People who write about marketing are often on the lookout for an apt analogy through which to make their point. This is partly because marketing is largely applied common sense, and using something more learn-ed to illustrate an idea lends credibility to both the writer and indeed to marketing itself.
Science, and especially natural science, is a banker for this approach. An unlikely pairing of science and brand behaviour can ignite our brain with sparks of cognitive dissonance. Suddenly the links between Antipodean Spiderwebs and Retailers’ Planograms seem positively revelatory. Often the science has to be stripped back to a soundbite, much to the dismay of people like my previous boss (a PHD biologist). But there is often a good point in all that. Marketing cleverness is often constructed out of flawed science. But if the marketing is clever, what’s the harm in that?
Such is the case in an article about Swarms by Chuck Brymer from 2008. He’s since expanded this to a whole book, but this article seems to do it for me…
Watch a school of fish swim (or a flock of swallows fly). They have no leader, no one telling them what to do. Instead, they are paying close attention to the fish next to them in order to move at the same time in the same direction…The comparison of swarm behaviour to human interaction is increasingly relevant. Digital technology has made it possible for human communities to behave like swarms of our own…there are no geographic borders, no boundaries and no limits.
I do not claim to have the first idea about how real swarms work, or if this describes a swarm accurately. But recent stories from the Twittersphere make it clear that this sort of behaviour can and does happen. Trending topics, protests or ideas can all be mobilised within minutes across the world; some serious, like #Trafigura, #iranelection, #welovethenhs, #janmoir, and others less so, like #unseenprequels, #cbeebiesrock, or #omnomnom…
This has apparently left the mainstream press wondering what hit them: when does an online campaign for free speech become an ‘orchestrated campaign’ or mob rule? Where previously people were reliant on a few sources for their news, now stories can develop before the media even knew they had happened. The implications for the media and for brands are important.
Consumers can develop fully-fledged ideas about a brand without actually ever seeing its advertising or packaging. As such it is absolutely vital, now more than ever, that brands must be built on a strong idea, and a series of consistent and authentic values. Even more important, brands must remain (and be seen to remain) true to those values in everything they say and do.
At the same time, the old approach of simply broadcasting a brand message is increasingly insufficient. No longer are consumers all passive recipients of brand messages…
…Brands need to think a little less about the story they want to tell, and a little more about creating that story in partnership with their brand communities. Nike runners can create their own online training schedules & routes and compile training playlists. I am following a friend’s marathon training on Facebook (he’s doing very well!). Brands who already have discussion forums on their websites need to start listening to and learning from these discussions, adapting and creating new content that meets, reflects and anticpates the needs and attitudes of its participating members.
Not only is the message something that needs careful collaboration, but it is quite clearly true that not all members of the swarm are created equal. Ultimately the swarm decides if you are peer or predator, and it only takes a few fish to send the school scattering to escape a predator, or a few ants to send the colony swarming to a new food source. Brands must seek to engage the people who inform and influence their communities. They need to become both more conversational and more agile. Content needs to be easier to share, and perhaps more bite-sized. It’s simply not possible or desirable to say everything about the brand in every piece of communications. But everything must come out of and build on the core idea and values. In this way the sum of multiple messages can be far greater than the sum of the parts.