Welcome to the 21st Century. Now, Let's Fix the Mess

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How could so many things go wrong in one decade?

The dot-com bust, 9/11, the collapse of the U.S. automobile business, the media meltdown, the subprime debacle. We have completely lost our way.

That's because we have been lost in the new millennium. We have not yet come to grips with the fact that we are now citizens of the 21st century, not just creatures inhabiting a new span of 1,000 years.

The latter notion is just too overwhelming for us to deal with. The Chinese, on the other hand, seem to have done just fine. That's because they are used to handling things in thousand-year increments.

Think about it. We currently refer to the calendar year as two thousand and nine. And we've been counting the years like that since we entered this millennium.

What we need to focus on is a more reachable target, like the 21st century. So starting next year we are no longer in the year two thousand and ten (only nine hundred and ninety years to turn it around). No, we are in the zippy and crisp year of twenty-ten.

All of a sudden we can handle that. We now know where we are: We are 10 years into the new century. So what if we've wasted the first decade? It's not too late to make something of the 90 years still to come in our nice little compact 21st century.

But nevertheless, time is of the essence. The first decade of the century has been a total disaster, so if we're going to market ourselves out of this mess, we've got to get cracking.

James D. Speros, exec VP of Fidelity Investments, told the 99th annual Association of National Advertisers conference in Phoenix last month that marketers "have to make a difference very, very quickly." Mr. Speros said "velocity of marketing" is what's changed most in today's environment. Being a good marketer takes "courage, the willingness to stand up for new ideas that organizations just plodding along have never tried," Mr. Speros added. His advice: "Be an innovator. If you don't do it, I'm not sure anyone else will."

While navigating the latter part of the first decade of the century, marketers sometimes seemed a bit tentative. But at the ANA conference, I came away thinking that marketers have finally developed a well-grounded idea of who they are—and who their customers are.

You'd think people who frequent Dunkin' Donuts, for example, are just people who like donuts and a good cup of coffee, but the company's tribe research shows what kind of people go for Dunkin'. If you consider yourself a member of the Dunkin' tribe, here's what makes you tick: You're busy, you don't like pretense, you love routine, you're proud to have things to do. "Dunkin' is how the everyday folks who keep America running keep themselves running every day" is the mantra of the company—at least it was until times got bad.

Now, according to Cynthia Ashworth, VP-consumer engagement, the company needs to empower consumers to advocate for Dunkin' and "deepen the bond" by acknowledging what they're up against. So "you 'kin do it" came into the national parlance.

The company has one million fans on Facebook (people can run their profiles with pictures of them wearing a Dunkin' t-shirt in front of Starbucks). Ms. Ashworth's advice is "to protect your core business" by always focusing on the evolution of the brand. "Turn your biggest fans into media," she said. "The world is your oyster if you tap into social media. Brands that can activate its fans are going to win."

That's not a bad formula for the second decade of the 21st century.

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