When a Brand Fades

 Today is the New, New Internet Conference, the biggest web 2.0 conference on the Eastern Seaboard this fall. More than 800 attendees are expected. The roster of speakers is impressive. The conference will focus on the larger business aspects of the new Internet economy.

Though I am one of the speakers, I will be in the lobby working during the opening keynote (as well as the first session).  Why?

aol_logo1) I need to get some work done. And 2) the opening keynote is AOL’s Vice Chair Ted Leonsis. And I just don’t think he or the AOL brand is that relevant anymore.  In short, this was one of the sessions I could most afford to miss.

Look, AOL does have some great things going on. My fellow panelist Frank Gruber for one. And no one can deny how powerful TMZ is in the gossip side of things.

But at the same time AOL the brand has faded, it’s lost its luster. And that’s because it’s not really dominating much, and its leadership — like Leonsis — seem to be following, not creating earth shaking vision.

For many, including me, AOL just means dial-up.  And that’s because the brand promise was safe, easy dial up access for so long it’s permanently etched into my brain. This is in spite of the many things AOL is doing in 2.0. And is it any coincidence that one of its most successful efforts is branded TMZ and not AOL?

Perhaps it is me, but wouldn’t all of AOL’s current social media efforts benefit from a re-brand.  I just think the dial-up legacy kills it. As a result the company seems to be fading. What do you think about AOL’s efforts?

Controlling the Conversation

Social media is all about conversation. Some people get that, some people don’t. Regardless, conversation is where it’s at if you want to have a transparent relationship with your readers, customers and community. Some people, by nature of the fact that they know how to control the conversation, are much more adept to have the magnetism necessary to succeed in the conversation.

Now when I say controlling the conversation, let me be clear. I don’t mean telling people what to talk about and being an arrogant twit in having that conversation. I mean, be transparent and honest. People love that because it makes you approachable. On Twitter, for instance, there are people who cause me to notice them even when they say something completely insignificant. Chris Brogan is one of those. Jason Calacanis is another.

These are folks who are outside of Twitter as well, and that is good. Meeting them at conferences, reading their blogs, following their trends makes for a global reputation that attracts people to them. When they speak, people listen. A great example of this was last week when the Yankees were on the brink of elimination by the Cleveland Indians.

There are an abnormal number of Red Sox fans on Twitter, myself included. While the Sox fans caused lots of commotion and beat our chests alot, Jason taunted us one time with, “Let’s go yankees! Clap clap… Clapclapclap! Bring the Sox :-)”.

There is nothing particularly significant about this Tweet. Another Yankee fan talking shit (they all do that!). What was significant about this Tweet was the engagement J-Cal commanded. I know I sat up and gave him a quick one-liner. Others playfully threatened to boycott Mahalo. Whatever the reaction, Calacanis commanded the conversation with one line. He caused reader engagement.

Do you cause readers to engage?

On Facebook, do you ask your friends questions that taunts them to engage? Do they engage? On Flickr, do you post photos that create conversation? Do you meet people at conferences, or simply attend as many sessions as you can? It’s one thing to listen. It’s another to engage.

Controlling My Brand

Awhile ago, Chris Brogan wrote a list of 100 Blog Topics he would like to see. When I read those, I started drafts on three of the topics and determined that I would mull them over for awhile and when I felt like I had something worthwhile to say, I’d contribute my thoughts on those topics. A month later, I’m ready to tackle the first topic.

In the past few weeks, there’s been a notable shift here at this blog in what kinds of topics are tackled. The obvious slant is a business related slant. The mind of an entrepreneur. The thoughts of someone who finds the connected dots between the internet and social media tools available to us and business. In some cases, “business” is a vague term that is more aptly “practical common sense”.

We’ve talked a lot about brand recently and well into the past. A vast paradigm shift has occurred quietly and caught PR folks with their pants down. Why? Because a fundamental understanding of brand control is occurring and it’s outside of their control. In the good old days, brand was controlled via territorial trademark lawsuits, licensing provisions and PR firms. A brand was to be trusted because people will willingly become customers of a trusted brand. If you went to Best Buy, you were more likely to buy a Panasonic television at a premium cost point than you were a “generic” brand at half the price. “Panasonic is a great name”, you might have said. I remember going through this same routine in 1993 when purchasing my first CD stereo system. I bought JVC, because the JVC brand was “a good brand”.

In the good old days, brand was all about the corporate message – whether through advertising, press releases or user experience. Today, the only one of those things that matters is the user experience.

Today, organizations like the NFL and others continue heavy-handed brand control not realizing that brand is in the hands of the customers.

Today, brand is a matter of trust. Customers trust a brand because they have good experiences with the brand. The trust the brand, not because of a television commercial, but because they’ve been actively listened to and embraced. Customers who do not trust a brand, will not be customers for long and that hurts the bottom line. Customers who don’t trust the brand have made the brand worthless. Now who’s in the driver’s seat?

After purchasing my JVC CD stereo system in 1993, I had major problems with the internal workings. In dealing with customer service, my experience was soured. In my perception, warranties were not honored. I’ve never bought a piece of JVC equipment since. My trust in them disappeared in one instance. Their brand is worthless to me. Others, in the context of this time this blog has existed, have lost value in their brands as well – DirecTV, Comcast, The Hampton Inn.

For me, my brand is controlled by you – the reader. Additionally, my brand is controlled by other bloggers. My credibility is with those who follow me. I’ve taken the approach that I will engage the community around me because transparency builds trust. Trust builds brand. As trust grows, brand grows. Out of brand comes reach, job opportunities, speaking opportunities, user engagement, subject matter expertise and loyalty.

I’m a firm believer in brand control by engagement. What are your thoughts?

Added: By the way, here’s an example of a local cafĂ© trying to control their brand in an internet age and having the opposite of their intended effect.