Douglas Rushkoff is an author, teacher, and documentarian who focuses on the ways people, cultures, and institutions create, share, and influence each other’s values. He lectures around the world, and will keynote the 2010 Social Commerce Summit. He has a unique view of brands and how new media changes the game (or takes it back to its core) for brands.

At the Social Commerce Summit, you’ll be speaking to hundreds of manufacturers, retailers, and service providers who want to open themselves up to learning from their own customers. How does “thinking inside the box” relate to them? How have brands responded thus far to your message?rushkoffbiopicmed

Well, brands can’t actually respond to anything. Maybe that’s the whole point. Brands aren’t alive. They’re myths. The brand was invented in the earliest days of corporatism, as a way to recreate the experience of a human relationship with the person you used to buy from. You bought shoes from a cobbler, beer from the beermeister, and so on. You had relationships with those people.

The industrial age meant separating producers from consumers, so brands needed to be invented to bridge that gap. The Quaker on the box of oatmeal helped people feel as good about a long-distance, packaged product as they did about the one made by their friend. And mass media arose to broadcast those myths and images across the country, so that people would have relationships to brands before they ever even saw the products.

In an era of social media, mass media is no longer exclusively the province of brands. It is reconnecting people to one another. So traditional branding ends up being more of an obstacle than a vehicle.

Instead, companies need to learn to communicate. People inside the company need to communicate – socially- with consumers beyond the company’s walls. And consumers need to be communicating – socially – with one another. All of this communication will end up being based on what actually happens inside the company.

I know it sounds absurd in a post-Jack Welch universe, but the very best way to create good, positive  communication about your products is to have people in your company who have at least some knowledge of how the products work, how they are made, and how to improve them.

This means that successful companies in an era of social and transparent communication actually have to have some involvement in the products they’re making. They need to hire people who know about the industry. If they make clothes, for example, they need to have some clothing designers inside the company, working with them.

It may sound sarcastic, but to do well in the current brand universe, the company is actually going to have to focus on the thing it says it does. So the Gap becomes less about whether they can get Sarah Jessica Parker in an ad, and more about making good sexy jeans. Sarah can’t do the communicating anymore. The jeans – and the people making and wearing them – must do that.

What’s the most important thing companies can do to continuously innovate?

Put the experts in the middle, not at the bottom. Create a culture dedicated to the industry they are in. Share secrets with the rest of the industry, which will make everyone realize you care more about your future than your past. If you are ready to share your past successes, it means you are the place that is innovating for the future.

Measure your success not just in quarterly reports, but in unconventional metrics – like how many unsolicited resumes from competent people are coming in?

What’s the best example of a company that’s innovating well and why?

There’s no best example. Lots of companies are doing it in different ways. Some – like P&G – innovate well and poorly. Apple used to innovate well but now looks to be innovating less so. Google is innovating, but with no clear direction. It’s a more complicated question than finding a best. But that’s why we’re going to get together to talk about all this.

We’re looking forward to hearing Douglas speak in April. Find out more about the Social Commerce Summit here.

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