It’s A Brand New World

The other day I made the mistake of coming home from the store with a bag of Lay’s Potato Chips. As I unpacked the groceries, my wife gave a little gasp. “Eat those quick,” she whispered, “I don’t want the kids to see that brand around the house!” Part of me wasn’t surprised. I get the “Don’t feed our kids crap” message, but since when is a potato chip brand on par with pornography? Seems a little severe to me, but for my wife it makes perfect sense. She wants our kids to share her values about healthy eating. For her, Lay’s stands for junk food and unconscious eating habits, and we don’t fly that flag. My parents would never have had a discussion like this. For them shopping was simple: “What is it and how much does it cost?”

These days the shopping experience is so complicated, it took a sociologist and a psychologist to come up with a name for people like my wife. It became the title of Paul H. Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson’s best selling book, “The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World.” But that was ten years ago. A lot has changed. Now we just call them “Whole Foods Shoppers.” And marketeers aren’t interested in “Cultural Creatives” anymore. My wife and I are obsolete. Now it’s all about “Millennials.” Millennials move so fast, they can’t even hold onto the label “Generation Y.” If you’re 25 to 35 years old, you can call yourself a Millennial. And you know why we baby boomer marketeers are so interested in you? Because you went blazing off onto the Internet and we can hardly keep up with you.

The ability to instantly access information, easily share thoughts and ideas, and broadcast opinions, enabled a kind of consumer insurgency. To understand what I mean, all you have to do is Google “United Breaks Guitars.” Maybe you’ve already heard of this. One guy gets pissed because United Airlines smashes his guitar and customer service treats him badly. A clever song about his experience posted on YouTube gets him a half million views and an invite to tell his tale of mistreatment on Good Morning America, all in the span of three days.

So why is this a big deal? It means companies can’t control their own stories anymore. Now the customer owns the story. The whole concept of what “brand” means is changing fast. We used to think of “brand” as marketing identity; a device used to further the sale, nothing more. Now, thanks to people like my wife, the United Breaks Guitar guy, and a billion others who are out there chatting away on the internet, companies are realizing that maybe they need to engage with their customers more openly and honestly.

Something called “The Sustainable Brands Conference” popped up a few years ago. It’s all about helping companies incorporate this idea of larger purpose into their brands. Here’s how the organizers define a Sustainable Brand: “A better brand that endures by respecting, serving and delighting all stakeholders in current and future generations.” Man, my wife would definitely invite that brand into the house. And don’t think big companies don’t get it. Coke, Ford, 3M, Target, Dell – they are just a few of the sponsors.

All these big brands want to do good so you won’t think they are bad. Including Frito Lay. It turns out my wife was too hard the Lay’s Brand. I went to the Frito Lay Web site. The company talks about healthy eating habits. It has a sustainability program focussed on reducing its energy use. The company seems to be making a real effort to be a good citizen. And it must be real. Why? Because we old Cultural Creatives, and now the new generation of Millennials, are demanding it.

And companies beware. You’d better actually be doing what you say you are doing because we will actively look for the truth. And we will blog about it.