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The Conversation

Nobody believes business anymore. So who’s in control of your brand? It’s all of us. Here’s how the truth has been democratised, distributed and Google-optimised. It’s goodbye to the mass message and welcome to The Conversation.
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Nobody believes business anymore. So who’s in control of your brand? It’s all of us. Here’s how the truth has been democratised, distributed and Google-optimised. It’s goodbye to the mass message and welcome to The Conversation

It just might be the world’s most unexpected welcome, but it takes diners at San Francisco’s Pizzeria Delfina a moment to fathom the phrase This place sucks, printed in large and ultra-readable type on the waitress’ t-shirt.

Another staffer’s reads The pizza was soooo greasy. I am assuming this was in part due to the pig fat.

We might mistake those words for the artful uprising of an aggrieved staff, but in fact they’re the views of an even more turbulent dissenter: the dissatisfied customers who share their opinions on the Internet.

In a move that’s as intriguing as it is confronting, the management at Pizzeria Delfina lifted the cruellestreviews of their establishment from yelp.com, a popular American consumer reviews website, and printed them on the t-shirts that staff wear while they make pizza and serve customers.

It’s a fascinating example of one business’s reaction to the explosion of conversations about products and brands by today’s connected consumers. These conversations are a phenomenon that’s having a dramatic effect on how we decide which products to buy and which brands to align ourselves with.

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On the record at Pizzeria Delfina

To shed light on the method behind Pizzeria Delfina’s ostensible madness, let’s travel back to the middle of the 1990s, to the genesis of a curious invention known as Corporate Social Responsibility Marketing, or CSR.

There was no fashion among the 80s businessperson for responsibility. No pressure to set profits aside for the benevolent support of a charitable cause, to reduce the environmental impact of their manufacture, to improve the nutritional value of their snack foods. They were simple times for capitalism.

But by the mid-90s, ideas like ‘good corporate citizenship’ and ‘triple bottom line accounting’ were becoming popularised, and as they gained ground, a generation of sensitive new-age marketers began to spend their budgets telling people just how earnestly their companies were approaching their social responsibilities. “Trust us,” the advertisements implored. “We’re doing the right thing.” By the middle of this decade almost every advertiser in the world was communicating its environmental, nutritional or charitable good-doing. It’s estimated that so far this decade around $30 billion has been spent on CSR marketing. To contextualise $30 billion for a moment, it’s the amount of money the UN believes it would take to end human poverty. So we wonder: has CSR investment produced an equally valuable return?

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Yankelovich Research periodically polls consumers with the question ‘Do you trust business people to do the right thing most or all of the time?’ Through the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s that figure tracked along in the early-50 percentages. There was a healthy balance of believers and cynics. No real prevailing consumer viewpoint.

Then, in the middle of the 90s, trust began to plummet. Between 1995 and 2002 the figure fell from 51 percent to 36 percent, then to 32 percent in 2004 and 28 percent in 2006. The World Economic Forum corroborated Yankelovich’s findings when its 2005 global survey reported trust in corporations to be at its lowest level since tracking began.

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Here’s the kicker: on a graph, the trust consumers show in corporates is inversely proportionate to the amount of money spent by those corporates attempting to gain consumers’ trust. Not only has the CSR spend produced no lift in consumer trust, it appears to have actually exacerbated its decline.

This reality is a provocative one for marketers, whose communications budgets are largely spent according to the idea that if you send a positive message about your product or company out into the marketplace and it reaches the right people, it will have a positive effect on the way those people feel about your product or company. But if that were the case, all those unreservedly positive CSR messages would have had some effect. The truth is they had none.

Marketing’s belief in firing messages at consumers is founded in decades of successful 20th-century ‘bigger, faster, brighter’ advertising. But something has changed. People are still forming opinions of products and companies, but today it’s not marketing messages that influences them.

In 2007, David Armano suggested in BusinessWeek that we’re moving from an ‘attention economy’ to a ‘conversation economy’. That the emergence of digital technologies like mobile phones and the Internet allow us to spend more time, having more conversations, with more people than ever before. He warned that this phenomenon has vast implications for businesses.

His thinking was based on research like that of America’s VSS Forecast, which tracks the slow decline in consumption of traditional ‘messaging’ media like TV, press and radio, against the steep incline in consumption of ‘conversational’ media like mobile phones and the Internet.

About now, those lines cross over. Where before 2008 we were predominantly spending our time receiving messages, we’re now predominantly spending our time having conversations. Be it via TXT, Facebook, Twitter, blog commentary, online chat, email or a good old-fashioned phone call, conversing has become our number one pastime.

Naturally, with so many conversations happening, some of them are going to be about companies and their products.

A Twitter search for ‘Vodafone’ throws up a seemingly endless stream of tweets about the global telco. “Dear Vodafone,” says one, “your services are constantly unavailable. You suck.” Another reads, “I’m quite impressed with Vodafone. Just had a 1 hour conversation to Lagos on less than €5 credit.”

On yelp.com, the consumer reviews website, people share their views of every conceivable kind of company or service. Launched in San Francisco in 2004, the website has achieved prodigious popularity and is in the process of being rolled out to the rest of the world’s large cities. San Francisco local John F may not have perfect English, but his opinion of the McDonald’s on Stanyan Street is accorded the same opportunity as anyone’s in Yelp’s democratic process. “This McDonald is hella dirty,” he observes. “There is always a drug dealer hanging at the bus stop to sell drug to the lazy hippies. Their bathroom is dirty, and sometime out of order because of the hobos.”

John F isn’t unusual. In 2007, a global study by advertising network McCann Erickson sought to understand how many people regularly share their views of companies and products online. The findings were extraordinary, showing that in the past month over 40 percent of people had discussed a product or service over online chat or email, and that more than a quarter had recommended or condemned a product or service on a blog, social network or consumer reviews site.

Facebook groups are created in honour of well-loved products (the ‘When they got rid of grapefruit & lemon Frujus I died a little inside’ group) and YouTube clips vividly capture poor service experiences (the video showing a Comcast cable installer asleep on a customer’s couch after dozing off halfway through the job).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CvVp7b5gzqU

The disparities between the messages that companies put in their advertising and the actual cleanliness of their corporate washing are obvious today. It takes under a minute to find Coke’s ‘Happiness Factory’ advertisement and contrast it against an abundance of news articles with titles like ‘Coca-Cola: drinking the world dry’.

And not only has the truth been democratised, it’s also been search engine optimised. A recent UK study found that 40 percent of the top 50 UK brands’ Google pages feature negative PR. Many of the top ten results returned after Googling those brands were stories that conflicted with the positive messages being sent out by their marketing departments.

That’s a scary fact when, for many companies, Google effectively is their home page. Last year Ford found that far more people Google for ‘Ford’ than visit ford.com. Its heavily-sanitised corporate website full of positive messages is a bit academic when Google points people first to consumer-generated content on Wikipedia and Jeremy Clarkson’s frank reviews of Ford’s products on YouTube.

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Coke’s message doesn’t match the conversation

Compounding this issue is consumers’ increasing propensity to trust what they hear from their peers more than what they hear from marketing. Forrester Research recently showed that up until 2002, 78 percent of consumers said advertising was a good way to find out about new products. In the four years that followed, that figure dropped to 53 percent. Various major research studies this decade have shown that today, between ten percent and 25 percent of people believe what they hear in advertising, whereas between 50 percent and 80 percent believe what they hear from a friend or peer.

And by ‘peer’, people increasingly mean ‘others like me’ as opposed to people they actually know. Strangers’ reviews on websites and comments on Facebook are more believable than a message from a brand that’s been in your pantry since you were a kid.

That’s the reason why CSR marketing is such a pointless pursuit. People hear the positive messages. But they also hear conflicting messages in the conversations they have and hear and, forced to make a choice, they believe the conversations.

We are living through a tipping point of genuine significance. Our perceptions of products and companies are being shaped more and more by conversations and less and less by marketing messages.

Strangers’ reviews on websites and comments on Facebook are more believable than a message from a brand that’s been in your pantry since you were a kid

This isn’t comforting news. For most businesses and marketers, the prospect of relinquishing the safety blanket of ads containing positive messages is a frightening one. Messages are easy. We understand how to choose them and how to communicate them. But in light of a swelling tome of evidence against messages, the words of an anonymous philosopher ring in our ears: “There are always two paths to take. One is easy. And its only reward is that it’s easy.”

Though the process of starting and shaping conversations seems at first to be overwhelming, as if entering into a battle with chaos theory itself, we can gather a modest education from a handful of companies that seem to have uncovered the first principles of How To Do It.

The darlings of the conversation economy so far are consumer technology innovations like Toyota’s Prius, Apple’s iPhone, Nintendo’s Wii and TiVo. We naturally wonder what it is about these inventions that have people conversing so fervently.

The answer may lie in the unlikely success of Britain’s Got Talent contestant Susan Boyle, the conversation of the century thus far. Ms Boyle gave a wonderful performance, but we didn’t talk about her for that reason. We did so because she completely shattered the category conventions of pop stardom. She’s an old hairy lady. We talked about her because she’s surprising. She’s different. She’s interesting.

Decades ago, adman Howard Gossage made this brilliantly lucid observation: “People don’t read ads. They read things that interest them. Sometimes, that happens to be an ad.” Gossage was speaking in the 1950s of the importance of creativity in advertising, but if he were alive today I’m sure he’d say something like “People don’t talk about products. They talk about things that interest them. Sometimes that happens to be a product.”

It’s the future, and there’s no getting around it. People want to know what other people like them think

The thing that the Prius, the iPhone, the Wii and TiVo have in common is interestingness. They all perform their set task brilliantly well. That’s important. We wouldn’t have talked about Susan Boyle if her singing was average. But functional brilliance alone doesn’t get talked about. The Prius is a great car, and an interesting car. It’s a hybrid. It’s a funny shape. It’s interesting. And for that reason it’s worth having a conversation about. The iPhone is completely different to every phone that came before it. You use the Wii in a completely different way to a PlayStation or Xbox. TiVo allows you to watch television in a completely different way. They’re all interesting, they’re all unlike anything else, and so they’re all worth talking about.

A less familiar example can be found in the story of Method, a US manufacturer of cleaning products. Method makes supermarket products with which to sanitise your dishes, your shower door or your floorboards. Its products work well. They’re also completely different to anything else available.

Method was formed to create cleaning products that have no impact on the environment. It sounds a hackneyed aim these days, but Method’s interestingness is in its execution. Explaining his company’s desire not to make a toilet bowl cleaner unless it was non-toxic enough to drink, CEO Eric Ryan actually imbibes from a bottle of his Lil’ Bowl Blue toilet product at press conferences. The all-purpose cleaner has been proven to be able to sustain a flower in the same way a vase of water would. Method is one of the most talked-about brands (and the seventh-fastest-growing private company) in America.

In exploring such colourful examples, it’s difficult not to consider the interestingness of the products our own companies create. For most of us, they fall short of the standard set by the likes of Method. But as conversations become ever more influential in our purchase decisions, interestingness will become an ever more consequential measure in the process of product innovation.

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At Nomis, your first boot is free

Reassuringly, there’s solace for those of us who preside over currently uninteresting products. In the same way interesting product ideas can create conversations, interesting marketing ideas can have a similar effect.

German football boot company Nomis sells its boots in a truly interesting way. From the Nomis store in Berlin, you’re fitted and sent away with only the right boot. No money is exchanged, just an agreement that you’ll wear the right boot alongside your existing left one, and after two weeks, if you like the Nomis boot better you’ll be charged and sent the matching leftie. Imagine the chatter upon taking the field in mismatched footwear. The interestingness of this idea makes it highly contagious.

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Four’N Twenty Pies knows salad is for decoration

Australia’s Four’N Twenty Pies ran a hilarious promotion last year in which, for the price of $5 and two barcodes, you would be sent the Magic Salad Plate. A simple white dish onto which has been glued a fake plastic salad, this ingenious creation relieves men of the weight of society’s expectation that they eat more healthily. After the plates went on sale, pie sales grew 25 percent—an unprecedented result which followed a delightful conversation rather than a clumsy attempt to send consumers a message about why they should buy Four’N Twenty’s pies.

Here in New Zealand, the biggest recent conversation in marketing is the Yellow Pages Group’s Yellow Treehouse campaign. To demonstrate the power of its directory, Yellow challenged unknown accordion player Tracey Collins to build a restaurant halfway up a Redwood pine tree using only contacts from the Yellow book, website and mobile application. In January this year, the Treehouse opened to a sellout season, feeding 2,000 diners from around the world. A delightful example of a brand letting its actions speak louder than its words, the interestingness of the treehouse bewitched consumers and the media alike, spreading through the conversations of 20,000 websites, 85 magazines, every major television news property, the front page of the New Zealand Herald and even the blog of Kanye West. The impact of these conversations is a measurable public reassessment of the Yellow brand and a share increase in online lookups at the expense of Google, an opponent previously considered unassailable. The fact that only $400,000 was spent on advertising media—a relatively miniscule budget for a major brand like Yellow—serves as evidence that it was conversations, not messages and paid media, that created the result. In recognition of its efficacy, the campaign received the Platinum award at this year’s Asian Marketing Effectiveness Awards—the decoration given to the year’s most effective marketing effort among countries from India to New Zealand.

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Yellow sparked conversation with a restaurant up a tree

It’s validation of the growing power of the conversations we have every day. In the words of Craig Stoll, owner of Pizzeria Delfina, “It’s the future, and there’s no getting around it,” as he told NPR’s On The Media. “People want to know what other people like them think.”

The genius in Stoll’s t-shirts is how candidly they demonstrate that Pizzeria Delfina is listening to its customers. “Yes. There have been things pointed out to us that we've changed,” says Stoll. “We've said, wow, they're absolutely right.” The t-shirts open up a conversation with customers about those changes and give Delfina’s staff a chance to defend their product. “Well, of course we don’t actually use pig fat, and the pizza was a little greasy but we made a change to the recipe and people are saying it’s much better now.”

Rather than pretending that dissent doesn’t exist, Pizzeria Delfina used negative online conversation to start positive real-world conversation. It’s both courageous and brilliant. And it’s the hallmark of a company with an acute understanding of just how influential conversations are to our decisions, and just how important it is to be a part of those conversations.