In the Internet world, brands will be more important than they’ve ever been before.
Because as the number of choices available to anybody seeking anything proliferate, brand is the shortcut that allows choices to be made quickly and reliably. And the Internet does nothing better than presenting us with more choices for any quest than anybody can possibly consider carefully.
In the next 20 years or so, the brands that will dominate for a very long time will be created.
Because the organization and delivery of stuff — including information — is being realigned into verticals; that is: subjects. The requirements of physical delivery required aggregation across interests that the Internet does not. So enduring horizontal brands of content like newspapers or book publishers but also outside content, among retailers, for example, that thrived across interest groups will find themselves challenged by new brands that are narrower and deeper. Being narrower and deeper permits a much more involved engagement with the audience. It strengthens the brand.
That’s how entities like Politico and Fivethirtyeight.com for political news suddenly challenged The New York Times and the Washington Post. That’s how Ravelry and Etsy arose out of nothing to become brands with real power in the crafts space, or how The Food Network or Epicurious became dominant in the web conversation about food.
The owners of the brands that matter will control access to the audiences that matter in the future. Content creators’ fates will be in the brands’ hands.
Publishers can compete in this environment, but only if they recognize the realities and try!
I am not an expert on brands (and I don’t even play one on TV.) But I have been paying attention this concept for about 15 years, since Mark Bide introduced me to it during our work together on the Publishing in the 21st Century program in the 1990s. There are a few simple truths that I believe are clear to anybody who spends any real time thinking about this.
1. For a brand to succeed, its message (often called its “promise” among the Brandanista) must be crystal clear and unconfused. You wouldn’t put the same brand name on toothpaste and tomato sauce. And if Ravelry wants to expand into gardening, they almost certainly should invent another brand.
2. Publishers particularly need to distinguish between B2B (business-to-business) and B2C (business-to-consumer) brands. So a company’s name might be an acceptable B2B brand, communicating things about commerciality, quality, and its marketing effort to bookstore buyers, librarians, and reviewers who will be interested in its offerings across subject matters. But consumers require brands that are consistent as to subject matter, or as to the problems the content offerings solve (which is what makes “Dummies” work.)
3. Healthy brands reduce marketing costs. If you want to sell a romance book, you have to find the audience. In Harlequin’s case, the audience finds them! Yes, Harlequin is one of the exceptions to the rule that a publisher’s name is not a B2C brand. Why? Because they have a consistent product offering. If they decided to expand into mysteries or thrillers, they’d need another brand. Even within romances, Harlequin has sub-brands to give their readers shortcuts to the particular lengths and types of books they want to buy.
4. Precisely the same product with precisely the same marketing expenditure will sell better under some brands than it will under others, which is a corrolary to point 3 above.
5. We all well know that not all brand promises are about content. “Community” (interaction among the interested) and “service” (solving problems or providing help, which is what the content in Dummies books do) are important components of brand as well. My paradigm is to use content as bait to attract eyeballs, but then to use community and service to strengthen the hold of the brand on its adherents.
The overall vision presented in the Shift speech is that vertical communities are forming and that the stakes being planted in the virtual ground are analogous to the land claims made by settlers when Oklahoma was opened up. Each of those claims will ultimately be branded and many of those brands will endure for a very long time. Will important gardening brands be owned by publishers or seed and fertilizer companies? Will important cooking brands be owned by publishers or a food manufacturer or a restaurant chain? Will important travel brands be owned by publishers or a hotel or an airline? It depends on who delivers the combination of content, community, and service that pulls together the interested and then leverages that interest into an enduring brand.
Publishers have great tools to compete but they can only succeed if they know what the game is. Establishing enduring brands is the great opportunity of our time and book publishers are very well-positioned to win. If they play. Understanding content and how to deliver it to markets is a great start, but that’s all it is.