Brands for the Chattering Masses
By KEITH SCHNEIDER
Published: December 17, 2006 NYT
HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO ALL!!
FOR many, many decades, successful branding — one of the corporate world’s holy grails — involved a clear set of rules. Produce quality goods at the right price. Frame the value in memorable messages seen by millions on television and in print. Then fine-tune the pitch by measuring sales and evaluating consumer responses through letters, phone calls, focus groups and surveys.
Nowhere have those rules been applied more effectively than here, the home of Procter & Gamble, which made a fortune turning Crest, Pampers, and Tide into must-have items on household shopping lists. But the branding game has changed radically, largely because of the myriad choices the Internet provides consumers and because of the economic influence of widespread Web pontificating, known as the blogosphere, which barely existed as a popular force until about four years ago.
As consumers eagerly post word-of-mouth commentary in online communities, message boards and Web logs, a straightforward question confronts brandmeisters: Who wins and who loses as time-tested practices of mass production and mass marketing are undermined by the informed and often cranky voices of the knowledge age?
BuzzMetrics’ computer scientists and programmers, led by Sundar Kadayam, a 43-year-old software engineer, say they have developed sophisticated search engines to sweep the Internet and drill down into rich veins of extemporaneous word-of-mouth commentary and conversation found online.
The search engines retrieve phrases, opinions, keywords, sentences and images, and the company runs the data through processing programs powerful enough to sift millions of messages simultaneously. By analyzing vocabulary, language patterns and phrasing, the programs determine whether comments are positive or negative, and whether the authors are men or women, young or old.
BUZZMETRICS maintains that blogs and their attendant message boards and forums are tuning forks for consumer sentiment that threaten to upend traditional branding efforts. An influential blogger can undermine a brand faster than any grapevine ever before encountered in the marketplace, as the computer maker Dell discovered. The company’s level of service and quality was denounced by bloggers this year, and the complaints found broad exposure when one popular media site added its critical voice.
At the same time, positive word of mouth magnified by the Internet can be a boon, as Toyota discovered with its hybrid Prius sedan, which has been praised by admirers on sites created just for that purpose.
“There are winners and losers,” said Paul M. Rand, a partner and the global chief development and innovation officer at Ketchum Public Relations. “Companies adapt or go to the bottom. Consumer-generated content on the Internet is a complete disruptor. It forces companies to work smarter and listen harder.”
Marketing executives, awakened to both the threat and the potential, are scrambling to harness data culled online. BuzzMetrics, a pioneer in trolling for brand awareness on the Web, is still a tiny company: it says its revenue for 2006 will be about $20 million. For now, it occupies a sweet spot in a promising new industry, but should search giants like Google move more aggressively into its market, BuzzMetrics may find the going tougher.
“Search is at the core of everything Google does and we are more committed to improving search than ever before,” a Google spokesman said in an e-mail message. “We will continue to innovate our search technology to provide users with the fastest and most relevant search experience on the Web.”
For the time being, say analysts at Forrester Research and Jupiter Research, BuzzMetrics is at the front of its field. In a report published in September, Peter Kim, a Forrester analyst, said that brand monitoring appears poised for enormous expansion as companies shift priorities and resources in the $12-billion-a-year market research business. Emily Riley, an advertising analyst at Jupiter, predicts that companies will double spending on brand monitoring in 2007.
Among BuzzMetrics’ competitors are Umbria, based in Denver; Cymfony, in Watertown, Mass.; BrandIntel, in Toronto; Biz360 in San Mateo, Calif.; and MotiveQuest, in Chicago.
A “brand association map” drawn from online commentary about Nike, as compiled by Nielsen BuzzMetrics. Such maps aim to discover patterns in consumers’ opinions about particular brands.