This year, we sent a group of CBXers to the Northside Festival, the innovation-centric conference in Brooklyn. The sessions featured brands and speakers spanning industries in technology, food, media, entertainment and politics discussing a wide variety of topics from AI, entrepreneurship, President Trump & James Comey, Instagram, and feminism to name a few. Whether it was discussing how technology would advance society, the implications of scaled information or how to innovate to tell better stories, regardless of industry, the root of all discussions rounded back to two fundamental questions: What are we creating and who are we creating it for?
Our conclusion was this: As brands and agencies (and the people who shill for them) attempt to decipher how to operate in our changing times, both in business and society, it is clear that connection is what we are all seeking. At CBX, we pride ourselves in creating content, in various forms and delivered in various ways, with the belief that connecting to the lives of people is what matters most. In creating content made to share, inform, entertain and sell, we are informed and inspired by culture. It is when circumstances are uncertain, unclear, and sometimes even tumultuous, that innovating how we connect with one another in significant ways through meaningful experiences becomes all the more important.
What is it?
One of the first sessions that kicked off the festival was “Transforming the Content Supply” featuring mostly speakers from the entertainment industry. Due to the resume of the speakers, the conversation addressed ‘content’ in relation to films and shows we consume in movie theaters, on television and computer screens. Addressing the importance of diversity and the need for stories told from difference perspectives, the conclusion from the speakers was how any form of significant content needed to be both a reflection of and mover of culture. As consumers of content (and consumers of what we’re being sold), we have the power- in the form of money and voice- to dictate what’s being created and brought to us.
But what happens when that content is misused? In a session coinciding with the former Director of the FBI James Comey’s Senate testimony, the subject of content- those who delivered it, their motivations and the repercussions of how it’s spread and shared- was unavoidable. In a session presented by news organizations The Intercept and Buzzfeed News, editors and writers debated the long term effects of not just the Russian hacking but its impact on how information is produced by its creators and processed by audiences. An interesting provocation was raised by The New Yorker’s Adrien Chen who drew parallels between marketing, Russian troll farms and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn; his point was the people flooding the ‘Comments’ section of many online outlets were no different than those who worked in PR to try to “shape” mass opinion and that Flynn was essentially the ultimate “Influencer.” An ability to reach a wide audience or be seen as an authority in some way has always been a method used by brands. However, when we view what we do through the dangerous lens of information manipulation, perhaps we should give our methods a second thought.
Who is it for?
“When you’re a brand, you must accept that consumers own your brand,” was a statement kicking off a panel addressing start-ups featuring Julie Mossler, Head of Brand at Waze and Jackson Jeyanayagam, CMO of Boxed. Both companies addressed the specificities of scaling in their unique industries (in their cases, traffic & navigation and bulk wholesale retail) and how important it was to focus on iterating your product for the consumer. In the case of Waze, this meant not just for consumers in urban cities and developed countries but in locales where the need was most dire. In areas with the most congested traffic, it was pointed out that Waze was working with local governments to analyze driving and traffic patterns and data so more effective infrastructure could be built. Often times, innovation is the route in seeking additional ways of connection. However, brands could also benefit in surveying the current ways they connect with consumer and try to make it better, asking themselves “How can I provide more effective value…especially to those who need it most?”
A similar sentiment was echoed by Justin Stanwiz, the CRO of Nanotronics, the nanotechnology company that self describes on its website as “Combining optical microscopy, computational super-resolution, artificial intelligence and robotics….bringing the world’s most advanced microscopy to every manufacturing sector. ” Nanotronics operates in the super niche world of industrial microscopes; however its technology and products are used by a wide spectrum of manufacturers, all aiming to operate more efficiently- this is a sentiment that can be shared by all business regardless of industry. Stanwiz, stated, “Where consolidation is happening is where you’ll see innovation.” If all companies can agree that providing maximum consumer ease is the best way to connect with them, the ways in which we all start innovating won’t be to just sell more but to make people’s lives better.
However, while brands should aim to make people’s lives better, that doesn’t mean it should be everyone all at once. Sallie Krawcheck, the CEO and founder of Ellevest, an investment platform for women, recounted her journey of starting Ellevest and being met with skepticism of her “niche” target demographic by initial investors she pitched. Her belief was “If you’re targeting everyone, you’re targeting no one.”
As a brand, it’s wiser to target and communicate to a very focused group. But what if you’re the mass vehicle people are using to do so? Kevin Weil, Instagram’s Head of Product in a discussion with Buzzfeed News emphasized the company’s mission of “Strengthening relationships” which is clearly represented in the platform’s recent product releases from Stories, Live, Direct Message etc. He recalls the company’s initial offer as a platform for users to share highlights of their lives to their current ambition of being a place where users share ALL aspects of their lives. Whether it be sharing something in a DM versus to all your followers…or posting something you can recall ten years later versus one you recall for only 24 hours. Weil’s point is his brand is trying to find more ways to be apart of a person’s life which is the ambition all brands should have- how to design a product to be present in more touch points throughout a person’s life.
One industry grappling with multiple “connection” points with an added layer of context (the depth of the connection) is inarguably the music industry. In a robust conversation with executives from Beats1, Spotify and Soundcloud, the subject of streaming was addressed. While connecting people to music has never been a problem (ie. the radio, a live concert, a CD, a music video etc), the advent of Napster and streaming significantly changed the industry. Nowadays, the primary way to connect to music is through streaming services which has brought on concerns such as the decrease of album sales, the argument for/against music ownership, the heightened dependency of concerts as an income source amongst other things. As technology continues to evolve affecting the way music is made, marketed and shared, Beats1 Ebro stated, “Innovating how we connect with audiences is most important.” Again, as repeated in various session and speakers, innovating product and service is important but even more so, is innovating connection.
With contributions by:
Kent Lam, Associate Director Verbal Strategy
Photo courtesy of Northside Festival