"People love bacon. Sooo much. Every time I post anything about bacon, it usually gets really good engagement." I'm chatting with Arielle Calderon, a 23-year-old Florida State University grad with black nails and a tattoo etched on her wrist.
I've come to see Calderon so that I might understand the sacred words that advertising executives have been singing of late from the rooftops of Cannes to the soundstages of Santa Monica. Madison Avenue's current obsession: the conversation. Brands, marketers believe, ought to start acting less like things and more like people, and they should engage traditional humans, their consumers, in dialogue. To Calderon, this state of affairs is second nature. She spends most of her free time on Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook and Pinterest anyway, sharing memes such as "first-world problems" and stitching together her own GIFs to pass along to her friends. For Halloween last year, she handcrafted her costume: a cardboard replica of the photo-sharing app Instagram.
We're holed up in Calderon's little slice of the midtown Manhattan skyline as she works the social media dashboard on her Mac like a nightclub DJ. Only instead of gabbing with her friends, she is in character as her alter ego: the omniscient voice of Denny's, purveyor of 24-hour Grand Slams and Moons Over My Hammy. Calderon is technically employed by Gotham, the second ad agency to hire her since she graduated in 2011. Denny's, like many other brands on the existential hunt to find their place in the social media nethersphere, has essentially outsourced its social media persona to a twentysomething. In contrast to the world where four layers of bureaucracy (and two attorneys) need to sign off on a press release, Calderon has permission to yak freely. "The other night I was lying in bed, about to go to sleep, and I was just looking at Twitter randomly," she tells me. "It was 12:15 a.m. and one of the people I follow said something along the lines of 'Oh, Hooters is closed, but Denny's is a mile away, this is a travesty.' So I wrote back to him as Denny's. I was like, 'Oh, a mile walk is totally worth it. Let's be serious.' So then we had this conversation until almost 1 a.m. on Twitter. And we were live-tweeting his first experience at Denny's. He was like, 'Denny's Diner's Macho Nacho Burger arrived less than two minutes after I ordered. How is that even possible?" So I said, 'We're food wizards.'"
Ad agencies are the breeding ground of hyperbole, so their feverish response to the conversation should come as no surprise, not least as they try to make sense of their journey from monologue to dialogue. Listen to Esther Lee, former chief creative officer at Coca-Cola, now head of brand and brand marketing at AT&T: "It's not about selling, it's about engaging. It's not just about customers, it's about people." And to Jeff Benjamin, the new creative head of 149-year-old agency JWT: "Consumers don't want to have a relationship and a conversation with just this cold logo." And to Mike Monello, founder of storytelling shop Campfire: "It really is about being in the moment. Any strict road map moves it out of conversation." And to Bob Troia, founder and CEO of word-of-mouth agency Affinitive: "Brands need to step into those conversations, but you can't co-opt those conversations, you have to be invited into those conversations." And to Mark O'Brien, president of DDB North America: "It's about making every communication that we do the beginning of a conversation instead of the end of it."
Clearly there is no shortage of conversation about the conversation; soon enough, some lucky marketer will surely be ordained chief conversation officer. But self-exhortations and fancy titles don't change the fact that customers are having conversations about brands all the time, whether the brands are part of the exchange or not.
The notion that brands might speak goes back at least to 1999 and the publication of The Cluetrain Manifesto. In it, Silicon Valley-ites warned Madison Avenue that the Internet would disrupt the industry's tradition of being, in the words of cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, "that guy at the party who had too much to drink and won't let anybody get a word in, and you can just tell everyone hopes he would leave." This change was not something the industry either planned for or sought. "We learned that people kept finding ways to tune out the messages and were only paying attention to what they wanted," says DDB's O'Brien, sounding a bit like Mitt Romney describing Democratic voters. "We've begun to realize we have to engage them in a relevant way so they want to engage with us."
Social media disasters are what forced marketers into conversation. First there was the Motrin Mom Disaster of '08, when the pain-relief brand ran a commercial attempting to empathize with moms who wore their babies in slings; it backfired, with an army of mommy bloggers rallying the troops to a boycott. Then '09 gave us "United Breaks Guitars," a music video unleashed on YouTube by a guitarist after a United Airlines baggage handler broke his instrument and the airline refused to help him fix it; the video went viral and was credited with causing United's stock to plummet 10%. In 2011 came the Kenneth Cole Cairo Tweet Debacle, when the fashion retailer cheekily posited that the Arab Spring sprung from excitement over its new spring collection. And who will forget 2012, when brands learned the hard way that no, retailers should not promote their "Aurora" dress after the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado (CelebBoutique.com); that fast-food chains might best refrain from planting moles on social media sites to support their CEO's unhinged rants against gay marriage (Chick-Fil-A, allegedly); and that kitchen appliances definitely should not be talking smack about Barack Obama's recently deceased grandmother on Twitter during a presidential debate (KitchenAid).
Indeed, enough marketers have received social spankings that many in the industry have mixed emotions about engaging in dialogue. "When brands make a slip of the tongue, the Twitterverse can be unrelenting and unforgiving," says Eric Silver, a highly awarded advertising creative director who made a reputation shooting 30-second spots for the likes of FedEx and Snickers. Silver, who now runs his own agency, Silver + Partners, adds the Oreo-AMC skirmish of 2012 to the annals. After Oreo made a killer debut on social media last summer—giving its iconic cookie the Google doodle treatment (Oreo as gay pride flag; Oreo with Mars Rover tracks embedded in red-velvet creme)—it squandered its goodwill as quickly as a politician caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Oreo asked its fans if they ever sneak their favorite cookie into movie theaters. Instead of only consumers jumping in to respond, another brand—theater chain AMC—intercepted, tweeting back, "Not cool, cookie," to which Oreo retorted, "Fair enough @AMCTHEATERS, but don't hate the player, hate the game :)." Says Silver: "This became a big story, to which I would respond, 'Who the fuck cares?' This is not news. Oreo should have responded with some swagger instead of wilting. There is so much fear that one tweet will explode."
If there is a human agent of that fear, it is Dave Carroll, a 44-year-old folk-pop musician from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Since 2009, Carroll—the victimized United Airlines customer behind "United Breaks Guitars"—has become an accidental self-help guru for brands in need of social media therapy. He travels around the world giving keynotes to Fortune 500 companies with the sobering, if not inspirational, message that at minimum, every brand needs to listen and respond to its customers on social media (and not in auto-reply mode). Last spring, he released his first book, which takes its title from his song. Carroll has even managed to turn his personal parable into a venture-backed company called GripeVine, cofounded with an investment banker. The technology platform is a mediation tool that sits between pissed-off consumers and the offending company, which, unlike United, might prefer to defuse these sorts of complaints in private, rather than through globally disseminated and perpetually archived social media posts. "I've disputed whether or not it was my video that actually caused United's stock to drop," says Carroll. "But it doesn't really matter. What matters is the perception that it did. Your brand is nothing more than the sum of conversations being had about it. That's why social media is so powerful."
The belief that a brand can speak is an exercise in extreme personification. In the 1950s, the word brand evolved from a description of a burned iron stamp on a cow to a set of human traits wrapped around an inanimate object. The attribution of human actions to a brand strikes some as a step too far. "I think the term two-way conversation is insane," says Tyler Fonda, strategy director at Gotham. "A brand is just some abstraction that ad people have created." If we are willing to believe that brands can also converse, we are living the ultimate meta-fantasy of marketers: brand as fully realized being with emotions and personality and interests. It's as if the Virgin Mary really did appear on that grilled cheese sandwich (the one that sold in 2004 for $28,000 on eBay).
But if the Supreme Court has decided that corporations are people, why can't brands be human, too? One disposed to think they can is JWT's Benjamin, who spent most of his career at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the agency best known for bringing to life Burger King's creepy being, the King. For a brand to find its soul, he says, it first has to settle on the kind of human it wants to be. "So this brand is what—the professor, the teacher, the cool uncle?" asks Benjamin.
The answer varies with the target audience, though it usually involves some variant of archetypal go-to pal—the chatty best friend for gals, the hipster wingman for guys, with loyalty valued above all. "The goal is not only to be a fabulous friend," says Affinitive's Troia, "but a monogamous one too." If you're Red Bull, humanity means being not just an energy drink for frat boys to mix with vodka but also the beta-blocked badass every dude wishes he could be. If you're McDonald's, it means being not just a corporate factory that churns out mystery meat but also the purveyor of wholesome food from real live farmers. If you're Adidas, it means not just having the MVPs on your payroll flaunt their superhuman abilities but also share the painful process of starting over again when they get hurt. And if you're Bodyform, the maxi-pad maker, it means that if some guy publicly rails against you for pretending women are all sunshine and daisies when they're using your menstrual product, one-up him a few days later with a satirical video from your fictional CEO.
The payoff for all these method-acting contortions comes if a brand can transcend its role of mortal seller to become a god of unconditional relationships, an apotheosis that Apple seems to have managed. "People who don't understand Apple say it has a reality distortion field. It 'makes' people do this or that," says Campfire's Monello. But the relationships it has forged means that when Apple does screw up—say, when a new iPhone has an antenna that doesn't work or a map that truly sucks—some still leap to Apple's defense. (After MapGate, Apple fan Paul Chapel commented on a CNet article: "There were some wonky suggestions for routes to my job... but other than that, it's a beautifully executed app. Like Siri, it's only going to get better with every version.") Monello likens the response to how you would react to someone you're close to in real life. "If your friend says something you are offended by, you don't turn around and call them sexist or racist," he says. "You go, 'Hey man, that really bothered me.'"
The irony is that Apple is the least human of any brand. Unless you're consulting an Apple Genius in one of its stores—hardly a friend-to-friend conversation anyway; they are geniuses, after all—the brand is a remote but alluring narcissist: telling consumers what they want, withdrawing beloved features seemingly at random, and using social media as a one-way street. Tor Myhren, president and chief creative officer of Grey New York, says the only companies that can get away with this sort of behavior are the ones that make things people love so much that the brand doesn't need superfluous conversation to fill in the gaps. "That's rarefied air where your product is that good," he says. Apple has trained consumers to act like a nerdy guy pining for a beautiful girl: The less she speaks, the more you want her.
Noah Brier is betting his business on small talk. A compact thirtysomething with a five o'clock shadow as dark as his natty curls, Brier has managed to ride every new trend in advertising over the past decade. Before cofounding Percolate, a startup that "helps brands create content at social scale," as he puts it, he was head of strategy for the digital agency Barbarian Group. Conversation, Brier deems, is part of the third incarnation of digital advertising—the first dating back to 1995, when the Internet bestowed on consumers the power to click on and interact with an ad, letting them decide which ones they wanted to digest; the second to 2002, when hundreds of millions of people were first able to redistribute stuff they liked, which recast consumers themselves as a medium; and now, when social networking lets brands and consumers communicate in real time, in the same places people talk to their friends.
Percolate's weapon, Brier says with the seriousness of a Stumptown barista explaining single-origin espresso, is the algorithm—much higher-brow in geek-chic circles these days than the brand agency business. But his clients, which include GE and American Express, are very much brands. The idea for the company arose, in part, from the question his clients at Barbarian asked him over and over again: What should I tweet about?
Percolate acts as a conversation starter—and talk does not come cheap. Brier's clients pay some $10,000 a month for access to the startup's social media dashboard tool, which scrapes 6 million sources on the web to cull the ones most relevant for that brand. "They're prompts for conversation," says Brier, whose venture-backed outfit quintupled its head count to 30 in the past year. You could also liken them to cocktail-party talking points for the socially inept.
Brier believes it's this kind of everyday banter—known as phatic communication in linguistic circles—that will ultimately build relationships between consumers and brands. "Apparently, 70% of our conversations are about the weather," Brier says. "People have said Twitter is a phatic medium, where both of you know at the beginning of a conversation that you don't care about the real answers."
Paul Adams, a former designer of electronic appliances at Dyson, is another believer in the bonding power of banalities. As global head of brand design at Facebook, the Irish native sits at the most mystical nexus of brands and conversations, a place where companies often get lost as soon as they arrive. Marketers seek him out in the hopes of cracking what is arguably the largest platform for talk in the world. "One of the biggest mistakes I see is that when brands think about building relationships, they think of heavy things, like building a very rich experience that people will share with friends," says Adams, who was also once head of social research at Google. "The way relationships form in real life is through many lightweight interactions over time. You meet the first time, chitchat. You're not suddenly best friends."
There may be no greater exemplar of lightweight, phatic conversation than a chatty teenage girl, the very demographic clothing retailer Express is trying to reach. In 2007, the Columbus, Ohio-based brand didn't even have an e-commerce site; by the following year, it was deeply immersed in both e-commerce and social media. "We did a spring break event, and I posted a picture of me and Pauly D [from MTV's Jersey Shore] spinning," says Express CMO Lisa Gavales about one of her thousands of tweets since 2008. Gavales isn't really a member of Jersey Shore's demo; at 49, she is nearly twice the age of the average Express customer. But six years ago, she heard about Twitter and was one of the first marketers to jump in personally. Gavales has since cultivated more than 44,000 followers, most of them twentysomething Express customers. "Whether they post pictures of themselves in their clothes and want affirmation that they look great, or they have a question about something they bought, it's about making sure they know we're there at the other end," she says.
What's most interesting about her Twitter persona is that she doesn't appear as Express the brand or as Gavales the wife and mother; she's @ExpressLisaG, some alternately manifested version of herself that exists between her real-life roles. "I'm not really sure if they [her followers] know what CMO means. What they do know is I'm an insider of some kind who can give them exciting behind-the-scenes stuff from Express," she says. "If all I was doing was pitching all day long, you'd unfriend me. So we absolutely have content that a good friend would have." And that content is critical, because once people opt in, brands better not disappoint. As Jonah Bloom, chief strategy officer at Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners puts it, "There's nothing worse than promising a certain kind of interaction and letting people down."
So that's the world CMOs are racing to create—one in which you walk into a Walmart and every product on every shelf in every aisle is talking to you. For consumers, it's a migraine-worthy image, but most CMOs are pursuing this path without any evidence that all of this conversation even sells more stuff. "The economics are nil in terms of what two-way dialogue actually is," says Brian Solis, principal at Altimeter Group, a Silicon Valley-based consultancy for businesses enduring disruption. Still, Gavales of Express says the cost of not being part of the conversation outweighs the uncertainty over the value of the conversation. "Measuring ROI in social media is like measuring air-conditioning," she says. "I say instead, What is the ROI of not being there? It's kind of like walking into a store and having the sales associate not talk to you."
While it's true that consumers like to talk about products, there's no solid evidence that they want to talk to them. "Frankly, do I really want to have a relationship with a toilet paper brand? No," says Zain Raj, CEO of Hyper Marketing. "I've used Charmin for 20 years. I go to Costco and pick it up." Besides, asks Raj, who has the time? "As a society, we are just trying to survive the epidemic called time starvation," he says, noting that 95% of advertising content produced by brands goes unnoticed by consumers. "That's because we're creating as much content every month as we did for the first 2,000 years of civilized existence."
Solis has his own diagnostic jargon for marketers caught on this hamster wheel. "They suffer from mediamalism," he says. "They pick a medium because they feel like they have to and they jump onto a network. Now what?" They might first hire an agency or a social manager, pull together some content, and engage with the consumer in some fashion. If they don't notch up 5 million likes, disappointment ensues. By then they're so invested in creating a social presence that they redouble their efforts without stopping to consider whether the exercise might be futile. Forrester analyst Zach Hofer-Shall argues that with all this additional clutter, just a handful of brands will be conversational winners. "We can only have so many relationships," he says.
Which is why some brands have been honest enough with themselves to realize that conversation isn't for everyone. Take the toilet paper conundrum. "Clearly a brand like that doesn't need to be as active on social media as something that's more culturally relevant," concedes Nigel Morris, CEO of Aegis Media Americas, one of the agencies behind Charmin. Instead, Charmin identified an opportunity for bonding with consumers that was less about conversation and more about being a decent friend: helping people find a public toilet when they've just gotta go. So Charmin launched SitOrSquat, an app with a Google Maps-like interface that guides people to nearby bathrooms, which users then rate according to cleanliness. "Of course you don't want a conversation with toilet paper," says Morris, "but if you're caught short and you need a toilet, we can help you find it." (Charmin couldn't help itself, though, after its research team uncovered the fabulous statistic that 75% of social media users admit to logging on when they're in the loo. To keep them busy, the company created the playful hashtag #tweetfromtheseat. "I've been feeling pretty fat, but I've been pooping pretty regular this week," tweeted @PrincipalEnch.)
The bottom line, as it were, is that people are self-absorbed, and advertisers need to feed that self-absorption. "What a lot of marketers do is sit around in their office and hypothesize about social behavior," says Facebook's Adams. They will build a Facebook app and expect people to engage with it, but consumers rarely do, because they don't see the value. Adams says only three factors will induce people to consider chatting with a brand and sharing the experience with others: The encounter will help consumers express themselves, or it will help them forge and maintain relationships, or it will help them help someone else.
Denny's, as it happens, hit upon two out of the three with its bacon-powered banter. But it needed some time to get there. Last February, says Tyler Fonda, Gotham strategy director and Arielle Calderon's boss, the team decided to shift gears. Instead of its "social media best-practices strategy"—posting a formulaic mix of queued-up questions and product shots at scheduled times—it decided to play on Denny's atmosphere. "A diner is a place where conversations are happening all the time with a bunch of people," explains Fonda. "So we now host conversations and get the hell out of the way."
In addition to bacon, Calderon has discovered that puppies and kittens are conversational catnip for Denny's fans who loiter on social media. On National Cat Day and National Dog Day (who knew such things existed?), she asked followers to submit photos of their pets. Another time she posted a picture of a dachshund wrapped in a hot dog bun. "It was ridiculous how many people shared that thing," she reminisces. Never mind that Denny's doesn't sell hot dogs. So why all the animals? I ask Fonda. "Because, frankly, they're the happiest things on earth," he says. "We post an animal in the morning because it makes you smile, and we're okay with that."
It turns out that the business of getting people to talk with brands has something in common with selling drugs and running casinos: creating an endless loop of pleasure and a need that can never be satiated. "Social media is nothing more than a huge dopamine machine of likes and shares," concludes Fonda. "And it's our job to feed the machine."
A version of this article appeared in the February 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.