At a brand seminar last week, TIME’s Managing Editor Richard Stengel was straightforward: he doesn’t consider TIME to be in the news or the information business like, say CNN. He says TIME is in the knowledge and wisdom business.
He was explaining how his team tried to differentiate TIME (the #1 magazine brand on college campuses – go figure) from the deluge of information raining down on all of us.
“What can we do?” he asked as he flipped through recent covers. “We can convert information into knowledge and wisdom. We can be a trusted guide through the chaos.”
It was an interesting metaphor. Traditionally, corporate guidance has been a financial term, and firms are said to provide “future guidance” in conjunction with earnings announcements.
Being a “trusted guide through the chaos” should apply to earnings guidance, but it’s a far more interesting notion outside the markets. In this larger context, being a guide in an uncertain world would imply a company was providing metabolized information, special utility, or informed perspective to help consumers navigate not just the stock market, but the landscape of life.
In this larger sense, “guidance” bucks the trend in this recessionary environment as an appreciating brand asset.
It stands to reason that in a world of voluminous, decontextualized information “streams” and countless authors and opiners of wildly varying levels of accountability, the trusted, steady and informed guide that helps us navigate has a coveted place. And it follows closely that some brands beyond media brands have a distinct opportunity to help consumers wade through the muck by shaping and sharing what they know.
When no one has answers, interpretation, insight, translation and context have real value. So do proprietary data and intellectual property. These brand assets are differentiators if communicated effectively.
In science and in the military, experts use the term “dynamic guidance” to describe devices that give real time feedback on critical and delicate maneuvers, whether in the sky or in the body. In this environment, one might argue that brands have the opportunity to do something similar.
And yet Stengel also mentioned that the magazine has approached advertisers who say they have the money to advertise but “don’t know what our message is.” And so they stay silent, out of the fray.
One of the issues may be the current push back against perceived certainty (Stengel described certainty as “toxic” in this environment). One woman in the small group asked: “If you don’t have certainty, how can you have clarity for marketing messages?” But isn’t that the wrong question? “Answers” are not the same as guidance or knowledge or wisdom or even point of view. Easy marketing “messages” founded on discredited conventional wisdom are, at best, neutral in times as tumultuous as these. At worst they ring hollow, harmful and false.
So what can a brand offer?
We’ve written previously about ING and its distinctive efforts to provide consumer guidance with its We the Savers initiative that includes the idea of passing along the knowledge, according to CEO Arkadi Kuhlmann.
Outside the financial sector, consider the Google power meter initiative. This technology allows consumers to see their power usage down to individual appliances — data previously hidden — and reduce their footprint accordingly.
And Progressive Insurance not only shares the rates of competitors to help consumers make informed decisions, but their new MyRate program provides participants with data on their individual driving patterns, allowing them to adjust their driving styles to reduce their rates (full disclosure — Progressive is a client of Patrick Davis Partners).
Brands with authentic information strengths, vast reserves of knowledge and special insights might consider using their secret sauces not just to inform product development, but also to inform marketing strategy. By channeling some of their expertise outside of “product” and creating useful content with guidance potential they may well create the best platform of all in a time of uncertainty – shared knowledge.
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