The level of transparency in our culture struck me a couple of weeks ago while reading the funny pages. On the opposite side of the page from Marvin and Beetle Baily was an article about David Carradine's death by autoerotic asphyxiation. Just 71 microns separated children's comic strips from a description of how rope was found tied around the actor's neck and genitals. We've sure come a long way since Lucy and Ricky weren't permitted to use the word "pregnant" or show a single bed for the married (in both real- and sitcom-life) couple.
Growing transparency certainly has it's troubling aspects. Whether it's parents needing to explain an accidental death by fetish, a Disney starlet dealing with the ramifications of "sexting," or a stock sinking on unfounded rumors, the ease of information creation and dissemination presents its share of challenges.
Of course, our more transparent world also offers benefits. As we've seen these past weeks with the Iranian election, a government clamping down on the media no longer can stop information and ideas from flowing. Major media outlets are turning to the same Social Media tools as citizens to learn and report on what is happening in Iran following that country's contested election. Social Media sites like Twitter and YouTube have become major sources of news as the stream of images, video, and reports defy the Iranian government's best efforts to control communication.
At present, many marketers are concerned with whether or not (and how) their brands should utilize Twitter, but the lessons of David Carradine and Iran should cause us to consider how increasing transparency demands more than tweeting.
In Economics courses, a theoretical model seeks to understand the impact on consumers and firms of pure transparency or "Perfect Information." The same mental exercise is also helpful for those in marketing and communications: How would we change our enterprises and create a competitive edge if our company, consumers, employees, and competitors all lived in a world of pure transparency and perfect information?
- Consumer Focus: In a hypothetical world of abstract transparency, all competitors would know everything about consumers and each other, but knowing and using that information are two different things. The companies that succeed would be the ones who most effectively focus their products, marketing, and service on the needs and expectations of consumers.
- Speed and Effectiveness: In a perfectly transparent world, competitors would be aware of each others' product innovations and marketing campaigns before they come to market. In such a world, the organizations that execute more quickly and with greater effectiveness than their competitors would create valuable advantages.
- Emotional Brand Differentiation: Of course, another way to create value in a world where your competitors know your every move is to establish an ownable marketing advantage your competition cannot touch. This doesn't occur with product features, packaging, or promotions--which can be copied or improved upon by the competition--but instead is created by connecting with consumers on an emotional level.
Coke demonstrated the power of emotional branding over practical product benefits when they tried and failed to launch New Coke. As noted by Sergio Zyman, Coke's CMO, in Guerrilla Marketing Research: "We reached out to consumers and found that they wanted more than taste when they made their purchase decision. Drinking Coke enabled them to tap into the Coca-Cola experience, to be part of Coke's history and to feel the continuity and stability of the brand."
- Candor and Trust: In our imaginary transparent world, our mistakes would be as visible as our successes. Robbed of the ability to control or "spin" information, the organization that is most forthright--publicly embracing and learning from embarrassments as well as successes--will gain the most trust with consumers.
- Corporate Culture and Hiring Practices: Knowledge does not equal affinity; as individuals, we've all had the experience of liking someone less the more we've gotten to know him or her. In a transparent world, individuals and corporations cannot be anything other than they are, so the people we hire to represent our brand and the culture we nurture will have a tremendous impact on our organization's reputation and influence.
- Building and Nurturing Relationships: Perfect knowledge may create perfect brand awareness, but it doesn't mean squat to brand loyalty. Brands that connect to consumers, show interest in them, and create value beyond that naturally offered by the product or service will win in our theoretically transparent world just as they do today in our imperfectly translucent world. Moreover, in a world of perfect information, every consumer would know which brands are the ones listening and connecting and which are more interested in blasting one-way advertising messages.
- R&D and Intellectual Property: Finally, while it may be hard to imagine in the cloak-and-dagger domain of R&D, our imaginary world of pure transparency would mean perfect knowledge not just of upcoming product innovations but even of the research and findings that spur new product offerings. The need to rely upon the legal protections afforded patents and copyrights would be even greater than today. (Of course, in a world of perfect information, everyone would know when IP rights were breached, so catching violators would be a cinch.)
While the imaginary world we've conceptualized may be purely hypothetical, the lessons learned are not. First of all, today's digital and social world is far more transparent than we tend to believe; we live in a world where bands cannot release albums without them being leaked in advance, where leaked movies threaten box office weekend hauls, where the misdeeds of a couple dumb kids threaten the reputation of even the largest brands, and where seemingly trivial legal decisions can result in unintended PR disasters.
More importantly, if you reexamine the list of competitive advantages in our imaginary world of perfect information there isn't one concept that won't furnish benefits today in our real world of imperfect knowledge. Plus, the list is as interesting for what is not on it as for what is included--what good is mass marketing and spin doctoring in a world where everyone knows everything anyway?
While the abstract conditions we imagined will never exist in the flesh-and-blood world, there is no dispute the world is becoming more transparent. Each step toward greater openness, more fluid and dispersed communications, and less control brings as many opportunities as challenges to those who recognize and embrace the new reality.