Drinking from the fountain of youth

The authority that used to accompany age is questionable currency in the economy of youth. So our columnist thought it wise to consult with an authority on the subject, Kasi Bruno, customer experience manager at Wind Mobile, about brands and her relationship with them.

The authority that used to accompany age is questionable currency in the economy of youth. So our columnist thought it wise to consult with an authority on the subject, Kasi Bruno, customer experience manager at Wind Mobile, about brands and her relationship with them

WN: Kasi, in a recent Canadian Business article, writer Andrew Potter claims that Naomi Klein’s landmark No Logo has become the most influential marketing manual of its time, and that with the help of Twitter and YouTube, the subversive techniques of social activism highlighted in that book have become co-opted by the very brands that Klein assailed. Has this had any effect on the attitude that youth have towards brands today?

KB: We know that, ultimately, all roads lead to a transaction. No one is pulling the wool over our eyes. Rather, the difference is that if a brand can listen to us, entertain us, make our lives easier, give us a story to tell or a movement to support, we’re interested.

WN: So even though you see through the tropes and schemes, you’re still willing to experience brands?

KB: We’re just as intrigued as anyone by the prospect of being the star of a brand story. The notion of ‘us’ being built into the brand is appealing, even though in that article you referenced, Potter calls this ‘colonization of the sense of self.’

WN: Is it still ‘colonization’ if you’re actively engaged in building the brand?

KB: Yes and no. If a brand sells without listening and through gimmicks, then that’s invasive. If, however, a brand is authentic, then it’s not colonization. A brand is real when it listens, acts with integrity and keeps its promises.
A great engaging brand is also flexible, dynamic and malleable. You have to be willing to make some changes or, more importantly, you have to be willing to have your customers make their own changes.

WN: A lot of brands would be uncomfortable with surrendering that much control. Can you think of any who have made such a leap of faith?

KB: Threadless is a good example. It’s a t-shirt company that solicits all of its designs from its customers, then sells these designs online. Jeffrey Kalmikoff, CCO of parent co Skinnycorp, explains it thusly: ‘The community changes the brand to suit them. We don’t have expectations of what Threadless will be. We just manage the parameters.’
An authentic brand also closes the loop by communicating its evolution as a result of customer conversations. Starbucks and Lululemon do this well, and Microsoft’s Windows 7 campaign revolves around this very concept.
 
WN: This notion of setting the context without imposing the content works perfectly for a brand like Threadless, but how does a big organization do the same thing?

KB: My Starbucks Idea is an online forum where customers submit ideas, and the community votes and discusses the suggestions. The company also tests new concepts through polls and guided discussion on the site. If Starbucks implements a community idea, in-store collateral identifies the addition as a community-sourced concept, thus closing the feedback loop. 
Similarly, Lululemon has in-store suggestion boards, a robust online presence through social media, along with its own interactive website and blog, and incorporates more formally structured conversations through team R&D and its ambassador program.
Another thing Starbucks and Lululemon have in common is a strong reputation for phenomenal customer-facing staff. Conversations with a brand are possible only if conversations with its people are genuine.

Will Novosedlik is VP brand + communications at Wind Mobile. He can be reached at novosedlik@gmail.com. Kasi Bruno can be reached at kasi.bruno@rogers.com.