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Sunday, May 2, 2010

Stockholm Syndrome & Co

What's the first thing you ask yourself when you're faced with a choice between a few too many alternatives ? Let's just say that today...
What's the first thing you ask yourself when you're faced with a choice between a few too many alternatives ? Let's just say that today I'm interested in your process of product selection. It's often the case for me to ask the following:

What do I need ?
Which product best fulfills this need ?
What I would like to have ?

Now bear in mind that the answer to that last question is not necessarily the same as any of the other questions. Why ? Simply put, as my dear friend TinyRage always says, 'We all like shiny pretty things', even though they might be what we need the least. After all, who really needs a Porsche that can go 300km/h ?
It's usually quite simple. What we would like to have is often a mixture of what our friends and/or cool people have, and when trends change, these things follow. What used to be cool just a few years ago is now, well, retarded.

So what's my point ? Why am I going on and on about this ?
As I said, I'm interested in your process of product selection, and I'd like to ask a simple question:

Are we, as users, better off after the social marketing boom ?

The main difference when it comes to marketing between now and a few years ago is mainly that we as users are no longer spectators to the marketing strategies aimed for us. It used to be that we grab a newspaper, look at a billboard, watch television, and those marketing campaigns would just parade in front of us, telling us what they want to say but not letting us talk back, which made it really hard for brands to really capture how their audience perceives their product. And then came the Social times, which opened the dialogue between brands and users. Whether you're following Nike's tweets, or Pepsi is your friend on Facebook, or even if you occasionally post a comment on the Apple forums, you are now part of it, and so are we all. Effectively, brands realized that the best way to know what people want is to ask them directly, and if you're not taking part in the debate, then it is somewhat your loss.

So now I'll go back to my question: Are we better off now ?
Certainly, we can agree that it seems that we as users have a much larger say in product design and innovation. Brands are also better off, because now they can make much more calculated guesses of what their next product should look like, which minimizes their risk, and eventually leads to the products that people need finding their way into the market much faster than they would have in the old days. Now certainly I did not ask a question to which my answer is a simple 'Yes'. I think we are not, and this is why:

One thing brands do, and that has been particularly successful lately, is creating a lifestyle around their brand. It is no longer a question of what you need or want, it is more a question of what it is that the product you select will tell about you. Every product comes with a hint of a lifestyle, and brands did a very good job of assimilating themselves with concepts that have nothing to do their actual product. For instance Pepsi Max is pretty much a Diet Pepsi, only it is targeted towards young men, and so its marketing revolves around extreme sports and "living life to the max". That would make sense if it was an energy drink, but it's not. Instead, all it does is make you assimilate Pepsi Max with the idea that you are still young and adventurous, and so every time you want to pick what to drink, you are actually making a choice between a drink that is "boring", and one that says that you are young and adventurous. Taste, has now less to do with your choice.

Another example I love to talk about, is Apple products. I know I just grabbed every Mac user's attention now, and it feels like walking on a high wire, so I'll go as slowly and steadily as I can.
How many people do you know have an iPod, an iPhone and a Mac, and go to Starbucks for coffee ?
Now how many of these people started out with just an iPod ?

Apple, as of today, is the most successful brand at creating a lifestyle around its products. If you've liked the iPod, or the iPhone, somehow you find yourself contemplating the idea of buying a Mac. If you're a Mac user, you probably can't imagine using any phone other than the iPhone. And worst of all, you are convinced that the iPhone, iPod, and Mac are the best products out there. Well I'm here to burst your bubble. The iPod made an impact with its incredible interface and that gave Apple the visibility it needed. The iPhone had a pretty good start too. But the fact is, today, it is not, not even by a long shot, the best option for a smart phone out there. The new iPhone is announced to have new features such as multiple applications running in parallel. Newsflash: Androids have had this capability for a while now. Alright, then maybe you choose the iPhone because of the extensive amount of applications you can get at the Apple app store. Here's another one for you: Applications on androids can do much more than the iPhone can dream. You can actually mash up applications on an android to get your desired functionality: You can tell an application to use another one internally, so that you get the information you consider most relevant. And if that wasn't enough, comes the lovely quote by Steve Jobs: "If you want porn you can buy an android", who believes apple should have a say in what content you can access on your iPhone.

All of this brings me back to my initial point: Apple is not selling you just a product. It is selling you a lifestyle, in all of its dimensions. And it is because that most Apple users internally believe that Apple is a lifestyle, that Apple can make decisions that are not exactly in the best interest of its user base. Why does Steve Jobs care if I want to have an application containing nudity on my iPhone ? Well, it has something to do with the image of the iPhone, and the image of Apple products, which would pretty much destroy the lifestyle identity they have created. If some iPhone users look at obscenities on their iPhone, it automatically makes other iPhone users "suspect", and that makes the entire Apple lifestyle and identity much less desirable, and that would actually make it much easier for users to switch to another brand.

As things stand now, it seems that Apple, among many other brands, have made the issue of product choice much less elastic. As an identity is much harder to get rid of than a simple preference for a product, people are less likely to stop drinking Pepsi Max as long as it makes them feel young, and Apple users are much less likely to try androids or PCs.

Finally, I'm going to ask my initial question once more, just to round things up, and perhaps this time someone else should answer it.

Are we, as users, better off ?

Honestly, I don't think we are. We get the products we want faster into the market, but we are much less likely to choose products based on our needs, in fact, once we have chosen a brand that sells us an identity, we will be held hostage by this choice, and we won't mind, in fact we will love it.

So what do I think Social Marketing has brought us ?
A Stockholm Syndrome.

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