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Over on Facebook, and friends have been pondering the provenance of Invention is the mother of necessity. Writes Don, “… heard that once from Doc Searls – I think its an original. Seems more true everyday. (think facebook, smartphones, the internet, computers).” So I responded,

Back in the ’80s, I had a half-serious list of aphorisms I called “Searls’ Laws.” The first was “Logic and reason sit on the mental board of directors, but emotions casts the deciding votes.” The second was, “Invention is the mother of necessity.”

There were others, but I forget them right now. One, from my high school roommate (now the Episcopal Bishop of Bethlehem, PA — who blogs, in a fashion, here), was “Matter can be neither created nor destroyed. It can only be eaten.” He was sixteen when he said that.

Anyway, one day I laid my second law on the CEO of our ad agency’s top client at the time, a company called Racal-Vadic. The CEO was Kim Maxwell, who taught at Stanford before kicking ass in business, and has since moved on to other things.) He replied, “Ah, yes. Thorstein Veblen.”

I thought, wtf? So I looked it up, and sure enough, Thorstein Veblen uttered “Invention is the mother of necessity” about a century before I made it one of my laws.

Anyway, my point in using it remained the same: Silicon Valley was built on inventions that mother necessity (from ICs to iPhones) at least as much as it was built on necessities that mother invention.

Just thought I’d share that out here in the un-silo’d non-F’book world.

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Marketing Needs To Stop Its BS and Wake Up, the headline says.

True.

The bottom line: “At the end of the day, audiences have moved on and their expectations have changed. The next five years will see drastic changes in the way organizations engage with their audiences. It’s not a choice anymore. These are the ‘cluetrain’ years.”

Yes, but what will change most is how ‘audiences’ engage with companies.

r-buttonFor r-buttonone thing, we’re not ‘audiences’ any more. And we’re not here for the show. We’ll have our own ways of engaging, and they won’t just be through “social media” that are privately owned and we don’t control. In fact, those ways might include the symbols you see here. You’re on the left, and the company you’re engaging with is on the right. If that company believes a free customer is more valuable than a captive one, the symbol appears, or turns from gray to red.

For more on all that, go to Cooperation vs. Coercion, which I posted on the ProjectVRM blog this morning. Also see three other posts on this blog from a couple days ago. Pointers to those are here.

If you’re a marketer, and you want some fresh clues about how the tide is turning, take the time to read through those. They’re not gospel, just some blog posts. But they point in a direction, and it’s not toward marketing as usual, even if that marketing is called “social”.

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Branding has jumped the shark. The meme is stale. Worn out. Post-peak. If branding were a show on Fox, it would be cancelled next week.

I can witness this trend by watching links going to three posts I made last month:

The latest to point this direction is People Aren’t Brands, by one of these guys here (I see no byline) in UKSN, the UK Sports Network. After pointing generously to the second of the posts above, they say,

In the current business world, brands aren’t human beings. They should be, and any social media practitioner worth her salt will be working damn hard with their clients to try and make them more so, but as it stands they are companies, corporate vehicles which are not set up to deal with human error…the kind we are all susceptible to, especially some high profile celebs.

Well, all due respect (and UKSN deserve plenty), brands aren’t people. True, it’s good to humanize companies, turn them inside out, tear down the walls of Fort Business, and otherwise cut out the pro forma BS that tends more commonly to bottle up a company’s humanity than to celebrate and leverage it. But doing that isn’t branding. It’s just good sense.

True, branding is a helpful way to align a company’s distinctions with its identity, or to make it more attractive, memorable and stuff like that. But it matters far less than a well-earned reputation. Consider these statements:

  • Nike has a reputation for making good shoes.
  • Apple has a reputation for making artful technology.
  • Toyota has a reputation for making reliable cars.

Now let’s re-phrase those using the word “brand” instead of “reputation.”

  • The Nike brand makes good shoes
  • Apple is the brand for artful technology.
  • Toyota is the reliable car brand.

Two points there. First, it’s hard to re-phrase reputation as brand, no matter how you put it. Second, branding is not positioning. By that I mean it would be easier to make positioning statements about any of those companies than to make a branding statement.

That’s because brands are nothing but statements. At best they are a well-known and trusted badge, name or both. At worst they’re a paint job, a claim, a rationalization or an aspiration. Branding can help a reputation, but it can’t make one. Real work does that. Accomplishment over time does that.

Consider for a moment the value of Toyota’s reputation as a maker of reliable cars. This reputation was earned over at least five decades. Millions of people have had good experiences with reliable Toyota cars and trucks. That reputation has kept Toyota’s head above water through the trials of the last year, when an endless string of bad news stories about sudden acceleration and other faults have been streaming through the news media. In the tug between bad news and good reputation, branding was a no-show.

Judged by the standards of real branding companies (such as Procter & Gamble, which invented and named the practice), Toyota’s branding work has been mediocre at best. It has created cars with confusing names (Corolla, Corona, Carina, Celica, Crown, Cresta, Cressida) and weird hard-to-pronounce names (Camry, Yaris), and has produced relatively little memorable advertising, considering the size of the company and the quality of its cars. Worse, those Toyotathon ads by local dealers, which ran until the Daily Show’s Toyotathon of Death segment buried them for good, were among the most persistent and annoying pitches of all time. In fact, Toyota dealers in general had relatively bad reputations. The one thing Toyota did well was make reliable cars. Toyota’s reputation persists because it was earned, not just claimed.

Branding is jumping the shark now because, on the whole, the Net favors reality over bullshit. Saying stuff may get more attention than doing stuff, at least in the short run. But doing stuff is what makes the world work.

The hard thing for social media folks is that they’re still working the Saying Stuff beat while  Doing Stuff is what matters most. Getting companies to do different stuff, or to do the same stuff differently, is hard. Getting companies to do either of those things for long enough to earn a reputation for it is harder still.

But, good luck with that.

Meanwhile here’s how UKSN (in its People Aren’t Brands post) advises companies aligning with sports figures:

Corporates need to let go of the term ‘brand’ and all the connotations it brings when they are working with celebrities. When they hire the celeb, they think that person is now representative of the brand…something which humans can’t do! They can be themselves and if the company is comfortable with whom they are and what they stand for as a human being…then there is value to be derived by association. Expecting the person to fit into the perceived brand of a company is a recipe for (potential) disaster.

All good advice. What makes branding especially difficult in the sports world is that celebrity itself, and the fashions surrounding it, are part of the game. Sports figures endorse, and are endorsed by, “corporates,” and both benefit from each other. This morning I heard that money offered by teams shouldn’t have that much influence on which team LeBron James signs up with next (so long as they’re all within a few million dollars of each other), because he’ll make far more from his corporate affiliations. This is a set of considerations where UKSN knows far more than I do, and where branding of the old P&G sort still matters a great deal.

Sports is a special case. So are fashion and celebrity, and how all three of those overlap.

In most of society, however — including most of the business world — who you are and what you do matter more than how you look and how famous you become. Because who you are and what you do are what make the world a better place. And not just something to talk about.

[Late addition...] Tom Ford with Tina Brown on marketing and branding. Great clip.

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The comment thread in my last post was lengthened by Seth Finkelstein‘s characterization of me as “basically a PR person”. I didn’t like that, and a helpful back-and-forth between the two of us (and others) followed. In the midst of the exchange I said I would unpack some of my points in a fresh post rather than branch off in the comment thread. So here we are.

We tend to be defined by what we do. Or, in some cases, what we’ve done. Many of our surnames describe the work of an ancestor. Carpenter. Baker. Weaver. Tanner. Of my own surname, it says here,

In his book, Surnames of the United Kingdom, Harrison writes that the surname Searle, Searls, Searles, Serle, Serles, Serrell, or Serrill is of Teutonic origin signifying “Armour or Arms”. It is derived from the Old Teutonic Serlo, Sarla, Sarl, Sarilo, Serilo. Serli ” and the Old English “Searo”, it is the equivalent of the Old High German “Saro” which is the same as the old Norse ” Sorus” meaning Armor arms, skill or device.”

A soldier, I guess. My father, Allen H. Searls, was a soldier, both before and during WWII (he re-enlisted at age 36). But basically he was a carpenter: a builder. So was his father, George William Searls. Also George’s father, Allen Searls. Also Allen’s father, Samuell Searls. I’m not, but my daugther Colette married Todd Carpenter. So my grandson is a Carpenter too.

By the time I knew him, my father was an insurance agent. But he saw himself more as an builder of useful stuff. Thus our basement was a workshop. Pop’s brother-in-law, Archie Apgar, was a banker by day and a builder the rest of the time. In the summer of 1949, the two of them together built our summer house in the woods of South Jersey. (In a paradise of pine, oak and blueberries, now home to a shopping center.) My father was also a longshoreman, a cable-rigger on the George Washington Bridge, and a builder of railroad trestles. He did that in Alaska, where he met my mother, a social worker who had grown up in North Dakota. They married after the War and moved to New Jersey, where Mom worked for many years as a teacher. Her maiden name was Oman, borrowed by a grandfather from a fellow Swede on the boat over from Malmö (or maybe it was Göteburg… someplace with an umlaut).

Mom was a good writer, and in that respect I took more after her than Pop. I started writing in high school, covered sports for my college paper, and the wrote for a variety of newspapers and  magazines across the many years since.

But I’ve done lots of other stuff too. I was a moving man. I drove an ice cream truck. I worked in frozen produce wholesaling (which consisted of moving skids of goods with forklifts and carrying clipboards in and out of freezing warehouses, railroad cars and tractor trailers). I worked in the fronts and the backs of restaurant kitchens, and waiting tables. I flipped burgers and worked counters in fast food joints. I worked in the kitchen at a hospital, and delivering food to patients. I worked in retail, both in sales and management. I worked as a community organizer in a social welfare project (a job that later gave me respect for Barack Obama’s work at the same job, especially since he was good at it and I was not). I worked in radio, doing everything from selling ads to spinning records to engineering, including maintaining transmitters and tower-climbing to change bulbs. I did site studies for FM stations, and made new facility applications to the FCC. I worked in academic parapsychology, helping with research and editing publications. I worked in a landlord’s sawmill when I couldn’t make the rent. And I worked in advertising and PR. Next to writing, that’s the job I held longest.

In 1978 I co-founded Hodskins Simone & Searls, an advertising agency in Durham, North Carolina. By 1980 we came to specialize in what as then called “high tech”. We did well and opened a second office in Palo Alto, moving there completely in 1986. A couple years later we created a division called The Searls Group, which specialized in PR, and eventually spun off on its own as a marketing consultancy. Our clients included Farallon, Symantec, The Burton Group, pieces of Apple and Motorola, Sun Microsystems, Hitachi Semiconductor, Zenith Data Systems and many more.

I had mixed feelings about doing PR, because I was still a journalist at heart, even though I was only freelancing at it during that time. And, while being a journalist made me a better flack, it didn’t make me less of one. I also found that PR folk had little leverage on corporate strategy. Their function was output, not input. So, after awhile, I moved The Searls Group’s work up the client stack, to the point where we did consulting at the CXO level, helping clients understand and engage their markets, rather than in helping them craft and send messages to those markets. You might say our job was delivering (often unwelcome) clues to the places where those clues were needed most. This shift started in the early ’90s and was done by the time Chirs Locke, Rick Levine, David Weinberger and I wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto, in 1999.

Not long after Cluetrain came out as a book in early 2000, Jakob Nielsen noted the use of the first person plural voice in the original Manifesto. When we talked about “we”, as with this here…

not

… we were not speaking as marketers. We were speaking as human beings, out in the marketplace. What happened, Jakob said, was that “You guys defected from marketing, and sided with markets against marketing.”

He was right.

The great irony that followed was that Cluetrain was generally classified as a marketing book, and its closest followers have been in marketing as well. Many marketers have been inspired by Cluetrain to improve marketing, including the practices of advertising and PR. Along those same lines, Cluetrain has also been credited with foreseeing the “social” movement in computing and communications, and with inspiring and guiding that movement as well. Look up Cluetrain+social on Google and see what comes up. (Here’s a Twitter search for the same.)

I’m not proud, or even happy, with either of those developments. Not long ago I even suggested that “social media” is a crock. My point was not to denigrate people doing good work in the social media space, but rather to point out that our collective vision of this space was wrongly limited to what could be done on Facebook, Twitter and other commercial “platforms”. Ignored was the freedom and independence granted by the Net’s own open and essentially ownerless platforms and protocols — and the need to equip individuals with their own instruments of independence and engagement: work that’s still mostly not done.

That’s why I welcomed the opportunity to add fresh chapters to Cluetrain for its 10th anniversary edition. For the last few years I’ve been working on Cluetrain’s unfinished (or unstarted) business, through ProjectVRM, at Harvard’s Berkman Center, and through its collection of allied efforts and volunteers, both around the Center and around the world. Thus my own chapter of the latest Cluetrain is titled Markets Are Relationships, and unpacks the ambitions behind VRM (which stands for Vendor Relationship Management):

  1. Provide tools for individuals to manage relationships with organizations. These tools are personal. That is, they belong to the individual, in the sense that they are under the individual’s control. They can also be social, in the sense that they can connect with others and support group formation and action. But they need to be personal first.
  2. Make individuals the collection centers for their own data, so that transaction histories, health records, membership details, service contracts, and other forms of personal data aren’t scattered throughout a forest of silos.
  3. Give individuals the ability to share data selectively, without disclosing more personal information than the individual allows.
  4. Give individuals the ability to control how their data is used by organizations, and for how long, including agreements requiring organizations to delete the individual’s data when the relationship ends.
  5. Give individuals the ability to assert their own “terms of service,” obviating the need for organization-written terms of service that nobody reads and everybody has to “accept” anyway.
  6. Give individuals means for expressing demand in the open market, outside any organizational silo, without disclosing any unnecessary personal information.
  7. Make individuals platforms for business, by opening the market to many kinds of third party services that serve buyers as well as sellers.
  8. Base relationship-managing tools on open standards, open APIs (application program interfaces) and open code. This will support a rising tide of activity that will lift an infinite variety of business boats, plus other social goods.

We don’t have those tools yet. When we do, they will change the way customers relate to companies, and therefore change the reverse as well. That will change the job of marketing, sales, and pretty much everything else a company does — so long as it responds to customers who are far better equipped to express demand, and otherwise relate, than they are today.

So, to sum up, there is a place where I stand in respect to all the above. That place is alongside customers, in the marketplace. Not alongside sellers, even when I’m consulting those sellers. My consulting hat is not a PR or a marketing one. It’s a customer hat. A user hat. (And, to the extent that I’m hired to help make sense of free and open source development, a geek hat.)

This is why I took offense to being labeled a “PR person.” I have no problem with good PR people. In fact I try to help them out, along with everybody else who’s interested in my input. But what makes me valuable, I believe, is where I stand in respect to customers. I’m on their side. I’m trying to help them out, and markets along with them. Maybe I’ll succeed, and maybe not. But I do believe that, in the long run, we will have VRM tools, and that these tools will make life better for everybody in the marketplace, including vendors.

Meanwhile, there is a temptation not only to confuse the past with the , but the present with the future. We tend to assume that, as John Updike once said (at a time when copiers, answer machines and faxes seemed miraculous), “we live in the age of full convenience”. We don’t. The present is just a draft for the future. Our conveniences are just prototypes.

I’m glad Seth and others (Dave Rogers, where are you?) are out there, calling bullshit on techno-utopians like me. A lot of what Seth and others on that thread had to say was sobering stuff. The flywheels of Old Skool industrial practices, and thinking, have not gone away. They even spin inside “good” companies like Google.

Markets are different now that the Net runs beneath them. There are fewer secrets, and both good ideas and bad can spread with alarming speed. Lately the split between the static and the live web (which most of us call “real-time” and some of us saw coming half a decade and more ago) has become dramatic and confusing. So has the split between fixed and mobile computing and communications. One can get lost through enthusiasm, despair, or both. Hey, the iPhone is a wonderful thing, but — what next? And why? And how?

Markets are no better than we make them. I’m not sure what one should call a person who works on tools to make markets better. But hey, that’s my job.

Guess I’m a builder after all.

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Forget financial markets for a minute, and think about the directions money moves in retail markets. While much of it moves up and down the supply chains, the first source is customers. The money that matters most is what customers spend on goods and services.

Now here’s the question. Where is there more money to be made — in helping supply find demand or in helping demand find supply? Substitute “drive” for “find” and you come to the same place, for the same reason: customers are the ones spending the money.

For the life of the commercial Web, most of those looking to make money there have looked to make it the former way: by helping supply find or drive demand. That’s what marketing has always been about, and advertising in particular. Advertising, last I looked, was about a $trillion business. Now ask yourself: Wouldn’t there be more money to be made in helping the demand side find and drive supply?

Simply put, that’s what VRM is about. It’s also what Cluetrain was about ten years ago. It wasn’t about better ways for the supply side to make money. It wasn’t about doing better marketing. It was about giving full respect to the human beings from whom the Web’s and the Net’s biggest values derive. When Cluetrain (actually Chris Locke) said “we are not seats or eyeballs or end users or consumers. we are human beings and our reach exceeds your grasp. deal with it.“, it wasn’t saying “Here’s how you market to us.” It was saying “Our new power to deal in this new marketplace exceeds your old powers to drive, lock in, or otherwise control us.” When Cluetrain said “The sky is open to the stars”, it wasn’t issuing utopian palaver. It was speaking of a marketplace of buyers and sellers whose choices were wide open on both sides. [Later... Chris Locke, who wrote that line (and those that followed), offers a correction (and expansion) below.]

On Cluetrain’s 10th anniversary, we have hardly begun to explore the possibilities of truly free and open markets on the Internet. They are still inevitable, because supporting those markets is intrinsic to the Net’s essentially generative design. Lock down users, or lock one in and others out, and you compromise the wealth the Net can create for you. Simple as that.

And that wealth starts with customers.

This is also what How Facebook Could Create a Revolution, Do Good, and Make Billions, by Bernard Lunn in ReadWriteWeb, is about.

I just wrote a brief response in Gain of Facebook, on the ProjectVRM blog.

No time for more. Not because it’s the Fourth of July, but because I’m in a connectivity hole (with latencies and packet losses that start at 1+ second and 15% packet losses and go up from there), but because I’m at my daughter’s wedding, and I need to get ready. Cheers.

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