Exploring “A Brand New World” radio doc

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It’s a brand new world.

Brand being the key word.

Coke, Starbucks, Nike—they all want to sell you something.

They always have. But today, brands are not just products and branding is not limited to marketing.

In this feature [CBC Radio] documentary, Ira Basen takes us inside a burgeoning brand culture where people obsess about their personal brands, form “relationships” with brands on social media, look to them as legitimate vehicles of social and political change, even as authentic sources of news and information.

“I could probably say that I don’t have any emotional connection with any news outlet that I follow on Twitter. But looking at brands, definitely, because I feel that I have that relationship with them. If a news outlet and my favourite brand had the exact same story, I’d probably go to my favourite brand.” [Excerpt from A Brand New World female interview subject]

The above is a transcript of the CBC Radio promotion for Ira Basen’s long-awaited documentary mentioned in a couple of earlier PR Conversations posts.

This 50-minute documentary aired on the CBC Radio One show, The Sunday Edition on Sunday, September 15, 2013.

Update: The archived audio can be accessed here. (And there are already a few comments on The Sunday Edition web page in reaction to the documentary.) If it is also made available as a podcast within a few days of airing. I will update with a second link.

Also see Branding everything: Putting a new spin on language, culture, politics, an article written by Ira Basen on the CBC website that relates to the radio documentary. h/t Terry Flynn on Twitter for finding it and pointing it out to me.

A Brand New World subject experts

I know many people were interviewed by Ira Basen over the past year as he explored various areas and grew his own understanding of this online world and concept. I asked him to provide me with a list of the subject experts that made the final cut.

In alphabetical (not documentary appearance) order, they are:

– Sarah Banet-Weiser, University of Southern California (LA)

– Guy Duncan, Coca-Cola (Atlanta)

– Lewis D’Vorkin, Forbes.com (NYC)

– Kenneth Evans, Apex PR (Toronto)

– Chris Hogg, Digital Journal.com (Toronto)

– Margery Kraus, APCO Worldwide (NYC)

– Rebecca Lieb, Altimeter Group (NYC)

– Wally Olins, Saffron Brand Consultants (London, UK)

– Joe Pulizzi, Content Marketing Institute (Cleveland)

Admittedly, this isn’t the documentary I was anticipating…

Based on Ira Basen and my conversation in the summer of 2012 and the presentation he gave at the June 2013 CPRS conference, I thought this A Brand New World doc was going to be more corporate communications-focused (i.e., how brand journalism/corporate media and/or content marketing is growing, meaning organizations have less reliance on traditional media for third-party validation/endorsements and profile).

When queried about the (new) direction his doc took, Ira Basen told me his research led to conclusions about the evolution of people’s relationships with brands on social media—hence the title—but that some of the time is devoted to content marketing, brand journalism, sponsored content, owned/corporate media, the future of traditional media, etc.

To my less-than-enthusiastic response that it appeared to be a marketing-focused doc, I was informed by Ira that it’s not really about brand marketing, although that is part of it. “It is about branding as an economic and cultural strategy and about how in our ‘brand culture,’ we accept brands playing a greater role in different parts of our lives like marketing, government, media etc.”

It seems it is subject expert Sarah Banet-Weiser—who was just appointed as USC Annenberg‘s new director of the School of Communication—who influenced this conclusion about “brand culture” the most.

Not only is it A Brand New World, apparently it’s also a small one, as I attended a guest lecture by Banet-Weiser in September 2012 at the Munk School. I can attest she does cast a critical lens upon how much society is allowing brands to influence thinking. Her lecture, based on a chapter from her book Authentic: the politics of ambivalence in a brand culture—focused on Dove soap branding over the years (1950s-70s; 1970s-90s; 1990s-present) and how it related to (American) political economy, technology, political ideology and consumer identity.

Ira shared some of the Banet-Weiser interview that didn’t make it into the final doc, where she describes the premise of the book,

“I take a broad picture of culture…of our media landscape and talk about how it is that brands and brand strategies and brand logic and brand language permeate our cultural practices, our ways of being, our ways of organizing ourselves, our creativity. So, I’m not really looking at specific brand campaigns for particular products because I’m trying to make a broader argument there, that what we’re living in is in fact a brand culture, where brands are ubiquitous. Everyone in the US, in any case, has some kind of relationship with brands, even if it’s kind of an anti-branding relationship…. “

He also pointed me to a couple of articles by Richard Edelman on the topics of owned media, sponsored content and native advertising (it’s true—a lot of marcomm agencies are jumping all over this area for new revenue streams, as well as to ensure the advertising agencies don’t steal traditional turf and clients), plus this one by documentary subject expert, Lewis D’Vorkin of Forbes.

Anyhow, I will be listening on Sunday morning and will attempt to keep an open mind, although I like to think I’m not overly influenced by any one “brand.” Well, maybe an exception is the CBC—the Canadian public broadcaster—”brand.”

I tend to be more pragmatic about the influence of brands on people…as well as how influential or not is social media sentiment on brands. It’s why I warmed to Augie Ray’s November 2012 post, How Powerful Is Social Media Sentiment Really?

Promotional culture already covered

When I shared the advance radio documentary information with Heather Yaxley, she commented,

“It sounds like Ira is talking about promotional culture—I wonder if he’s mentioning the main proponent of the concept, Andrew Wernick, who is Canadian and at the faculty of Trent University. He might also like to check out Aeron Davis’ book, Promotional Cultures: The Rise and Spread of Advertising, Public Relations, Marketing and Branding. I haven’t read it but would seem to cover much the same ground.

Promotional culture is an interesting perspective on modern society and why so many people do take a promotional approach to PR. You may recall that I wrote a PR Conversations post on it a while ago (as I’ve written a chapter on PR and promotional culture in a book published earlier this year).”

So, in trying to determine whether “promoting” A Brand New World on PR Conversations was an appropriate fit (apparently “public relations” is not mentioned in the documentary), it was good to hear from my co-content editor that we’ve already covered this area–a much-commented upon post, in fact–just under a different name.

After you’ve had a chance to listen to A Brand New World it would be great to get a conversation going here about your thoughts on Ira Basen’s premise and documentary.

And I bet he can be persuaded to respond.

Ira Basen’s earlier radio documentaries:

4 COMMENTS

  1. I very much enjoyed Ira’s program on Sunday and was stimulated by the brilliant narrative format.

    I do appreciate Judy’s reservations and was also surprised by the strong marketing-orientation of the program.

    However, Ira makes a very good point and expands on it with interesting quotes and cases: the fact is we are bound to be living in ‘a brand new world’ and public relators are fully immersed in it, involved and challenged by it, whether they like it or not.

    In the same hours of the program (more or less) David Carr wrote an article on sponsored contents on the NYT that is also very interesting. Harsher and more ‘corporativist’ than Ira’s, whose subtle, sly and intelligent tone is more in line with my thinking versus Carr’s sarcastic stiff upper lip (have-seen-it-all-before type) approach.

    Back in 2006 I was taken aghast in seeing at an academic (!) conference in Europe a young student awarded for a thesis exploring and rationalising his own brand presence in the digital environment.

    When I professionally grew up the public relator would never even dream of spending time on his own personal brand and would permanently shadow his client/employer.

    Today, personal brand, as Ira suggests, is only the beginning of a path that inevitably takes you all the way to today’s moribund state of journalism-as-we-hoped-it-had-always-been.

    Both Carr and Basin, albeit with different tones of voice, suggest this is not a good development for society, free speech and democracy.

    I agree with them, and am left wondering if Richard Edelman’s haste in formally defining ethical guidelines for his people when the agency officially entered into the sponsored contents arena besides an attempt to avoid another fall like the WalMart one that still haunts him (as he candidly and honourably confessed to my class at NYU last August), is not more like swimming against a tough tide…

    • Nice post, Judy, I really liked your coverage of Ira’s show, and the show itself. Toni, thanks for your insights and pointing out the Carr piece.

      These are good questions to ask, about the influence of commercialism and brands on journalism. Regarding Toni’s point: “Both Carr and Basin, albeit with different tones of voice, suggest this is not a good development for society, free speech and democracy.”

      But what, really, is the harm?

      Content marketing, corporate media, brand journalism, whatever you call it, often helps pay the bills of former and current journalists, who are hired by companies to write the content, and may not have many options as their field continues to shrink.

      I do agree that media properties should clearly call out sponsored content (in some cases/jurisdictions it might not just be a good idea, but legally required).

      Last I have seen, sponsored content does not compete with real shoe leather news reporting, it is more about features and educational pieces. All respect to Forbes, people do not go there to get information about local, civic or world affairs, or the info they need to make decisions in elections.

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