Book Review: The Open Brand

Written by Kelly Mooney and Nita Rollins, The Open Brand: When Push Comes to Pull in a Web-Made World takes a look at the evolution of Web 2.0 and its effect on marketing. It is a wake-up call to companies trying to manage their brands the old-fashioned way. Its message: change your attitude to meet the new reality or get left behind.

The book itself seems to target an audience short on time and attention spans. Small enough to fit in a pocket, it boasts about 200 pages, and that includes a glossary and an index. Nearly self-contained essays span every page or two, four at most – just the right size to squeeze into a spare five or ten minutes. You can grasp each concept individually. The book as a whole comprises four parts of roughly equal length:

  • The Future of Brands is Open
  • The Rise of the iCitizen
  • Inside the Open Brand
  • Getting to Open

Though I haven’t read Mooney’s previous book (The Ten Demandments: Rules to Live by in the Age of the Demanding Consumer), I get the sense that this one is intended as a complement to that work. It can be appreciated on its own, however.

The first part explains the difference between a closed brand and an open brand. Many marketers are reluctant to change what they’ve been doing because it has been so successful for the past 30 years — at least until the advent of the Internet. They’re also reluctant because building a brand on the new model means that they have to surrender a lot of control to consumers. But companies that do so stand to gain real rewards; the authors list five reasons to open your brand, and the top two are revenue and return on investment.

This section also turns open into a four-letter abbreviation. An O.P.E.N. brand, according to the authors, is

  • On-demand: Available for consumers 24/7, since "today’s consumers…want it — and often get it — ‘right now.’"
  • Personal: An open brand must build relationships with consumers one at a time.
  • Engaging: Brand marketers must realize that they are now competing with consumers who are creating their own content, and "must develop content that is immersive, participatory, and relevant in order to earn a place in the social web and consumer conversations."
  • Networked: Brand marketers need to be aware of the power of a single consumer when he or she gets online. The authors are talking about viral marketing here, but also what can best be described as word of mouth on steroids.

This section concludes by covering the "alpha openers" of Web 2.0. If you’re digitally aware, you won’t find any unfamiliar brands here. A few of them may be better known for other things (I think of Amazon.com as an online retailer, not a place I turn to for reviews), but they all share one trait: they’ve enabled consumers to connect with each other in new ways, and empowered them to do more than just buy stuff.

I don’t really like the word "icitizen," but that’s the term the authors insist on using. It sounds too much like someone who is fanatical about Apple products. Be that as it may, the second section tells us more about the icitizen. These aren’t just the dedicated, passionate amateurs who create online content, though they’re the most visible. These are also the people who lurk — those who search and read reviews before buying a product, those who subscribe to RSS feeds and otherwise consume user-generated content, and, importantly, those who possess enough tech savvy to influence their less savvy friends and relatives.

According to the authors, icitizens have four motivations for their online behavior: competence, collectivism, cultural change and celebrity. If you want to enlist these different kinds of icitizens, you need to approach each one differently, in a way that is consistent with their mindset. You also need to realize that each one is an asset. One example the authors give of this is the icitizen motivated by cultural change — Marsha Collier, who wrote a series of books that explain how to make money on eBay. She is not an eBay employee, "but is nevertheless one of the brand’s most important evangelists," the authors state.

Marketers can tap into this power by finding the icitizens and areas of influence that are most valuable to them. Still not convinced you need to reach these people? The authors include a portrait gallery of more than a dozen of the most notable icitizens, what effects they have driven, and their spheres of influence. These spheres include politics, the book trade, the fashion industry, celebrity gossip, the music industry, and more.

The authors then discuss the special characteristics of the millennial generation, the 82 million people born between 1982 and 2000. This generation will soon be larger than the baby boomers, and more than 75 percent of them believe that brands should ask them for their opinions. They also connect to their friends in lots of different ways, especially online. With social shopping sites such as ShopStyle and ShopHive on the rise, brands will have to get into millennials’ networks to win their attention — and be prepared to play second fiddle to their friends when it comes to influencing them to buy.

Indeed, for millennials, "traditional brand communications are received as so much white noise to be vigilantly filtered." Brand marketers, these are your future consumers. The message is clear: if you hope to remain relevant, you must branch out from your traditional ways of promoting your brand, or you will not be heard.

The authors also hinted that SEO and SEM have a role to play in this brave new world of icitizenry. They noted, for instance, that "A routine search for ‘cool jeans for mom’ or just ‘cool jeans,’ in June 2007…returned a couple SERPs…of personal blogs and community sites but not a single brand or retailer, even as a paid listing."

In the third section, the authors note the two major trends that contribute to what they call the open brand framework. The first is the increased visibility of consumers as artists and content producers who no longer need third parties to reach the rest of the world. The second is the advent of creative production — something that anyone who has watched a really good amateur YouTube video can appreciate.

The authors then map out how these two trends play against the way an O.P.E.N. brand works. "When we cast them as x- and y-axes on a grid, they frame four types of essential and interconnected consumer experiences — on-demand, personal, engaging and networked. Optimizing these consumer experiences in alignment with a brand’s business objectives constitutes the way to open up to a web-made world," they explain. They then detail the important characteristics of each kind of experience.

In fact, the authors go into quite a bit of depth about each kind of experience. If the first two sections gave you a feel for the nature of the new marketing realities, this section begins to show you in some detail how to reshape the way you promote your brand. For instance, the on-demand section explains that "as many consumers arrive at your site via deep-linking from blogs, personal web pages and other media beyond your control, every page on your site should function as both your home page and transaction page." Web designers, SEOs and SEMs, take note of this; there’s plenty more where that came from.

In fact, of the first three sections, this one is probably the most valuable for SEOs and SEMs. You need to read the first two as well, because they lay the groundwork. But in this section, you begin to get practical advice about what you should be doing and where you should be focusing your efforts. The authors also provide copious examples of brands that have stood out in providing one or another of the four kinds of consumer experiences they outline.

Transitioning from a closed brand to an open one isn’t easy. It requires changes in attitudes. How do you measure success, for example? The authors deliver by starting the fourth section off with a list of metrics covering the four kinds of experiences discussed in the previous section. They include both metrics that are currently used (i.e. click-through rates) and metrics that are beginning to emerge (i.e. task completion rates).

The authors then show how to apply the metrics by using a couple of examples of businesses trying to reach different audiences. The examples illustrate the necessity for different approaches depending on which experience you are trying to optimize (on-demand, personal, engaging, or networked). It also shows how you might tell where a particular approach is running into problems.

If you still feel jittery about opening your brand, it’s understandable; there have been a number of cases of brand openings going awry. The authors rightly mention Chevy Tahoe’s 2006 mashup campaign, in which "some of the over 30,000 videos created at a dedicated web site came from environmental detractors using biting humor as a weapon against gas-guzzling SUVs." This is the kind of thing for which you need to be prepared if you open your brand.

There are also potential intellectual property issues. The courts are just beginning to deal with these. The authors cover both the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and the FAIR USE Act, which was introduced in Congress in February 2007 in an attempt to loosen the restrictions of the DMCA. They also discuss technological ways in which web sites are dealing with the DMCA (i.e. automated detection of copyrighted content). If you’re thinking of opening your brand, you will need this information.

This is also the section where you will learn about some mistakes to avoid, such as "flogging," or fake blogging. Both Wal-mart and Sony get their just desserts here. On the other hand, you will see examples worth emulating, too, such as Dell’s slow but successful transition in opening up to consumers; for example, it began offering Linux on its machines in response to ideas on IdeaStorm, an online community where customers can submit ideas for Dell products.

This section ends with a five-page distillation of the major themes covered in the rest of the book. This is followed by a useful glossary. This book may be small in size, but it serves as a very useful introduction to the subject of the open brand. I’d even venture to say that brand marketers and SEOs may want to read it more than once. It may not tell you how to optimize your title tags, but it will help you think about strategy and the "big picture" when it comes to getting your brand noticed in all the right places.

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