Swarm Is the New Herd

DDB CEO Argues High-Value, Creative Content Will Tame Migratory Consumers

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It is in a critic's nature to be skeptical, so I felt suitably resistant to another marketing theory upon opening Chuck Brymer's "The Nature of Marketing." As I read on, however, my hackles began to lower. The CEO of Omnicom Group's DDB achieves a number of valuable things with his sleek tome. First of all, he gathers various strands of thinking on the evolution of marketing and weaves them into a cohesive, accessible and inspiring text. Then he challenges agencies and clients to accept them. And finally -- and this is the part that, as something of an industry outsider, I enjoyed the most -- he makes consumers feel scarily powerful.

The core of Brymer's argument lies in the book's subtitle: "Marketing to the Swarm as Well as the Herd." Referring mainly to digital communities, Brymer describes how consumers now behave more like bees, birds and fish than beasts of the field. "In a community," he writes, "a small number of people -- sometimes even one person -- can quickly become the voice of a hundred, a thousand, or 200 million, in much the same way that a darting fish can move the entire school away from a single predator. ... Today you are one blog post away from having consumers flee from you in unison, and your humblest customer is now as powerful as your entire marketing department."

Brymer points out that if you enter a field of cows and attempt to ride one of them, the other ruminants will studiously ignore you. Approach a single bird, however, and there's a good chance that the entire flock will take flight. "Today we are marketing to a swarm that shares information within itself, moves in an instant, and takes direction from no-one," Brymer states. Optimistically, he observes that once communities have flocked to a place they like, they often return again and again; hence their loyalty toward Amazon, Google and Apple. But he makes no attempt to disguise the fact that this is a high-risk environment for marketers. The power of the swarm could be as disastrous for them as it might be beneficial.

Two of his guidelines for navigating the swarm ought to be fairly easy to adopt, because they've always applied to the Old World of marketing: Your brand needs to be both convincing -- with a performance that lives up to its claims -- and creative. A third, the importance of high-value content, is growing in currency. Clients must now provide either entertainment or genuine utility if they want consumers to swarm to their marketing material.

But the most crucial step is also the hardest for clients to take: collaboration. A few brands, it's true, have allowed consumers to co-create advertising. Brymer warns them that this is no longer enough. "When you come to us with an existing product or service and say, 'Market this,' you are already several steps too late." He urges companies to create brands and products in partnership with their customers.

He cites Denmark's Lego toy company, whose tiny plastic bricks are used to make models of everything from cars to the Millennium Falcon. Customers can submit their own models on the Lego Creator website for possible selection by Lego as ready-to-assemble kits. Other visitors to the site then vote on the best design. "Lego has no idea what the next kit will look like," Brymer writes. "The swarm decides."

It's noteworthy that the examples of digital creativity in the book outnumber those of consumer collaboration. Brymer admits "co-creation is still a fantasy for most people." But it is also central to effective swarm marketing. Urging clients to take action, he quotes retired Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki: "You may not like change, but you are going to like irrelevance even less."

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Mark Tungate is the author of several books including Adland: A Global History of Advertising, and last year's Branded Male, both published by Kogan Page. A British journalist and author based in Paris, he specializes in media, branding and lifestyle trends.
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