In his remarkable retelling of the ancient story of David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell (in his book titled after the story) reminds us that often, rule-changers win battles. “There is an important lesson,” he tells us, “for battles with all kinds of giants. The powerful and strong are not always what they seem.”
When United Airlines found themselves the reluctant star of a music video that went viral, starring an unhappy passenger and the guitar they broke in transit and then refused to fix, their reputation sustained a blow to the head. When Verizon found that a student in a university dorm had gathered nearly 200,000 signatures on a petition inside of 24 hours, their marketing strategy changed. Ask executives at retail giant The Gap about their logo, and they are likely to mention the bruising they took from consumers on social media when they tried to change it. When McDonald’s in the U.S. thought it might be smart to ask for #McDStories to use social media to publicize how much consumers enjoyed their food, they got a forum decrying it instead.
The list goes on and on, all of them towering giants with equally huge media budgets, knocked out by an army of Davids with their social media slings, pitching battle against perceived injustices.
Don Tapscott, in his book Macrowikinomics, recognizes what he calls the “rise of the citizen regulator.” He points out that a, “strong undercurrent of discontent has been amplified by the Internet and now constitutes a major force in ‘regulating’ corporate behavior around the world.” Many global brands have responded.
Customers have felt—and expressed—disappointment since commerce began. That’s nothing new, but two simultaneous waves of change have converged into an immensely powerful new force. The first, obviously, is digital technology and more specifically, social media. Its power is amplified by the period of intense individualization in which we are living.
What social media enables is the mass fusing of individual experience on an unprecedented scale. What was once an annoyed few has become a mobilized and very vocal many. One negative experience gets echoed by a host of other dissatisfied voices, people who just happen to feel the same way but who, until very recently, would never have been able to mobilize for a common cause with such speed and agility.
No business of any scale can ignore its digital critics. They are, in fact, the most influential voices to which it has ever had to pay attention. Thus, the goliath brands – even armed with all the power granted by their massive budgets – are no match for the million davids who confront them armed with nothing but the sling of social media.
Naturally, prudent and adaptive businesses are heading in a welcome direction—toward honesty. Peppers and Rogers, authors of, The One-to-One Future, suggest in their most recent work, Extreme Trust, that, “…if you want to succeed, you will need your customers to see you as reliable, dependable, credible, helpful, respectful, open, responsive and honest. Whether you’re any of these things or not, they’ll still be telling their friends about you.”
For those of us who wake up each morning thinking that it would be great if the world got a little better today rather than a little bit worse, this is a remarkably encouraging turn of events.
Peppers and Rogers continue, “…transparency increases the cost of hiding the truth. More efficient interactivity exposes truths that used to be inexpensive to hide.” Paul Gillin, author of The New Influencers, put it this way, “Transparency may be the most disruptive and far-reaching innovation to come out of social media.” Peppers and Rogers later concluded, “Mere trustworthiness, fine until now, will no longer be enough to compete with companies that have figured out how to be genuinely trustable.” Their thesis is that “extreme trust” is quickly becoming a basis of competitive advantage.
This phenomenon whereby the voices of customers have become the authority that demand transparent authenticity is something my friend and colleague, John Seifert at Ogilvy & Mather, terms “the new coin of the realm.” It is a momentous power shift, and it is one of the fundamental drivers of Telosity.
The power driving this shift in business attitudes comes not from owners—the shareholders—but from their various publics, each of whom hold to ransom every boardroom that would cross their path. This isn’t a trend; it’s a new reality. Now and in the future, successful business will not be done in secret but transparently and under the gaze of a watchful public, ready to exercise a more vocal governance and oversight than any board might have dared.
I, for one, think we will all be the better for it.