Tech & Innovation
Five things I learnt at "Rethink"

The Economist’s “Rethink” conference, held recently in London, put up a range of speakers to talk about the plight of marketing in an age of consumer power. Or, as they put it, “The Big Rethink: This Time It’s Personal“. Here are some of the things I learned.

#1: We’ve moved beyond “Always On”

Well, it was Twitter saying it, and they would, wouldn’t they, but Bruce Daisley argued that we’d moved from a world on On/Off, through Always On, to The Stream. Evidence: the way mainstream media has moved to the LIVE reporting of almost everything, from sports events to disasters, in their digital editions. Twitter’s recent change, whereby pictures pop up as part of the stream, rather than needing to be clicked on, is driven by this. From a user’s point of view, The Stream is something you dip in and out of when you have time and inclination.

#2: You don’t want to be that brand

A meme broke out during the conference that deserves a wider audience. This is Moray MacLennaof M&C Saatchi’s take:

Brands Meme

And this one is from Chris Maples of Spotify:

Brands Meme 002

#3: If you want to create energy in a marketing conference, stop talking about marketing

The organisers scheduled a session before tea populated by dissidents and refuseniks. Laura Jordan-Bambach of Mr President set the tone by saying, “A lot of what our industry makes is filler with diminishing returns.” But the illustrator Mr Bingo brought the house down with his story of how an idle promise on Twitter – to send people hate mail on request via postcard – had turned into a business and a book deal. The Hate Mail proposition: “people pay me to insult them”, and demand has outstripped supply. My favourite of the cards he showed was “I hate you more than Ryanair.” While negotiating with Penguin on the book, he sent them a postcard of a decapitated penguin, which he acknowledged was a risky strategy. Sometimes he gets hate mail back. At the end he observed, “how far most brands and most agencies are from having a proper dialogue with real people.” Don’t try this in the office.

#4: Brands are moving beyond the personal

Tom LaForge of Coca-Cola was one of the few speakers who moved beyond the language of consumers to talk about citizens as well. He suggests we’re on the cusp of a third age of brands. The first age was “brands as value”; the second, “brands as desired identity”; the third, “brands as desired society.” Brands such as Toms Shoes, Ikea and Dove come into the third wave. This perspective sits behind Coke’s #5by20 project, to create five million women entrepreneurs across its value chain by 2020. LaForge draws on some of Jeremy Rifkin’s ideas about the “empathic civilization“, that the combination of seeing the world from space and the internet are creating a global sensibility.

#5: Digital marketing is building up a toxic promise

Tom Standage interviewed Chris Soghoian of the American Civil Liberties Union, who argued that it was only a matter of time before the fall-out from Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations scoops upthe social media companies, who are using the same techniques and the same technologies to track consumers for marketing purposes. So far consumers aren’t aware of how much data is being collected from their digital exhaust. This deserves a longer post, but one quote caught the flavour of what he had to say:

“People have repeatedly used the word ‘transparent’, but I don’t think you’re being transparent with yourselves about the content of your tracking. You should think about what data you have and whether you really need it. If there’s a 2% chance of it blowing up, that’s a big risk.”

To ward off this toxic risk, Soghoian suggested the idea of “Fair-Trade Data Collection” – with echoes of Tim Berners-Lee’s recent call for an internet Magna Carta. Something’s happening here, even if it is early days.

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