It seems 2007 was the year which brought everyone to their feet.
Whilst it’s been bubbling under for the past few years, 2007 saw the social revolution came above ground as a number of leading brands finally joined in the conversation. And they didn’t stand still either. More and more conversations between buyer and seller (and eavesdropper) took place on the move as the hand-held vied with the desktop to host the critical exchange.
As it’s done with impressive ease for the past few years, Apple proved that you can be both social butterfly and busy bee with the introduction of the iPhone, a brand extension that seems to have captured the imagination of much more than the generation of early-adopters who typically embrace the new technologies.
This was the year too, when the big players began to cotton on to the social niceties, with fewer talking at us and more prepared to chat with us and listen to what we have to say. Facebook applied more than a little face-paint to lead the new dance when it introduced its clumsily named but twinkle-toed Application Programming Interface, which allows us to play with the technology and make adjustments that suit our own social purposes. But traditional players such as Xerox (with its re-printable paper), Levi’s (with its branded virtual world) and UPS (with a desktop widget that tells you where your parcel is right now) showed an impressive turn of foot as they quickly learned the new dance and added some fancy steps of their own.
Despite our fondness for a social gathering here in Ireland, our own leading brands have been wallflowers over the past year and have shown little enthusiasm for stepping out onto the floor with the customer. Whilst there has been some token foot-tapping by advertisers using the new media, there’s been nothing to capture the popular imagination in the way that we’ve seen elsewhere.
The announcement in July by Funda that they were shutting down their Irish operation seemed a reflection of this. Their viral campaign of the previous year for Shamrog Island, which promised “the biggest construction project in the history of the state” delivering a “self-contained city on the sea” in Dublin Bay, had proved to be a real talking point, particularly when it was found to be an ingenious hoax designed to promote their new property website. However, a poor follow-up, including a rather lame website which did little to stand apart from the competition, had seen this bold, brand initiative trip over itself. So it was no surprise to learn that they had decided to bow out, citing a failure to meet targets within their timeframe.
But perhaps that was just a sign of the times? The Irish property sector, which had tripped the light fantastic for the past ten years, also missed a step or two in 2007, although its brand leaders were quick to assure us that the party wasn’t over yet, it was simply time for a slow-set. Maybe this is the cue for entrepreneurs in other sectors to sashay in and take the lead? There’s considerable evidence from incubation units across the country to suggest that a whole new generation of busy bees are waiting in the wings, all ready to strut their stuff.
Two brands that have made a song-and-dance in a more traditional setting have been Rabo Direct and Permanent TSB, both of whom have displayed a willingness to talk about what matters to the bank-customer and have been pulling in the crowds as a result. Whilst the effect doesn’t quite rival that which Riverdance had on the dance-floors of the nineties, the pair are clearly shaking up a market that has been poorly served by ranks of stiff performers, arms firmly to the side whilst earnestly going through the motions.
Meanwhile, two towering figures on the Irish hospitality scene made their exit during the year as Jury’s Ballsbridge and the neighbouring Berkeley Court shut their doors for the last time to make way for a new development. At least, we thought that the ball was over, but the new owner did a quick about-turn when he learned that permission for his project had been refused. The two properties reopened as bed-factories, with all services outsourced, whilst his designers went back to the drawing board. Not surprisingly, this sudden supply of cut-price rooms prompted great confusion in a local market that had typically taken its bearings from these two landmark properties.
On the political front, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern proved himself lord of the dance once more as he stepped out and he stepped in again following the General Election. His main rival Enda Kenny had hoped to cut-in by proposing a pre-nuptial agreement with Irish voters (and reminding us of his opponent’s financial indiscretions), but the elusive Ahern’s dazzling footwork continued to impress and he was rewarded with another five years by an electorate that seemed to prefer his brand of politics over all others. Dirty dancing indeed.
Overseas, political branding has been taken to a new level in the US as it gears up to elections in 2008. Barack Obama, a leading contender for the Democratic nomination as we write, has been backed by one of the most powerful personal brands in America, Oprah Winfrey. Political commentators are suggesting that this is likely to prove much more significant than other celebrity tangos and may have a huge impact on national politics. Described by The New York Times as “without a doubt, the most powerful endorsement in pop culture”, Oprah’s blessing can turn an obscure book into a national bestseller. We’ll watch with real interest to see whether her surefootedness in front of the TV camera sees her candidate dance all the way to the White House.
So what can we expect in 2008? If the quickstep of the last year is anything to go by, we can look forward to a year when the social whirl continues to gather pace. As the music picks up, this is no place for wallflowers. For the brand-owner and entrepreneur, 2008 is clearly the time to face the music and dance.