This is a book about why certain brands outperform the competition. Through close observation, we've determined how market leaders inject intensity into their products and services and turn them into experiences that truly matter to consumers. This is the "stuff " we refer to on the cover of this book. These highly charged experiences provide incendiary fuel for conversations that consumers engage in to define who they are. Because they have so much identity defining and affirming significance, having the power to shape such experiences is the new Holy Grail for businesses bent on leadership. And, like the Holy Grail, it is ultimately mysterious and elusive.
Or is it? We've written this book because we believe that creating such experiences is a process you can influence. It's not as mysterious as you may think. It is something you can manage through observation, insight, and, most importantly, creativity.
Our belief isn't just a matter of opinion. It's rooted in our direct experience with one of the biggest conversation-generating successes of the last quarter century: Cirque du Soleil.
In 2001, Cirque du Soleil asked us to redesign its website. The company was already an international live entertainment giant. With eight ground-breaking shows running in various traveling and permanent installations around the world, Cirque had achieved gross annual revenues of over 500 million dollars a year and counting. At the time, before user-generated content began maximizing the Internet's potential to create thriving online communities, Cirque already had a fan club boasting 300,000 dedicated members.
We soon became Cirque's main marketing communications agency and have been with the company ever since. Cirque du Soleil now has fi ve permanent shows in Las Vegas, one in Orlando, one in Macao, and nine shows on tour. Th ey have expanded into television, film, music, and, more recently, lifestyle products and experiences. Their business keeps growing and perhaps the most amazing thing about the company's remarkable evolution into a cultural icon is that it took place with almost no mass marketing to support it.
Before we began working on the new site, we had to come to terms with just how much the Cirque du Soleil brand meant to its fans. Almost everyone who had ever seen a Cirque show liked it. Many of them loved it and became repeat fans. Perhaps more importantly, a significant number of Cirque fans described the shows as life-changing experiences and became brand ambassadors, carrying the Cirque torch with them wherever they went.
All of this happened without even a nod of recognition to how things are supposed to work in conventional marketing practice. For decades, the accepted wisdom in industry circles has been that brands succeed only if a ton of money is thrown in the direction of mass marketing. Want to be noticed? Spend big on media. Make sure that television and print ads with a simple, easy-to-understand message about your brand get out there in front of as many people as possible, over and over and over again. Combining maximum reach with maximum frequency is the only way to go.
Except that didn't happen with Cirque du Soleil. Instead, the company's success grew organically, through word-of-mouth. Cirque is a success because people have taken it to heart, and made it part of their own personal narrativessomething they not only talk about with others, but that also defi nes who they are.
Nothing is more powerful than when consumers make your story part of their story. This is especially true today, in a fragmented media market that's spilling over with branded communication efforts. Obviously, mass-market communications can be meaningful and memorable, but it's getting harder than ever to break through the clutter. Even if a breakthrough happens, consumers who've grown up in the media age view "top-down" communication with suspicion and skepticism. When a message does succeed in getting across, it carries little weight.
Highly charged consumer advocacy through word-ofmouth communication represents the exact opposite. Unlike mass marketing, it's carried "horizontally" from peer to peer, so it has more power and authority. Consumers who believe in certain brand experiences and are vocal about their belief are the carriers. Like a virus, it spreads on contact fast.
Over the last several years, we've observed that, like Cirque du Soleil, the best products and experiences owe their success to word-of-mouth communication.
Data from a recent study by The London School of Economics titled "Advocacy Drives Growth" makes this clear. Th e study was conducted in the U.K., but its findings have universal implications. It found that positive word-of-mouth predicted sales growth for retail banks, car manufacturers, mobile phone networks, and supermarkets. It also revealed that companies with higher levels of word-of-mouth advocacy grew faster than their competitors and generated greater sales. 1
Word-of-mouth is valuable currency. Like any currency, we believe that its value can be managed. Build it properly and you have an asset that increases the value of your brand. Ignore it or spend it unwisely and you have a liabilityeven if you've invested millions above the line.
Because word-of-mouth advocacy is organic and democratic and because consumers control so much of its power, it can appear scary and unpredictable to marketers. It shouldn't be. What we've seen, time and again, is that positive word-of-mouth happens when a certain number of key factors are present in a brand story. We call these factors the engines of Conversational Capital. By becoming aware of and managing these engines properly, you can turn Conversational Capital into a toolbox that builds value into your product or service.
People are talking. We're writing this because we want you and your brand to be part of the conversation.
WE'RE COMMITTING SUICIDE HERE - We're advertising people, yet, in stumbling upon Conversational Capital, we have unearthed a truth about the branding process that boots the cornerstone of our business right out from under us. Th e discomfi ting thing about Conversational Capital is this: When word-ofmouth works well, traditional advertising and design become much less important. When the engines of Conversational Capital are built into your consumption experience, positive word-of-mouth is likely to follow. So we're stuck with a quandary: Do we spill the beans or shut our mouths and keep billing for the same old same old?
Too badMom always told us to share.
NO, NEVER MIND: WE'RE TOO LAZY! - On second thought, self-immolation requires too much energy. The truth is, advertising people are lazy by nature (otherwise, we'd be novelists, nuclear physicists, or whatever). The second truth about Conversational Capital is that it makes our jobs easier because it turns consumer experiences into tight, compelling stories. And the better the story, the simpler it is to write a great brief, come up with a killer strategy, and produce award-winning creative.
So let's work on that story together. It may be against our essential nature, but we'll do the heavy lifting (promise).
EXCUSE ME, BUT YOU'RE CALLING A LITTLE LATE - We consider ourselves storytellers by trade. We take your consumer experience and distill it into a narrative that's relevant to your target market. Most of the time, however, clients call us too late. By the time they do, they come to us with products and experiences that are already designed and with fully developed stories. And those stories...well, sometimes they're not as compelling as they could be. It's the curse of our business. Conversational Capital enables us to rework with you the narrative that informs your consumer experience, and it helps make that story one that people want to tell.
So, we don't have to spend a lot of time turning the sow's ears into silk purses.
When products and services become intense experiences, something powerful happens. They become fuel for conversations that consumers engage in to define who they are.
That process turns brands into market leaders. More importantly, what we've observed about market leaders like Cirque du Soleil and others tells why and how it happens.
Turning that process into something you can manage and control is what this book is about.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
Is this just another book about word-of-mouth?
We don't think so. Although this book acknowledges the fundamental importance of word-of-mouth in today's economy, it goes further than anything we've read in describing why and how word-of-mouth happens in the first place.
We think most people will agree, but this book is not intended as a closed discussion. We know there are intelligent and perceptive doubters and nay-sayers out there, and we welcome their points of view. Conversation about Conversational Capital can and will extend outside of this book!
Find out what other people are saying and tell us what you think at www.conversationalcapital.com.
1 Marsden , P., Samson, A., and Upton , N. "Advocacy Drives Growth." Brand Strategy. Nov/Dec 2005.