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Mapping the control shift

Posted on: Wednesday 10th of March 2010

I’ve just written an article for Marketing magazine on the theme of ‘Brands as information services’. It looks at what successful brand strategies might look like over the coming years.

‘Brands as information services’ is one of the six constituent drivers of what we call  ‘the control shift’ – a sort of Copernican revolution where the individual (or customer, or citizen), rather than the brand or organisation, becomes the centre of commercial gravity. It might be worthwhile taking a quick top level tour of these six shifts.

1. Personal Information Management

As the costs of processing information fall (down a billion-fold since the 1960s) information is becoming a tool in the hands of individuals as well as organisations. (When information was very expensive to gather, store and handle, organisations had an effective monopoly on information management.) The more information becomes a tool in the hands of the individual the more we need to understand and address how individuals want to use information, in different ways, to manage their lives better. This is a completely different kettle of fish to understanding how to use information as a tool in the hands of the organisation.

One aspect of this is the emergence of a new industry of personal information management services.   Another aspect is a change in the tides of information flow that shape and define how our society works. For the last few hundred years, the dominant flow of information has been ‘top down’ from organisations in the form of governments, institutions such as the church, companies, the media etc to individuals. Now, in a very short period of time, the dominant flows of information are turning ‘bottom up’: from individuals to organisations and each other. Volunteered Personal Information is one aspect of this broader sea-change.

2. Consumer decision making

Thanks to the internet, consumer decision-making habits are changing rapidly thanks. Peer reviews, price comparisons, social media etc mean that individuals are paying attention to, and trusting, different sources of information than they did in the past. Nevertheless, it’s easy to miss the real significance of this development, which is that making and implementing better decisions is fast becoming the new high point of value.

Many executives (marketers especially) recoil in horror at this. “If value lies in helping customers make better decisions, what if the better decision doesn’t lead them to us?”  The other side of the coin is the individual’s perspective: “fact is, if I can make a better decision it will lead me to a better value product or service anyway, in which case for me, the pivot point of value is the decision, not the product or service”.

For organisations to deny this is not a useful option. The way forward lies in understanding what better decisions, and better decision-making processes, look like from individuals’ points of view, and to find ways of adding value to these processes. Once we start looking at things in this way, lots of new opportunities begin to open up. The Brands as Information Services article outlines some of them.

3. ‘Brands as information services’

If shifts 1) and 2) above are real, rethinking how and why brands work is a must. ‘Brands as information services’ is one way of positively reinventing branding for this new environment.

4. Touchpoints

Communication and retail channels are changing radically and rapidly. We all know that. For organisations, big challenges here include multi-channel retailing and integrated marketing; creating a single seamless experience for customers across touchpoints; and creating a single organisational view of the customer across these touchpoints. These are big issues indeed. Yet (again) it’s very easy to miss the real point of touchpoint and channel change, which is this: nowadays consumers have as much choice between touchpoints and channels as they have between products and services. So they are migrating towards those touchpoints and channels that add the most value for them.

This requires both a practical and a mindset change. The traditional industrial age view of the world created a neat ‘division’ of labour between ‘the product’ (or service) and its marketing. The product delivers value to the consumer; the marketing (including channels to market) are a means to an end; to realise the value of the product by selling it.

That’s fine, except it doesn’t see things from the individual’s or customer’s point of view. From the individual’s point of view, touchpoints and channels are there to help me go to market; to find and access value. So I will choose those touchpoints that help me achieve my goals most efficiently and most effectively. If a touchpoint fails to help me – if it obstructs or undermines my ability to make a better decision, or wastes my time, or abuses my attention – then I’ll ignore it or go elsewhere.

The bottom line, therefore, is that touchpoints and channel strategies have to be designed and delivered as sources of value for customers in their own right. They are no longer just a means to an end. They are a part of how organisations create and deliver value.  Again, once we get passed the mental road block – that the channel or touchpoint is the organisation’s route to market – significant new opportunities to add value begin to crawl out of the woodwork.

5 Metrics

Our current approach to marketing and other organisational metrics is largely misguided, myopic and narcissistic: we tend to measure one side of the equation: what it costs us, and what benefits we get from it (e.g. sales uplift etc). Of course, we can’t stop measuring these things. They are crucially important. But they only give us half the picture. They tell us nothing about the customer’s or citizen’s metrics – metrics such as value for time, or return on attention, or the overall costs and benefits of achieving what I want to achieve (as distinct from the money price versus attributes of a particular product or service). Think of the difference (for example) between the price/benefits of a can of baked beans and the total costs of planning for, shopping for, preparing, serving and clearing up after a dinner for the kids. In practice, these personal metrics remain about as explored as the dark side of the moon. Yet they are the real metrics behind most consumer behaviour.

This is a minor tragedy because one of the emerging rules of thumb for successful value creation is something along the lines of “across every touchpoint we will find ways of improving your metrics. (We will also find ways to improve our own metrics along the way)”. This is another mini-Copernican revolution where value is no longer defined in terms of the attributes of the product or service but in terms of the organisation’s contribution to the individual’s personal KPIs.

6. Value propositions

What happens when we put the above the first five shifts together? The answer is simple. We are looking at a much more person-centric (and much-less organisation- or brand-centric definition) of value. This is the control-shift.

If we look at it in the round, the control shift is pretty comprehensive, embracing most of the things organisations do. The exciting thing about this is that the trends driving the control shift are only beginning to take shape now. We have to learn as we go along. It’s a time for exploration, experimentation, research, learning and discovery.

If we’re right about the control shift,  the people and organisations at the front of this learning curve have a huge opportunity to really stand out from the crowd.  And the people and organisations who fail to ‘get it’ are going to have some real problems.

Alan Mitchell