Social Connectivity: the New Currency for Brands

J. Walker Smith
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways

​What? Connectedness is waxing not waning.

So what? But it is not community; it is kinship within smaller worlds of connection.

Now what? Brands must become more intimate with consumers and feel like family.

Sept. 1, 2017

Forward-looking brands can get ahead by transacting in the economy of the future: social connections

There is a consensus among pundits of all stripes that the U.S. is falling apart at the seams. It is said that the country is more divided, more polarized, more fragmented, more disconnected than ever.

This is wrong.

In fact, America has never been more connected than it is today. People are more networked, more engaged, more joined up. The trend is more, not less, connection; more, not less, unification; more, not fewer, social ties.

This trend is easy to miss, though. It is assumed that social connection looks something like the days of Norman Rockwell or the halcyon decade of Congressional bipartisanship in the 1950s. With nothing like this in sight, the reflexive conclusion is that social connection is ebbing. However, the kind of connection on the rise today is different and thus hiding in plain sight.

The social connection that characterizes the U.S. today is not community in the conventional sense. Instead, it is better thought of as kinship. It is many smaller worlds. Though it is not community of a traditional sort, it is connection nonetheless.

Because social connection nowadays has the character of kinship, it comes with sharp elbows. It feels acrimonious, which is why pundits describe it as disconnection. But actually, it’s all about relationships, which is the underlying dynamic at work. Indeed, the kinship of smaller worlds is the central cultural phenomenon in the U.S. right now.

Perhaps the best way to see what’s at work is to think back on the evolution of the marketplace since World War II. The U.S. economy was a material marketplace immediately following the war. People had lived through two decades of austerity during the Great Depression and the war. Now they wanted stuff, to the extent that many public intellectuals worried that social values had been poisoned by materialism.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, experiences came to the forefront. It was less about material goods and more about intangible experiences. Today, our economy is a social marketplace. Paralleling this progression has been a shift in value. In the material marketplace, the locus of value was the product. As that became commoditized, value was found in services. In the social marketplace today, value is all about relationships.

American spending data tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the share of wallet commanded by services rose from roughly 50% in 1980 to two-thirds today. What’s now driving spending, though, is everything social. For example, the fastest-growing segment of e-commerce is social commerce, which is to say, relationship-based buying. It’s commerce transacted on social websites, and it’s the impact of social influence on all shopping. Relationships are driving spending. That’s how value is being exchanged.

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The rise of mobile devices has ensured retail will never be the same. Companies must deliver a new customer experience or risk falling into the retail chasm.

The trend in evidence is an uprising of allegiances. It’s connection by people picking those to whom they’re loyal and then locking down on those social allegiances as reference points for identity, status and aspirations.

The intensity of today’s social connectedness is a big turnaround. Individuality at any cost has been in ascendance since the mid-1960s. Social conventions or social connections that got in the way were readily tossed aside. A marketer in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s asking what kind of people—not consumers, but people—were being sold to would have answered: people seeking to fully express their individual selves. So for decades, marketers offered products and services to enable people to be as fully self-expressive as possible.

In the social marketplace today, priorities are different. Individuality hasn’t gone away, but social connection matters just as much. No more individuality at any cost. Today, a marketer describes consumers as people trying to fully express their social selves and social connections, so marketers should offer products and services that enable people to fully express their social selves.

This social resurgence is apparent everywhere. Certainly social media is one manifestation, but it’s more than that. It’s city spaces like the Atlanta Beltline or the New York City High Line or the Riverfront in Detroit or the 606 in Chicago or the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis. It’s record numbers of farmers markets. It’s food trucks and cafés and coffee shops. It’s festivals. It’s “Buy local.” Critics today worry about over-sharing—social to the extreme—not under-sharing.


The High Line in New York City

None of this is the community of old, though. It’s kinship. Imagine a collection of individual points. Now imagine a circle that includes them all. That’s community in the classic sense—shared authority and broad engagement that commands fealty and provides a communal identity. Now erase that circle. The dots left are the era of individuality that arose in the 1960s.

Next, imagine all the dots encircled again, but not one circle. Rather, many circles, each inclusive of a small number of dots. That’s the kinship of today, or connection within smaller worlds. Not a big circle breaking apart as pundits like to portray it, but individuals coming together in many smaller circles or smaller worlds.

Community is a collection of differences. It’s a broad, diverse, integrated grouping of people who come together as part of a shared collective. Because differences abound, civility is a virtue and compromise a necessity, both done willingly.

Kinship is a collection of similarities. People have come together because they share something in common that they value and want to keep apart from others. They often resent those who don’t share their common interests or values, even viewing differences as a threat. But they have come together and are connected. They are joined up.

Kinship groups can form around many things, and kinship identities can overlap. Politics is the most visible way people have formed kinship collectives, but it’s all kinds of culture—food, music, health, humor, video, gender and the internet.

Technology abets kinship. Not just social media echo chambers, although that’s a big aspect of it. Even more important are the ways in which data, apps and algorithmic targeting enable people to divvy up and self-sort themselves into smaller groups of shared interests, values and desires. While these are smaller worlds, it’s all about more connection.

George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen describes this sorting into smaller worlds as matching. He says that matching is the biggest source of unmeasured gains in quality of life. He argues that matching is the “grand project” of the next generation, equal in importance to the Manhattan Project, the Apollo space mission, the interstate highway system, the Cold War or even winning WWII.

At first blush, this sounds preposterous. But Cowen believes that this use of technology to improve the quality of life is grossly under-leveraged. He believes the underlying technology, while put to trivial uses today, is a fundamentally transformative platform that will spark a revolution of innovations to eliminate the inefficiencies, waste and dissatisfactions of bad matching.

The future is headed ever-deeper into a social marketplace of relationships. People want connection, but connection within smaller worlds. That’s how brands will have to play it in order to win, by making intimate kinship connections that resonate in a marketplace of smaller worlds.

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Author Bio:

J. Walker Smith
J. Walker Smith is executive chairman of Kantar Futures, part of the Kantar Group of WPP, and co-author of four books, including Rocking the Ages. Follow him on Twitter at @jwalkersmith.
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