THE DO-IT-YOURSELF 'NETWORK' IS WITHIN MARKETERS' GRASP

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Ten years ago, thenJ. Walter Thompson chief Burt Manning briefly roiled the marketing world with his revelation that several of the world's largest consumer products companies were considering organizing a fifth broadcast TV network. The cost of the venture: $100 billion.

Those being the days when a billion was a billion, and not merely Seattle mad money, nothing ever came of the plan. But the frustration that bred it remains a burr in the hides of content makers and advertisers alike, who from the dawn of broadcasting have had little choice but to consign their products and destinies to a handful of distributors they can neither control nor predictably profit from.

Now, thanks to the communications revolution that alternately goes by the names IP, Internet, broadband and convergence, technology and desire are fusing, making it possible for makers and marketers to rectify this 75-year mistake. The question is: How many of them will be smart and quick enough to do it?

The turn of the century heralds three inviolable business axioms. Manufacturing and distribution technologies are leading to the commoditization of most products and services; broadband technologies enable low-cost mass customization of audiovisual experiences; and the only way for a company to surmount the former is to apply the latter.

In other words, you gotta infotain or die.

You'd think this would be conventional wisdom. Yet in the rush to embrace e-commerce, marketers are forgetting that a medium that lets consumers visit a thousand stores without having to spend a dime on gas is the worst threat they've ever encountered. Most are responding to the menace of comparison-shopping intelligent agents by closing their eyes, clicking their heels and repeating, "There's nothing like a brand," hoping this mantra alone will return them to that distant time when people never ventured off Main Street in search of a bargain.

Guess who's not in Kansas anymore?

While branding remains central to any differentiation strategy, to facilitate it now requires evolving out of the ancient marketing wisdom that saw salvation in saturation advertising and front-of-aisle displays. Today, branding requires informing, entertaining and serving an identifiable audience. And that, in turn, means rolling your own networks.

For years, marketers have lip-synched the importance of branding. They mouth the significance of brand "values." They hum their appreciation of consumer "community" and the concept of brand "emotion." At last, broadband enables them to put substance behind these words by crafting places and programming tuned to a company's very essence.

The most broad-minded (pun intended) executives in this new era work inside some of the larger entertainment conglomerates-not surprising, since these are the companies that for three generations literally gave their products to broadcasters to sell to advertisers. Among the most visionary is Kevin Conroy, senior VP-worldwide marketing at BMG Entertainment, the music and entertainment unit of Germany's Bertelsmann. BMG, which counts RCA and Arista Records among the 200 labels it owns, has started several "genre sites" on the Web that help promote and sell its music. But Conroy insists "these are not Web sites; these are channels."

"If consumers are interested in certain genres of music," Conroy told me recently, "and I can begin to create unique environments online that start out as Web sites, and I can create other elements of a multimedia channel that appeal to distinct lifestyles, and I can leverage that to build a community and people are there because they want to be there, then I'm an end point, not a pass-through."

His attitude-that music companies should never be MTV'd again and allow third-party entrepreneurs to build businesses from the labels' products-is something others should heed.

Think what Barnes & Noble could have done to Amazon.com if it had figured out its core brand advantage-its identity as a contemporary literary salon-would be augmented by a multimedia broadband network about books.

Consider what a Ford or a DaimlerChrysler can still do by leveraging the technologies that now deliver to drivers customized maps and using them to transmit customized entertainment to this captive but potentially delightable audience.

Ditto the drug and grocery retailers now competing hotly on the Web. The winners will be the two or three that create the next century's Good Housekeeping or Prevention-in broadband multimedia versions, of course.

For those who miss out, there's always Kansas. If you can find it.