Chris Stephenson
Feb 2, 2012

Opinion: DigiWars - How new battles offer new opportunities for brands

Chris Stephenson, strategy director for PHD Australia, discusses the ongoing battles in the digital space and the opportunities these present to brands and marketers.

Chris Stephenson
Chris Stephenson

A huge battle was fought over the last few weeks.  A battle for content, but more specifically for access to the content.  It was a battle that saw the Empire of traditional rights holders—in the form of the music and movie industries—take on a Rebel Alliance of new media business and platforms.  Leading the charge for the Alliance was Wikipedia, the desktop version of which was deliberately unavailable for 24 hours.

The battles of SOPA and PIPA may have been won by the Rebels, but the war continues.  A current scan of the current theatre of war sees Google and Bing accused (by the Empire) of directing users to illegal copies of music, whilst the England and Wales Cricket Board revealed that it has closed down 700 pirate websites providing illegal streams of matches, and warned that they are "the biggest danger" facing the game.

But the war is no longer only being fought in the digital sphere; it is also about to cascade into the physical world.  This week saw a new section on file sharing site The Pirate Bay list files that allows people to construct items with 3D printers.  In essence, this allows anyone with a 3D printer—a small but rapidly growing number of people—to download a file from the internet and make a physical 3D object.  Of anything.  In the comfort of their own home.

No longer is the war for intellectual property limited to movies and music—it now extends to physical objects.  Which takes the war to the doorsteps of people and businesses that were till now just bystanders.  Any business or brand that makes physical things can now have their goods ‘pirated’:  IKEA’s door handles, Muji’s vases or Adidas’s Y3 key chains can now all be copied, made and enjoyed.  For free.

In many ways the war has only just begun.

This makes the lessons learned by the music and movie industries all the more pertinent for a whole host of other brands.  No longer bystanders, brands should be searching for the tools and tactics that have halted some of the decline seen by these heritage businesses in the face of an internet-fuelled revolution in free.

The music industry has turned to live to rebalance some of its books.  Revenues for live music in the last few years outstripped those for recorded music for the first time.  Artists have given their recorded music away for free.  Radiohead have let their fans set the price that they’re willing to pay for their music.  Meanwhile Bjork transformed her album into a paid-for app.

The biggest winner in the music revolution of course wasn’t the artists of the heritage labels, but a platform—Apple, thanks in part to iTunes—is once again the world’s biggest company with cash and securities in the bank totalling $100 billion.  By any measure, the biggest lesson learned as the music faced free was to make your product as easily accessible as possible, with a simple charging mechanism for it.

The movie industry has sought to reinvigorate revenues with technologies such as 3D, with movie franchises to guarantee interest, and most interestingly with marketing that extended and developed the movie ‘product’ into new places and spaces—Christopher Nolan’s pre-release for his Batman series being perhaps some of the best examples.

This is perhaps the second key lesson for the businesses and brand who are about to see the war for free darken their hereto peaceful skies: your product and your marketing are no longer indistinguishable.  When your products were ring fenced and only available through controlled retail distributors, you could make adverts and invest in media that pointed people in the direction of those products and point out the USPs and distinguishing features of those products.  The war changes that.

Once your products are available for free, which they soon will be, signposting is no longer enough.  We all of us have to learn the lessons of the music and movie industries and reverse the direction of flow … communications, rather than being outside in—the ads pointing to the product—have to be inside out.  Communications—like Nolan’s Batman games or Radiohead’s new pricing model—have to be an extension, an affirmation, or a celebration of those products.  Because if your physical products are available for free, the role of marketing becomes to add such value to those products that people are prepared to pay for something that extends beyond that physical product.

The war may seem like it’s a long way away, fought on distant planets by industries and categories far remote from your own.  But the war is coming.  The time to plan for the day when a large group of your consumers can make your physical product for free, is now.

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