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Is advertising dead? The third way of building brand equity

"Advertising is failure," says Jeff Jarvis, and he thinks "media only get in the way of customer relationships." And indeed, how will you make more friends at a party? Showing up with a big banner around your neck that says "I am a great friend" or engagi

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There seem to be three (non-mutually exclusive) models for marketers tasked with building brand equity: marketing scarcity, marketing artificial scarcity, or marketing relevance.

Scarcity seems to be at the core of all marketing: an exclusive, unique value that can be reproduced; an original idea replicated for many. That's how markets work, how marketing works. Branding is effective when it keeps the aura of an original idea intact despite its mechanical reproduction. Apple's original idea, for instance, could be described as "technology must be fun and human," and it has not lost an inch of its integrity. That's the trait of a strong brand: the idea remains scarce while its distribution becomes abundant. The scarcity of all branded, manufactured products is of course artificial. If it wasn't, these products wouldn't need to be branded. That's the whole point (and the difference between water and bottled water.)

Some brands have taken this concept a step further by creating a special type of artificial scarcity: "democratic exclusivity." Sounds paradoxical? Well, it is. But it works. Gmail has pioneered it: An (exclusive) invitation-only service that pretty much everyone can get invited to (democratic). As another example, take Apple's strategy with the iPhone app store. It is a closed system (exclusive) but principally open for third parties (democratic). Look at the Kindle that Amazon purportedly shares as an app for other mobile devices. It shows that it's certainly good to have recognizable hardware (exclusive) but the true value lies in the software that you own and that you can use to extend the reach of your brand (democratic). Or Radiohead's pay-as-you-like release of "In Rainbows": Buyers could determine the price (democratic) but the offer only stood for a limited period of time (exclusive). The album - online and physical distribution combined - sold more than Radiohead's previous releases, and the radically democratic way of pricing created a significant amount of brand equity for the band. Democratic exclusivity at its best: artificial scarcity in abundance.

The third and perhaps most game-changing model for marketers is selling relevance rather than scarcity. Jeff Jarvis points to Digg's new advertising system that enables users to vote on ads. Techcrunch calls it a "self service advertising product" that is "somewhat similar to Google Adwords, but with a twist." The twist is essentially a reversal of the traditional advertising paradigm: The most popular ads, as voted on by Digg users, will get more prominent placement and a lower cost-per-click. In other words: The more users digg an ad, the less the advertiser pays. "The Digg system rests on a Cluetrainy need to deliver authentic value and relevance - like Google's ads," Jarvis notes, and he argues "that's the way advertising probably needs to go: The better your relationship (which springs from a better product and service), the more your customers will market it for you, the less you'll have to pay to market it." Jarvis is right: "The future of advertising needs to be selling - that is, enabling - relevance instead of selling scarce space, time, or eyeballs. The future needs to be about adding value - relevance - rather than selling scarcity (extracting what the market will bear)."

Equity is the accumulation, the repeated occurrence, of actions, interactions, and transactions that add value. The best way, then, to build brand equity is to repeatedly and consistently add value through all your interactions with customers. Advertising doesn't add value; branded content does (information). Promotions don't add value; branded entertainment does (entertainment). When you brand something, you don't just market scarcity and advertise your products and services, you market your ability to add value that is relevant.

The web, and the social web in particular, reconciles artificial scarcity with relevance, and that's why more and more branding dollars are moving online. It is the ideal forum for creating an abundance of scarce moments, thousands of small great ideas instead of one great big one. These small great ideas come to live in brief moments of attachment with customers that are personalized and truly relevant for them.

"Advertising is failure," says Jeff Jarvis, and he thinks "media only get in the way of customer relationships." And indeed, how will you make more friends at a party? Showing up with a big banner around your neck that says "I am a great friend" or engaging in a handful of conversations with strangers, listening to their stories and detecting affinities whilst accomplishing a sense of privacy that gradually becomes intimate? Right. In the end, that's what we should be doing as marketers to build real, sustainable brand equity - creating publicity through intimacy, loyalty through decency.