As I read his comments, I don’t think we are far apart at all. His comments provide me an opportunity to clarify what I mean by customer-centric brands and why I believe companies, and not individuals, will ultimately hold the strongest brands in this next wave of branding.
The customer-centric brand promise is: “I know you as an individual customer better than anyone else and you can trust me to use this understanding to help you find and get more value from the products and services you buy”. To use Chris’s terminology, this is a post-filter promise or, to use his less geeky term for it, this is the promise of any good advisor. A really great advisor does two things very well: the advisor knows you as an individual and the advisor knows the relevant domain in great depth. (There’s also a third element of advisors – they show they really care about your well-being and they can be trusted to act on your behalf – but this isn’t really relevant to the points I’m developing here). A classic example of an advisor? Our primary care physicians (well, at least hopefully).
Now, when I hear Chris talk about the options for these kinds of advisors, I think he is wrestling with the limitations of advisors to date. On the one hand, you can go to friends who know you well, but Chris has talked about the limitations of friends (at least as advisors). I made the point in my previous post that there are in fact occasionally “expert friends” who have deep domain expertise and know me well enough to be helpful in connecting me to the products that will really suit my needs (without imposing their own value judgments about what I should need). The problem in terms of brand potential is that these friends are not scalable – their helpfulness depends upon knowing their friends well.
Chris then shifts over to talk about celebrities as advisors. By celebrities, he doesn’t just mean Britney Spears or Paris Hilton, but also deep experts in specific domains. He asserts: “it doesn’t matter that they don’t know you; you pick them to emulate because they represent values you admire.”
Well, here we may diverge. I certainly agree that well known experts or tastemakers in a field can be very helpful in terms of advice and recommendations even without knowing me as an individual customer. As Chris emphasizes these experts are particularly valuable as you move down the Long Tail where there are an increasing number of products to search through and less generally available information about the products to support the search.
But is it really true that “it doesn’t matter that they don’t know you”? It matters to me. I think they would be a lot more helpful as advisors if they really knew me as an individual.
To build on an example from my previous posting, I find my neighborhood wine store much more helpful as an advisor on wine purchases than Robert Parker. Why? Because the folks at my neighborhood wine store know me and are much more effective in connecting me with wines that I would really like, even if their tastes diverge from mine.
To illustrate the limitations of experts or celebrities further, let me take an example from one of my obscure musical genre interests – rockabilly. There are a few well-known (at least within the rockabilly community) experts that I listen to for recommendations because they share my passion for rockabilly and have invested an enormous amount of time navigating through this part of the Long Tail hunting for musical gems. But they don’t understand that my interest in rockabilly veers more towards the rock side versus the hillbilly or country side or that I look more for great vocals rather than great instrument playing. This is particularly a problem out in the Long Tail where there aren’t a lot of experts to pick from, so I can’t find a great fit with my musical tastes within the genre. As a result, I have often been burned by recommendations from these experts because they really don’t know me.
Bottom line, I believe we are now entering an era when we will no longer have to make the choice between celebrities and experts who don’t know us or friends who don’t know the domain. We already have lots of examples of advisors who know both the domain and my individual needs as illustrated by my neighborhood wine store or my personal physician. The technology is now becoming available to make these advisors much more scalable.
People will always be at the center of these kinds of businesses – I am certainly not one who believes that technology tools can replace expert advisors, but these tools can amplify their reach and richness. By bringing together people and technology, companies can create even more scalable platforms for advice that will be especially helpful in navigating the Long Tail. The real opportunity in my mind is to build much more scalable expertise in the needs of individual customers, combining both personalization and socialization. This is an opportunity that only companies can address and that is why I believe they ultimately will be the ones to own the most powerful and lucrative customer-centric brands.