New economy based on relationship commodification

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry. Anyone who has read this column even once over the last few months knows that, like a lot...

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.

Anyone who has read this column even once over the last few months knows that, like a lot of other people these days, I am caught in the Web. It has woven itself into the fabric of my days and nights, quietly but irrevocably altering old habits of communication and patterns of behaviour. And because an increasing amount of my company’s business is Web-driven, it occupies more and more of my professional attention as well.

Next to the virtual vineyard in which I toil flows a river called e-mail, in which it seems I’m always paddling upstream. Communication via this channel has almost become a 24-7 thing. I bet there’s one or two coming my way right now – and it’s 11:10 p.m.

Probably over half of the trade publications I read are online. I can’t think of a better medium for the business press. It means the articles are shorter, but business reading should be short anyway. Leaves time for more important things, like novels and the arts section of the newspaper. Trouble is, it’s too easy to e-mail a Web page with an article on to colleagues, which means the business reading pile gets taller as the articles get shorter.

The big words on the Web are ‘customer’, ‘relationship’ and ‘experience’. I can’t help thinking that so-called Old Economy companies must be amused by the fact that the Internet has just discovered the customer. And of course, so-called New Economy companies are too busy trying to attract the attention of investors to notice customers yet. Everybody’s blinded by exponentially inflated valuations and stratospheric market caps. Sell stuff? We can do that later.

The very existence of the terms New Economy and Old Economy illustrates that we are at a loss to explain the current economic conditions. It’s as if they are a new kind of physics, a variation on the parallel universe theory of time travel. In a recent article in The Globe and Mail, Michael Hammer, the wizard of business process engineering and mother of all corporate hatchet men, dismisses the conceit of a ‘new’ economy. He says there is only one economy: The economy of the customer. And I think he is right.

But because the customer can be tracked as never before, the Internet, and now the wireless Internet, make the customer relationship into the holy grail of e-commerce. Because customers can be profiled, what you sell them can be customized to suit their personal preferences. Keep them happy, build an extended dialogue, and you start to build ‘lifetime value’. Jeremy Rifkin, author of the about-to-be-released Age of Access, argues that we have left behind an economy based on the commodification of goods in favour of an economy based on the commodification of human relationships. What the Web can do like no other technology is access customers, creating for companies all sorts of opportunities to buy those customers’ time.

If relationships are king, the online brand experience is the palace. Look for a lot of attention being paid to modeling this experience, constantly retuning it so that customers keep coming back and communities of shared interest are built. If anything, the Web is beginning to demonstrate that branding is more than just your logo. It’s every detail of your customer’s experience from the time they log on to the time they accept receipt of the goods.

And although the dot-coms are getting all the attention these days, I can’t help thinking the bricks-and-mortar brands, though slow to adapt, are ultimately better equipped to build brand experiences online because they’ve had to do it in real time and space. There are those who argue that when they finally do start to take the Web seriously, their combined weight will crush any second-tier dot-coms in their path.

It puts me in mind of a moment I had in a Loblaws store a year ago or so. While ambling through the produce section, I caught a few bars of a familiar Gershwin tune. Thinking it was the PA system, I was impressed because the music was, like, real. It wasn’t Muzak.

As I left the produce section, I realized the reason it sounded so real was, of course, because it was being played by a live jazz band.

As if that wasn’t enough, I knew the bass player. We got to talking about what it was like to do a jazz gig in the produce aisle and he said he was happy just as long as the occasional customer showed signs of appreciation. Which I most enthusiastically did, of course. Having reconciled my passion for jazz with the chore of Saturday morning grocery shopping, I have to say that on balance it was a good experience. It was also an experience that just couldn’t happen on the Web.

Will Novosedlik is a principal of Russell Inc. in Toronto. Russell Inc. builds brands with differentiation and emotional appeal for top-tier companies in both Canada and the u.s. Please direct correspondence by e-mail to or by phone at (416) 591-6677.

From Karen Howe’s dining table: Creativity, COVID and Cannes

ICYMI, The Township's founder gathers the best of the best campaigns and trends so far.

Cannes Base Camp

By Karen Howe

I’m attending Cannes from the glory of my dining room table. There’s not a palm tree in sight, yet inspiration and intel are present in abundance.

Cannes Lions is a global cultural pulse check. The social course correction in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and BLM has delivered far greater diversity in the judging panels as well as the work. And we are all better for it.

I’m proud to say that creativity defeated COVID, which speaks to its power. Great work and big ideas flourished, despite unimaginable odds.

The work from the past two years spans a vast emotional range. From the profundity of Dove’s “Courage is Beautiful” to the hyper exuberance of Burberry’s “Festive,” they are opposite ends of the spectrum, but each answered a need in us.

Take note, the ascendency of gaming cannot be understated. Smart brands have embraced the channel. It makes sense, because gamers participate to meet others around the world, not just to play. And they represent a huge and powerful community. That’s why QSR Wendy’s gamified their iconic gal in RPG’s Feast of Legends.

Burger King sponsored the unknown Stevenage Football Club, transforming the team into online heroes and vaulting BK into the fray at the same time. Once again, the brand embedded itself in culture.

The birth of gaming tourism arrived when Xbox snuggled up to travel guides and created a brilliant baby: a travel guide for gaming worlds. It, too, embedded itself in culture.

From the standpoint of social good, Reporter Without Borders showed how it worked with Mindcraft for its “Uncensored Library” to bypass press censorship, with Minecraft providing a loophole to a space where young people could be educated. It provided youth with a powerful tool to fight oppression: truth.

COVID changed us in unexpected ways. We learned how to pay attention again and there was a notable lack of 30-second commercials. Instead, longer format content thrived. Apple’s WFH was seven minutes long. Entertainment reigned king, so we find ourselves returning to our advertising roots.

Seeing competitive brands form partnerships was one of this year’s other great surprises. The brilliantly simple “Beer Cap Project” by Aguila to reduce binge-drinking saw the brand reach out to competitive beers to join in. Aguila put incentivizing (keyword: free) reminders to drink water, eat food and get home safely on its bottle caps from all sorts of fast food chains, ride-share co’s and H2O brands.

On a personal level, I’m so proud of Canada again this year. Given that it was two years of work from all over the world being judged, even making the Cannes shortlist was an accomplishment. Canada is herding in the Lions in tremendous numbers – and it’s not even over. Fingers are crossed.

KAREN-HOWE-PIC-higher-rez-300x263Karen Howe is a Canadian Cannes Advisory Board Member and founder of The Township Group