of his book, Gucci on the Ginza—a fascinating exploration of Japanese consumer culture. In his book, Fields employs the term Shinjinrui—meaning, in a most literal sense, a new type of person. This idea remains valid in this age of relational media—Shinjinrui march to their own tune and don’t always run with the crowd as we have seen with Facebook, YouTube, and of course Twitter. Shinjinrui also engage with brands on their own unique terms and expect the same in return.

Here’s why… crowds by their very nature are amorphous masses whose only identity is the mass itself. Crowds, like sleeping giants, can be easily awakened. At the slightest of provocations, crowds turn very ugly and morph into mobs (as was recently witnessed at the Web 2.0 Expo). Similarly, when I worked for a social/relational media monitoring company, we found that there were a lot of ‘brand haters’ out there—racists, extremists, shills, and scam artists, all of whom had no interest other than compromising the reputations of many of the institutions and organizations that make our society a civil place. This brings us to the importance of community and how it can contribute to brand building.

Brands by their very nature are unique and distinctive unto themselves: UPS’s logo and uniform models of brown trucks, Big Blue—the IBM logo, and the Nike ‘swoosh’—a brand that doesn’t even need a name to be recognized universally. Some are even represented by characters that are symbolic of what their brands stand for: Ronald McDonald, Frosted Flakes’ Tony the Tiger, Mr. Clean, and the grand old man of 111 years, Bibendum, a.k.a. The Michelin Man. Bib, incidentally, is currently on a campaign to reduce gasoline consumption worldwide.

So this raises a key question: how does a crowd relate to a brand in the first place? I don’t think it can, because it’s the individual customer who has the brand experience at the 1:1 level. It is the customer who relates in their own unique way to the things that brands stand for, such as Dove’s ‘Campaign for Real Beauty‘. If these brands do reach out and touch consumers at the individual level, why would they seek out the opinions of the undifferentiated masses? Brand communities are composed of homogeneous groups (segments) that have a set of shared interests and lifestyles that engage with the likes of Dove beauty products. As Diane Hessan mentioned early in the year, “…if the crowd is smaller, more intimacy leads to higher engagement.”

It would be ironic, perhaps poetic, if some prolific texting Millennial brand manager, likely a Shinjinrui, stood up in an agency briefing and declared: “We need to identify a specific consumer segment and do some target marketing.”