(Your Job Is To) Follow The Conversation

In the age of the empowered citizen, the age of trying to “control the conversation” is over. Well over.

It’s taken us a long time to actually get that memo, and some of us are still processing the digital ink it’s printed on. What it means.

Instead, there’s still a lot of focus on “brand-building”. Where a message is transmitted, sent, broadcast, conveyed, built, assembled, put together, created, integrated. Produced and reproduced consistently and in a “friendly, approachable” way across multiple channels.

Except now, we try to do it on Instagram and Snapchat.

Such activity is not completely fruitless. But it’s not the best you can do, either — not by a long shot.

Real branding means becoming a part of the ecosystem in such a way that your presence adds a perceived value.

  • Take food. While it’s true that a calorie is a calorie, ten minutes into Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown and you realize that a sandwich is very much a cultural production. So trying to sell it involves a hell of a lot more than simply toasting bread and loading it up with mayonnaise and meat.
  • Or real estate. How big a home ought to be, what features it must have, what distinguishes luxury from vintage from the lowdown and rundown involves a whole host of social decisions. Just watch House Hunters International.

Branding means being an inveterate and terrible observer of other people’s lives. It is curiosity about bikers discussing espresso variations at Starbucks. It is Birkenstocks fascination, “Stuff White People Like,” yoga pants to the knee, dads on Sunday wheeling baby strollers, messenger bags of a specific size, tie-dye kits at the craft store, vapes, the Ice Bucket challenge, Comic-Con, “Yes We Can,” Between Two Ferns, velociraptor memes, Teespring, the Internet of Things, Uber.

It is, further, following the conversation about those things. It is observing a Mother’s Day brunch at a sidewalk cafe, listening to people talk politics at Panera, seeing the questions that trend on Quora and the hashtags trending on Twitter. It is looking at the daily RSS feed and glancing at the articles that appear on the right side of Facebook with the little arrows.

Finally, it is tracing how the discussion of a thing, a cultural phenomenon, evolves from face-to-face, to Facebook, to Quora, to the Washington Post, a book, a late-night discussion of same, and then it’s boring…until someone resurrects it and the whole topic seems to begin anew.

If you think about it, branding is a lot like anthropology…watching the stock market…a kind of surfing.

Most of the job involves learning, then riding, the waves.


All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.

Leave a Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply