Being a typical New Yorker, I'm an inadvertent spy. I listen to what you're saying to your buddy as you walk heel-to-toe in front of me on the sidewalk. I listen to what you mumble to your girlfriend as we're all waiting for an elevator, a train or a table in a restaurant. I listen to your cell phone chatter as I sit next to you on the bus. Although, what comes out of your mouth is often annoying (I don't need to know about your brother-in-law's sciatica, about the jerk who interviewed you for a job or that your neighbor leaves his trash in the hallway). Yet I value these omnipresent conversations for one reason: They're a constant reminder of one of the advantages of being a branding professional in this day and age.
The beauty of it is, you don't even have to be a New Yorker—or even a city dweller—to do what I do. Digital technology has created an environment where marketers can wander a global sidewalk, or hover on a global backyard fence, and listen to what people everywhere have to say about the products and services they like (or don't) the reasons they buy (or don't) what they recommend to others (or don't)—not to mention what they think about the companies that offer these products and services.
While many marketers are under the assumption that digital technology has drastically changed the way brands are built and managed, I posit just the opposite: Digital technology has, if anything, magnified everything we know to be true about building a brand. The technological devices and tactics at our disposal—Web-based review sites, blogs, social networks and the like—amplify and clarify the tools of our trade, from the way we go about learning what's important to customers, to the products and services developed as a result. The rules we've always followed have been made more visible; the importance they play in our work has only become more obvious.
Here's an example. It's branding truism that the best brands are based on powerful, yet simple, consumer insights. Because of the magnifying effects of digital technology, marketers can now see more clearly not just what consumers are saying relative to the buying process, but what they're actually doing. Another truth of branding is that success is greater when the right message reaches the right people at the right time. Digital technology has sharpened our focus, allowing us to target the people who really want the things we have to offer. At the same time, technology has upped the ante on us by magnifying the differences among brands and accelerating the pace at which people can compare these differences and make their choices.
Which means digital has become the ultimate two-way street. Just as we can see consumers with more clarity, consumers can see brands with equal clarity. Branding's biggest truism is that, in order to succeed, you must deliver what you promise. Technology allows consumers to hold brands to their promises. If they fall short, you can bet the chatter on the virtual street and over the cyber-backyard fence will be fierce. But if you're a smart marketer, you'll see this force as the positive dynamic it is. Digital technology teaches companies to behave with integrity, to make promises they can keep.
While I may be an involuntary listener on the sidewalks of New York, as a brand professional I voluntarily use the digital tools at my disposal to learn what people are saying and doing relative to their buying behavior. Today's technology allows—if not compels—all of us do our jobs with greater speed, greater accuracy, greater efficiency, greater creativity and greater honesty. Walk the global sidewalk, hover a while near the global backyard fence; you'll better understand what I mean.