Brands for the Chattering Masses
FOR many, many decades, successful branding — one of the corporate world’s holy grails — involved a clear set of rules. Produce quality goods at the right price. Frame the value in memorable messages seen by millions on television and in print. Then fine-tune the pitch by measuring sales and evaluating consumer responses through letters, phone calls, focus groups and surveys.
Nowhere have those rules been applied more effectively than here, the home of Procter & Gamble, which made a fortune turning Crest, Pampers, and Tide into must-have items on household shopping lists. But the branding game has changed radically, largely because of the myriad choices the Internet provides consumers and because of the economic influence of widespread Web pontificating, known as the blogosphere, which barely existed as a popular force until about four years ago.
As consumers eagerly post word-of-mouth commentary in online communities, message boards and Web logs, a straightforward question confronts brandmeisters: Who wins and who loses as time-tested practices of mass production and mass marketing are undermined by the informed and often cranky voices of the knowledge age?
A possible answer to that question can be found here, on the fourth floor of a 19th-century brick and stone building on Main Street, in the office of Nielsen BuzzMetrics.
The company, an A. C. Nielsen unit formed this year in a merger of three smaller companies, asserts that it has welded together technology, communications and business expertise in a new way; in essence, it can gain access to the electronic musings of millions of people to learn about the values, desires and opinions that start marketing trends. Essentially, BuzzMetrics represents the entrepreneurial convergence of brand- and online-business specialists holding M.B.A.’s — several of whom trained at Procter & Gamble — with computer scientists who say they are building the digital equivalent of a crystal ball.
BuzzMetrics’ computer scientists and programmers, led by Sundar Kadayam, a 43-year-old software engineer, say they have developed sophisticated search engines to sweep the Internet and drill down into rich veins of extemporaneous word-of-mouth commentary and conversation found online.
The search engines retrieve phrases, opinions, keywords, sentences and images, and the company runs the data through processing programs powerful enough to sift millions of messages simultaneously. By analyzing vocabulary, language patterns and phrasing, the programs determine whether comments are positive or negative, and whether the authors are men or women, young or old.
“The days of sitting behind the focus-group wall are going the way of the buggy whip,” said Mike Nazzaro, BuzzMetrics’ president and chief operating officer. “We are fundamentally changing the way marketing and market research will be done in the future. We’re providing guidance to marketing decisions that was never possible.”
BUZZMETRICS maintains that blogs and their attendant message boards and forums are tuning forks for consumer sentiment that threaten to upend traditional branding efforts. An influential blogger can undermine a brand faster than any grapevine ever before encountered in the marketplace, as the computer maker Dell discovered. The company’s level of service and quality was denounced by bloggers this year, and the complaints found broad exposure when one popular media site added its critical voice.
At the same time, positive word of mouth magnified by the Internet can be a boon, as Toyota discovered with its hybrid Prius sedan, which has been praised by admirers on sites created just for that purpose.
“There are winners and losers,” said Paul M. Rand, a partner and the global chief development and innovation officer at Ketchum Public Relations. “Companies adapt or go to the bottom. Consumer-generated content on the Internet is a complete disruptor. It forces companies to work smarter and listen harder.”
Marketing executives, awakened to both the threat and the potential, are scrambling to harness data culled online. BuzzMetrics, a pioneer in trolling for brand awareness on the Web, is still a tiny company: it says its revenue for 2006 will be about $20 million. For now, it occupies a sweet spot in a promising new industry, but should search giants like Google move more aggressively into its market, BuzzMetrics may find the going tougher.
“Search is at the core of everything Google does and we are more committed to improving search than ever before,” a Google spokesman said in an e-mail message. “We will continue to innovate our search technology to provide users with the fastest and most relevant search experience on the Web.”
For the time being, say analysts at Forrester Research and Jupiter Research, BuzzMetrics is at the front of its field. In a report published in September, Peter Kim, a Forrester analyst, said that brand monitoring appears poised for enormous expansion as companies shift priorities and resources in the $12-billion-a-year market research business. Emily Riley, an advertising analyst at Jupiter, predicts that companies will double spending on brand monitoring in 2007.
Among BuzzMetrics’ competitors are Umbria, based in Denver; Cymfony, in Watertown, Mass.; BrandIntel, in Toronto; Biz360 in San Mateo, Calif.; and MotiveQuest, in Chicago.
While their specific approaches vary slightly, all use some form of Web search engine, analysis programs and human analysts to help organize data and provide a narrative that clients can understand, Ms. Riley said. Their ultimate goal, she said, is “to find out the deep thoughts of consumers and help clients understand what’s happening in their markets.”
Both Mr. Kim and Ms. Riley said the old methods for keeping track of consumer sentiment, measuring the competition and improving advertising were in rapid transition. Traditional media are fragmenting. Focus groups are expensive, constrained and slow. New research shows that consumers are eager to evade advertising on television, block pop-up ads on the Internet and sign up for “do not call” lists to bar telephone solicitations.
At the same time, new surveys show that 90 percent of consumers trust word-of-mouth suggestions, and that some make purchases based on such guidance. “Consumer-created content is still new enough that it’s much more influential at driving brand awareness than driving purchases,” said Ms. Riley, the Jupiter analyst. “People who read about something on a blog will generally do some further research, either by asking friends or through a search engine, for example, before forming their opinion,” she said.
“We’re brand radar,” said Pete Blackshaw, 42, a former brand manager and Internet marketer at Procter & Gamble who is now BuzzMetrics’ chief marketing officer. “You can’t fly a plane without radar.”
Among the growing number of BuzzMetrics’ fans is Bruce C. Ertmann, corporate manager for consumer-generated media at Toyota Motor Sales in Torrance, Calif. “Toyota is rebalancing how it engages its customers and its markets,” said Mr. Ertmann, who is 49 and has worked for Toyota for 23 years. “BuzzMetrics is helping us understand what’s happening.”
Around Thanksgiving, for example, the Lexus division of Toyota ran a series of new holiday television commercials, one of which featured two men, a new car in the driveway with a huge red bow on its roof, and dialogue that seemed to indicate that the men lived together and that one had given the car to the other.
Some viewers were struck by what they saw as a television spot directed at the gay market and complained to the automaker. Lexus executives responded that the ad was not aimed at the gay market — but the company, unnerved by the nature of the complaints and by research showing that the commercial was weak in terms of brand recall, dropped the ad.
Mr. Ertmann said that Toyota, protective of its reputation and wary of controversy, was essentially reacting instinctively and taking action without evaluating all the information that became available. After it hired BuzzMetrics to gauge consumers’ attitude on the matter, it discovered that most viewers — especially the young urban and suburban consumers who write and read blogs and could buy Lexus vehicles — were pleased with the Lexus ad.
“A decision had been made to pull that ad from the rotation, and that decision was made before we had a chance to gather the BuzzMetrics analysis and report it back to Lexus,” Mr. Ertmann said. “I was disappointed that Lexus did not wait for this cutting-edge intelligence.”
Mike Nazzaro, foreground, the president of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, with Pete Blackshaw, left, the marketing chief, and Sundar Kadayam, the technology officer, at the company’s offices in Cincinnati.
Other companies have also turned to BuzzMetrics for advice. TechRepublic, a unit of CNET Networks, and publisher of a Web site for information technology professionals, has used the company’s services to track technology trends. ConAgra, the food giant that makes Pam cooking spray, Reddi-wip topping and Healthy Choice prepared meals, has used BuzzMetrics to anticipate lifestyle and dieting trends. Sony’s online entertainment group tapped the company to help it track interest in computer games, and Coca-Cola has used BuzzMetrics to gauge responses to a short comedic film posted on YouTube.
The headquarters of Nielsen BuzzMetrics are in the Greenwich Village office of the American arm of its parent, VNU, a media company based in the Netherlands. Smaller research and development divisions are in Pittsburgh and Tel Aviv. But about 40 percent of its staff of 120 and many managers are in Cincinnati.
BuzzMetrics offers a range of services and products to suit the new rules of marketing. One report, costing $20,000 or more, tells companies what their customers are saying on the Internet and what that means for their brand and markets. It also sells its proprietary search software and database, BrandPulse, to companies that want to use their own staffs to monitor such content.
THIS service costs from $80,000 to $500,000, depending on how many of the client’s employees will use the database and search engine, the number of brands and competitors covered and the specific information sought. The Cincinnati office is led by former executives of two companies founded here during the Internet boom of the late 1990s.
The first, PlanetFeedback, was started by Mr. Blackshaw and Mr. Nazzaro, now 40, a Harvard M.B.A. and former Procter & Gamble brand manager. The primary product of PlanetFeedback, which was financed by $31 million in venture capital, was a Web site intended to attract consumer opinions about products and services, and to earn revenue from advertisements.
The second company, Intelliseek, which Mr. Kadayam helped to found, developed Internet search and information retrieval programs and software. In 2004, Intelliseek bought PlanetFeedback, combining the market, branding and Web expertise of the Blackshaw-Nazzaro team with Mr. Kadayam’s computer science background.
Early last year, VNU invested in an Israeli research and development company, which then bought BuzzMetrics. With additional capital from VNU, BuzzMetrics bought Intelliseek and changed the name of the company to Nielsen BuzzMetrics.
Now that it is generating steady revenue in brand monitoring, BuzzMetrics is considering how to use its media search and monitoring capabilities to expand into other markets such as politics.
Mr. Kadayam recently projected on a large white screen the company’s most promising new tool, which he calls Floodgate. It is a program that displays in real time what people around the world are saying on thousands of blogs and message boards. The program shows each new message as a blinking green dot that fades to light blue and then vanishes after a few minutes. The program can cluster messages according to general themes, and track keywords and phrases and the full content of what the writer is saying.
Click on any dot and the message appears in complete text in real time. A blogger from England writes about the ritual of putting her baby to bed. One from California celebrates buying a new computer game.
Within a few minutes, the screen begins to look like the night sky, full of blue and green stars, all arranged by subject — an evolving constellation of the thoughts and desires that form the parameters of the new information universe.