Monday, July 23, 2007

The Church of Brands and the marketplace of the people

I'm indebted to an emap colleague for some sticky thinking. A metaphor he used while explaining information architecture to me has set me off on this (often meandering) journey. It will end at the wisest destination if you join me in its conversation...

As media brand owners, we have an overwhelming desire to build our information architecture in the style of churches: We want the congregation to look up to us. We design to impress, to leave the congregation looking up, to dominate the landscape, to bring a body of people together, line them up and preach at them. Ideally we'd prefer it if they only ever read one book - ours.

That's the deficit-thinking approach to the notion of brand as church. It would be wise to try the strength-based channel of thought at this point.
Churches are trusted, Churches have strong values, Churches build communities, Churches are led by people who care about their flocks, Churches help the most vulnerable, churches are a force for good, they speak out against the threat of evil. They offer moral guidance.

Perhaps these are the things (in their wider senses) media brands should consider if they wish to continue with the Brand as Church approach to information architecture.

I have to declare at this point that I believe the Church model was at its most effective in a world of controlled information. And that this applies to brands, too. And I believe that world of centralised control is over.

Think of the pre-printing-press world of information. Life before Gutenburg was life informed by the church. Alan Moore often refers to this (see Communities Dominate Brands)

The resonance with the control of information enabled by mass communication of the mass industrial world won't escape you.

Let's flip the thought channel again. Let's apply a little Common Sense Thinking. What do you tend to find next to any church? Think about your local one. Generally, marketplaces have grown up around them.

Apply a little insight to that. The marketplaces grew up around churches because church was once very important to the same people who go to the market. The group of people who went to church - whose lives were dominated by church and the information it disseminated - were the same people - the same size of popluation - as those who went to market.

This is no longer the case.

It's no longer the case in the real world of bricks and mortar shops and churches (think of the rise out of town retail that sucks the heart out of towns). If the groups were still one and the same it's fairly obvious that each Tesco Extra would come with a chapel.

Shops today get built where people go. Ancient marketplaces were located where people went - therefore, next to the church. Now the shop itself is the draw. Which came first?

Again, there are obvious parallels to be drawn with the digital world.

Time for some re-integrated thought (ie trying to bump ourselves out of the binary world of either/or).

Can a church be a marketplace? Can a marketplace be a church?

Can a media brand take the positive things that have made it successful and build on those to create a place people will want to be once more (with the market following)?

Or is the solution closer to taking a marketplace and infusing it with the best elements of the church of brands?

Dragging ourselves back into the re-integrated channel - must this be an either/or?

A marketplace was always somewhere where information was exchanged (distinct from a church, where information was broadcast), where people were entertained (churches once did that - and media brands would certainly contend they master this) and where people could both buy and sell. (Churches/Brands, well they might set up a stall at the back to sell you postcards and tea-towels... but...)

Apologies - I've now introduced quite a powerful image with sticky potential. Media Brands sell tea-towels and trinkets while the market gets on with the business of business. And taking the image still further - we used to be able to control the market - we sold the pitches and charged rent.

The world that's emerging is one in which the traders set up where they wish and don't need us to bring them trade.

It would be easy to now equate the idea of the Church of Brand with the sale of a few bits and pieces to people who have more interest in the history of the building than participating in its community.

Where does that take us?

To switch thought channels once more... how do the stakeholders feel about this. Does the person rooting through the history books and picking out postcards want anything more than this distance relationship with the Church? Are they hoping to connect with something warmer when they walk through the door?

How does the priest feel? Is he desperate for them to stay long enough to listen? Is he ready to walk over and start a conversation? Is he ready to change what he does in response?

What does the parochial church council feel. They are working like mad to keep the church in good order, having to do more and more distasteful commercial things to keep a roof over the vicar's head... Are they happy about this - are they fearful for the future? Do they blame the vicar for poor sermons - or the out of town store for dragging the heart out of the town?

What is god's point of view on this? (apologies, this isn't meant to offend anyone. In this case perhaps God equates to the shared passion that the community gathers around - we are personalising (or deifying!) an idea).
Does he like a huge but empty house? Is he saddened by the failure of the congregation to congregate in the church. Or impressed that they still have any faith left in the circumstances? What do you feel his preferred solution may be?

Does he care how he gathers believers together? Would he prefer a nice big community or a nice big (usually empty) building?

Whichever results in more believers?

Bring this back to the real world of business (to flip channels to common sense thinking once more): Which ever results in greatest profits.

We live in a post Gutenburg world. The blog is one example - anyone can publish. The Church of Brands is no longer in charge of the disemmination of information.

There is less reliance on 'The Word' - more faith in each other. The trends towards co-creation of content and the inherent disruption of the value of mass produced, centrally controlled content that brings, are a solid example of how the relationship between the Church of Brands and the marketplace of people is changing.

The marketplace of the future will be at its strongest where the principles of peer-to-peer transacting and co-created products/services/content are easy to produce, easy to share (in).

If the Church of Brands understand this and become part of it, they can be part of their communities, their communities part of them.

But they must understand that the new marketplace communities do not want to be told what to do, or where to do it. They will appreciate it if you join with them in shaping how best to do, where best to place. The Church of Brands has as much right to be trusted as any other member of the community - but no more.

That doesn't mean it can't earn more trust by doing the things a Church is good at (see list earlier) which may give it a powerful position of influence in the community. But that influence must be earned as a respected, high-reputation member of the community - not demanded, by virtue of the fact that we're the one in the pulpit.

Where does this metaphor describe for you? What's your view? What other options emerge for you? How might the possible outcomes make the stakeholders feel?

Join the conversation. It is far from over.

1 comment:

  1. I like the metaphor. There's something very pertient about how communities grew up around churches, and the establishmnet of the marketplace - a term we now of course use much more virtually than in its orignal physical manifestation. And this is important because it was the physical proximity of church, marketplace and othet institutions which created the social magnet for interaction, discussion, sharing and all the behaviours we now see in the virtual world.
    It's also interesring to take the metaphor to today's world. The out-of-town supermarket hardly creates the same experience, and by and large is a very impersoal place - little sense of community. How often to you bump into someone you know at Tesco's Extra? Of course the shopping mall concept has a different social dimension. People do go there to meet people. They do go there not explicitly to shop but to commune. Perhaps these are today's cathedrals? The mega digital screens popping up in malls indicates that big media thinks so.
    History tells us of the huge impact of the church's loss of control of not only information itsef, but also the dissemination of information through the revolution of printing technology. We are in another revolution today of similar or greater proportions. On the one hand we see an explosion of creativity and new models of interaction, though without much clarity of structure or direction. On the other hand I think we are experiencing the impact of a vacuum created by the (in evolutionary terms) instantaneous collapse of the old media order. A vacuum now being filled by UGC and all sorts of experimental models. Media is an ecosytem of users, information providers and brands and at some point a balance will be restored around a new media paradigm - I call it the Digital Media Economy. Communities need both the church and the marketplace and they will find a new model for co-existence


The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?