Some brands go medieval on their customers

Here we are in the year 2011, yet when we analyze current brand practice it appears that some brands behave as if we’re still in the Middle Ages, way back in the year 1011. In effect, they go medieval on their customers, treating them as a passive flock whose fate is to be told what to believe—and then to believe it heart and soul.

Medieval messaging

The medieval model of brands assumes a static, stratified society with brands on top and customers below. It puts the company on a throne, or in a pulpit, high above customers, dispensing brand doctrine to (hoped for) awestruck believers. It’s very much a one-way show of medieval messaging. And these days, it’s also a risky one.

Times have changed

It’s risky because times have indeed changed. The year 2011 is not the year 1011. When it comes to brands, the medieval approach now stands out as a potential brand weakness, for three reasons: 1) the medieval style places artificial barriers between companies and their customers; 2 it positions customers as a passive audience, who can’t add value back to the brand; and 3) it relies on closed brand doctrine, minimizing brand innovation and shared discovery.

A containment agenda

The medieval style of brands follows a containment agenda. It wants to freeze time, and to freeze customers in place—in 2011!—when customers have more to offer brands than ever before. In the medieval model, a brand that might become a joint (customer) venture with a live edge is reduced to a steady stream of preachments from on high, into a confined, compressed 2-D space without perspective or horizons—with no place for customers to grow.

Elements of the medieval model

The medieval model for brands typically sustains itself by using indoctrination techniques to instill desired beliefs and emotions in customers. It does this instead of innovating to create new brand value. Its brands are designed as messages, rather than as avenues of innovation.

The medieval model includes:

1. A belief system (doctrine) based on glorifying the company and the brand
2. A top-down process of inculcation (”messaging”)
3. A static universe untouched by innovation and change
4. Use of music, images, symbols, signs and icons to foster and fortify belief
5. Rituals and rites of passage
6. Myths and stories to make the brand appear authentic and magical
7. A passive, dependent role for the customer

Medieval style brands invite disruption

As the world transitions to a digital age, leaving much of traditional mass media behind, brands that embrace the medieval style become increasingly vulnerable to brand innovation from competitors, and to brand disruption from below, where customers chart a new course for themselves. By confining customers and holding them back, the medieval model works against itself. It helps make its customers ripe for the taking.

What shape will that customer liberation take? It will be participative, decentralized, proactive and bottom-up, just like the advent of printing, the growth of cities and private enterprise and popular movements helped sweep Europe out of the Middle Ages into a much more vigorous and productive era.

Competing against medieval style brands

Emergent brands may find themselves pitted against medieval style brands that still dominate certain markets. How should the emergent brand frame its disruptive strategy?

Medieval blood in the water

It should first understand that the weakness of the medieval approach is that it clings to an old order, protecting old hierarchies. It requires more and more messaging at a time when customers want results, not concocted feel-good stories. A medieval style brand will focus on itself rather than its customers. When you see brand messages suddenly spurt “genuine,” “heritage,” tradition” and “authenticity,” you know there’s a medieval style brand in the area. (In fact, the above four words are often signs of that brand’s blood in the water.)

Hiding behind their symbols

Medieval style brands often hide behind their symbols and signs. Often, they’re scared of change, and cling tightly to their diminishing domains. They may focus their brand efforts on guarding their intellectual property, even if that renders them narrow and brittle. They may concentrate on flagship displays, even as that isolates them from the creative edge. Steps like these increase the divide between the shrinking world those brands are protecting, and the booming real world that customers are exploring.

Weak links

If you’re competing with a medieval style brand, start by analyzing the customer behavior that the brand tries to induce. That will expose potential weak links in the brand. Does the brand treat its customers as proactive partners, or as serf-like subjects? Does it consider customers as co-creators of brand value, or as passive sheep? Does the brand create customers as live wires, or as dead ends?

The answers can indicate how fast—and how far—the subject brand can react to outside brand threats. By trying to contain its customers, it has made them ripe for new experiences—where they can carry the ball. That’s a systemic weakness it has brought upon itself.

A medieval style brand builds a castle and walls its customers in. Challenger brands can invite them outside to play.

The medieval model pays an internal price

The medieval model cuts internally as well. As a rule, brands treat their employees like they treat their customers. When customers are considered sheep, employees aren’t far behind. That pushes innovation to the back burner, and gives competitors another weapon.

How does your brand position the customer?

How a brand positions its customers says more about the brand than how the brand tries to position itself. The medieval model of brands is a case in point. The medieval style is to position the customer as low as possible. The lower you position the customer, the higher your brand appears. Brands that are top-down and doctrine-driven position their customers as a lowly, inert audience, to be stimulated or manipulated, and whose only “interaction” is to soak up the message. The (fatal) downside to this approach is that it reduces a brand’s range of motion—within itself, and within its customers. By working so hard to contain its customers, the brand caps itself.

The medieval model in a digital world

The medieval model of brands is at home in a one-to-many broadcast world where customers had limited access to information, and media outlets were few. In such an environment, brands promulgated from a mass-media pulpit can gain a widespread following. However, when the means of communication are significantly broadened, and information proliferates globally, as with the Internet and the Web, those “medieval” brand structures can impede brand growth. They’re predicated on containing customers at a time when the world of information is setting customers free.

A drag on the brand

Thus, in the digital era the medieval approach becomes a drag on the brand. It makes the brand detached, top-heavy, and backward- focused. It prevents it from tapping in to customer ideation and initiative, and from running on customer power.

In the digital era, the brands that will grow the fastest will be those that cast aside pulpits and icons. They will break down hierarchies and walls, working from inside the customer out. Rather than aim to make customers believe, they enable customers to be more, and to do more, through the brand. Customers carry the brand with them as they explore new paths.

The alternative: an experience model for brands

There’s something to be said for a brand model that is not medieval, i.e., not doctrine-driven from a glorified throne or pulpit. Perhaps there’s an opportunity for an experience model of brands that’s similar to Zen. Instead of being a broadcast ideology, the brand works to awaken the customer to a larger reality from within, in ways that resonate with nature. Instead of being a process of top-down conversion, the brand is a process of enlightenment and spiritual growth, from the inside out. This process might focus on raising questions rather than on drilling a doctrine. It is brand as a “way,” rather than a state of one-dimensional belief.

If this is a brand path of the future, who would be leading? And who would be playing catch-up?

Images : WikiMedia Commons