Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Anatomy of Brand Conversation: Sourcing Trust in Relationships

By Gunther Sonnenfeld

We’ve rediscovered mass communication. The floodgates have opened, literally. It seems that all of the media and content fragmentation we experience in the form of white, conversational noise, are a direct result of conscience overload. Underpinning this is an anthropology, mythic circumstance, language topography and genealogy predicated on establishing trust that begins (or ends) with hopefully meaningful conversation.

Then there’s this troubling notion of a thing called a “brand”. Many would argue (myself included) that brands are often just manufactured forms of perceived value, built to declare certain “truths” about a company’s existence and its justifications for the products or services it sells. 

In a more ideal state, brands are really forms of expression culminating in definable actions – things we see, think, feel and share as part of our cultural identity. And of course, trust is the currency by which we manifest our identities.

But here’s the thing.

Trust isn’t something we discover by way of relationships, or even something that we build within them. It’s something instilled within us before we create them. 
Take relationships as a barometer. As individuals, we’re highly incomplete beings. We’re always searching for someone or something to complete us.

As the American novelist, Tom Robbins, famously stated: “When, after a few years or a few months of a relationship, we find that we’re still unfulfilled, we blame our partners and take up with somebody more interesting.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Well, perhaps some of you have evolved a bit and have found beauty and tranquility (albeit through great compromise) in your partners, and subsequently, in your relationships. The larger point, and subsequent reality, is that relationships are many times transitional – they take us from one dimension of trust to another. Even failed relationships engender a new kind of trust, one that allows us to question our motivations for being.

So herein lies the simple truth of our challenge as brands and marketers: we don’t own our own trust. As a result, “consumers” (a really dirty word) are predisposed not to listen or engage, and further, the dynamics surrounding this are akin to the dysfunctions of a parent/child relationship.

I came across what I thought was a simple but quite powerful framework for all of this during a session in pre-marital counseling. Not so ironic is the fact that my marriage ultimately failed in large part because we ignored it, but I digress.

My fiance at the time and I had a curious debate over trust with respect to self-responsibility. I likened my mistrust in her to the perception that she nags me. She likened her mistrust in me to the perception (and likely fact) that I’m not good at prioritizing our needs over work needs. As our counselor pointed out, our conversational dynamics pointed directly to the more likely fact that we didn’t trust ourselves, and that the only real context we should be considering is this personal ownership of trust, since we clearly can’t rely on the other to satiate or complete those corresponding emotions for ourselves. 

Applying this to the “brand/consumer” relationship , we can see that ownership of trust and self-responsibility ping-pong between various states of being, whether they are antagonistic, fortuitous, adaptable or downright shameless.

Shamelessness, for example, is a by-product of needing to sell something rather than proving out its value; it is a manifestation of anxieties tied to yearning for marketshare, instead of cultivating the conditions and needs of the market itself. And this of course manifests through counterproductive conversation, but can be course corrected at any time.

You can see the obvious correlations between adult, parent and child; it is necessary that we always talk to each other as adults, in mind states that are calm, focused, transparent, nurturing and authentic. Naturally, when we enter the parent and child states, we lose credibility and the trust within ourselves is challenged, resulting in disconnects that either kill off the conversation entirely, or emotions that send it into a tailspin of sorts.

Now, of course, we always have the option of recovery. At any moment in the discourse of conversation or a relationship, we can take a step back, re-evaluate, and most importantly, fine tune our range of listening. What we hear now versus what we heard before gives us greater knowledge of self that can be applied to a far greater understanding of the other. 

If you can consider corporations to be organisms, then building a better understanding of others is critical. As an individual within that corporation who is seeking to establish a definable role and identity, the self can be strengthened through conversation and incited to act on sentiment, goodwill or some form of collaborative intention.

Hence, the notion of brand: we move from mere expression into action, and one with real meaning. Further, what we do internally as corporate organisms manifests in our external efforts – the things we communicate, the media we co-create, and the cultural influences we bring to bear. 

So back to trust: what we instill in ourselves and what we reinforce through relationships are distinctly unique elements, yet interdependent. These are formative in the evolution of self identity and the development of our media expressions. "Brands" cannot recognize one without the other.

A fun little side note: the illustration you see above constitutes an overview of a flat world. However, if you can imagine the open railroad track extending ad infinitum (or at least off into the distance), the two parallel sides of the track converge. The analogy here is that we can maintain our individual identities while forging along a path that is concordant, and ideally at certain times, enlightening.

I won’t belabor or even torture the point by providing a laundry list of examples (many of them recent) that showcase the inherent flaws in the brand-consumer relationship and why reputation management is as elusive as ever. Nor will I provide a short list of tools that enables us to manage our consumer relationships (if that is even possible). You can read a plethora of industry blogs for that information. 

Technology and media are not the issue nor the answer here. But I will say that our problems definitely stem from our personal and corporate ownership of trust, as well as the fact that we often do not ascribe actionable steps to the things we offer up through language. 

In other words, we need to actually be our word both personally and professionally.

Whether or not this is a revelation to anyone is also not the point. The real point, it seems, is that we often overlook the reason for having relationships in the first place, which is to build upon the promise of better things to come, even if he relationships themselves (such as marriages) are sacrificed along the way.

Pre-order a copy of The Immanence of Myth, published by Weaponized in July 2011.

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