Crossing the Digital Divide

I am a card-carrying member of the TV generation. I grew up on Lost in Space, Tang, the Brady Bunch, Love American Style and more. I entered the advertising business during some of the golden years, when the 3 networks and 7 sisters dominated and Creative Directors were almost movie stars. I thrived in the decade of branding and experienced the birth and growth of modern Internet communications. I soon found myself on the wrong side of the digital divide – and decided to cross over. It wasn’t easy. It took a lot of time and effort. It remains an ongoing living laboratory. In fact, I launched an Internet as a way to force myself to stay on the cutting edge.

The only reason this is important, is because I represent a great many people who have not crossed over and probably will never do so. They will rely on others and glide their way through this period of change, often feeling uncomfortable and uncertain. I want to report to you what I learned, because you need to know that while so many things change, so much remains the same.

First, I realized that brands are not only not dead, but more important than ever to managing the awareness/understanding of your unique value. The exponential abundance of choice, barrage of promotional messaging, the crowdsourced extreme viewpoints are all like a bazaar often creating a perverse view of the world. More than ever, you must know the profound value and viewpoint of your brand and bring it out. Otherwise, it’s a direct marketers world of reach and promotional offers resulting in lowest common denominator view.

Second, the myth that somehow consumer needs were ignored in past marketing in favor of sizzle and is now being rescued by the valiant truth of Internet populism is ridiculous. Real brands were powerful because they spoke the truth, often the hidden or unspoken truth, to people. It was never about sizzle. It was about profound connection. Brands represented ideas that had value, and these ideas had legitimate connection to the products that commanded them. There was a common bond and it made people feel good, really good. So, there is no dawn of some new age of truth and transparency. Only an age of letting go of high ideals and conceptual products for features, benefits and promotional offers.

Third, we are losing something, something really important. Product innovation can differentiate and create value, but the truth is very few products can really provide meaningful differentiation and certainly not on an ongoing basis. Conceptual differentiation, however, IS also innovation and it does bring value to society. It moves people to common ideals and reminds people of common values that unify and bring a sense of belonging – a fundamental human need. It makes people FEEL, which is something that is becoming increasingly rare. We are losing this innovation, these inspirational pillars, because companies are losing the art of branding. No tactic be it social media or clever billboard ads, can replace the importance or contribution of a truly relevant, profound brand.

Fourth, and I will make this the last point for now, brands are so important due to the balkanizing social effects of the Internet. When like minded groups can so quickly define their products, their friends, their sources of information, and more, we get the exact opposite of what the Internet promises – many closed worlds not one open one. Studies show that like-minded views within these worlds become quickly amplified with extremes occurring and self-validating. Here, brands play the role of the collective reckoning point, the reality check, the barometer of what we all hold sacred, important, and relevant. But, if we don’t have them, then we have lost some fundamental rudders that helped to guide our diverse American culture.

Do you see the loss of powerful brands over the years? Do you see companies placing greater emphasis on tactics with little regard for what ideas or concepts might be sharp enough to penetrate modern hearts and minds and unite them? Do you feel a loss in not having these symbols around us, like modern pieces of art, asking us, challenging us, speaking to us about what matters?

As always, I hope to hear what you have to say. More from crossing the Digital Divide later.

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