“Curator Culture” and Branding

In a recent article on his blog, Steven Addis, the CEO of the CEO of Addis Creson, a Berkeley, CA based branding firm, postulates that we have shifted into a “curator culture.” Like museum curators, the new consumer has “unlimited resources to research products, review them for others, and expose the disingenuous….the ability to transmit on a mass scale…. with credibility corporations have all but squandered.”

This idea is not new, although the terminology may be unique. It is similar to the premise of Brand Hijack and Creating Customer Evangelists and my own writing on the subject of customer co-creation and brands. And earlier than that, in 2001 and before, brand futurist Marian Salzman was talking about the “prosumer,” or “empowered consumer,” noting that customers had seized the reins from marketers and were increasingly demanding—and getting—their way.

What is unique about the curator culture concept? The role of brands, which has shifted. As consumers enjoy a higher-level status, companies’ status has been lowered to that of potential peer. And curator customers only trust peers that behave in a certain way. In effect, brands need to step off their high horses and get into the mud with the average consumer, becoming one of them—like them—no higher in level. Addis outlines several ways that companies like this “are earning our trust”:

1. Locate and serve a niche market: “Consumers reward the brands that speak directly to them. The more they feel understood, the more they bond. In spite of this, the natural tendency of companies is to extend their brands as wide as possible in the hopes that they might appeal to everyone. These mega-brands inevitably fall on their own weight as they lose the connection with their core audience.” Companies can serve the masses, but they have to do so by hosting “a portfolio of narrowly defined brands.” He gives the example of Toyota, which created the Lexus brand for luxury buyers, and the Scion brand for the polar opposite—urban youth without a lot of money. He notes that Scion billboards proudly state: “So wrong for so many.” Personally, I’m not sure this is an aspect of curator culture, but rather the continuing kingship of positioning, which has recently come under attack.

2. Act trustworthy: This is a no-brainer. Addis writes: “The Curator Culture cuts both ways—consumers reward the sincere and expose the disingenuous. As John Feldman, partner at the law firm Reed Smith said, ‘If you’re in the business of selling candy, sell candy; if you’re in the business of selling burgers, sell burgers.’” You can be a “bad” brand, as long as you’re honest about it, but if you act like a “good” brand and are not, you’ll get trounced. “An infamous example of corporate duplicity was the controversy surrounding the Working Families for Wal-Mart blog,” he states as an example. “At first glance, the site appeared to be a grassroots organization countering the public criticism of Wal-Mart by union-backed groups like Wake Up Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart Watch. But it was later revealed that this site was actually created by Wal-Mart and their public relations company, Edelman. Wal-Mart was publicly flogged for creating the impression of spontaneous, grassroots behavior.”

3. Invite customers to co-create the brand: “In the current zeitgeist, the ‘tell-and-sell’ approach of traditional advertising is waning. Today’s consumers have become accustomed to having a growing impact on the success of a brand. So, when a company invites its customers to participate in their brand, it’s saying that it values them and their opinion.” Examples range from letting M&M consumers vote on a new candy color; letting LEGO customers “design and buy their own custom LEGO models, and share their designs with others”; a director meeting with “nontraditional media” (e.g., bloggers) to generate publicity for the movie Superman Returns; and even allowing customers to create the TV commercials for Doritos and Chevy.

4. Act as an advocate for other consumers. “Some companies actually rise to the level of peer by putting the consumer’s interests above its own.” This is notable, he says, in the Progressive Insurance business/brand strategy of showing customers quotes from itself as well as its competitors.

5. Be original—independent of other brands. “The new consumer values originality and can easily perceive ‘me-too’ brands,” writes Addis. “The courage to differentiate from other brands is a weapon against mediocrity. Nobody rushes to share a mediocre experience with a friend. But, I underscore ‘courage,’ as most companies’ tendency to frame brands errs to the familiar, leaving the courageous few to be envied. Part of this differentiation is creating “a great story,” as the Verse Group has also emphasized. Of course, as noted above, other peers (consumers) to the brand will want to have a hand in generating those stories themselves, now that we are in the age of YouTube.

6. Provide an experience of elation—more than just satisfaction. “A common misconception is that the opposite of dissatisfaction is satisfaction. Satisfaction falls in the middle of the continuum. The opposite of dissatisfaction is something more like elation. Satisfaction should be the bare minimum companies expect from us,” writes Addis. An example Addis provides is JetBlue giving customers great snacks “like Terra Chips, pistachio biscotti, and jumbo cashews—and they certainly don’t charge for them. Every seat has DirectTV and XM Satellite Radio, and in select airports, free wireless hotspots are provided. Best of all, they keep their prices competitive, which has earned them a loyal, evangelistic customer base.” (He adds: “This, coupled with its CEO’s sincere apology posted as an online video, got them over a dramatic lapse in their service last winter.”)

Addis argues that consumers “do feel special bonds with the very few brands that rise to the level of peer….While you might not be able to put your finger on exactly why you love the brands you do, they stand out above the others by instinctively understanding the power of the Curator Culture.”

I think these points are well worth companies’ pondering. As much as other books and articles have provided a cultural context and some understanding of the elevation of today’s consumer, this article provides some concrete guidance for brands seeking to cope in this new environment.