Be My Brand Bae: The Age of Chat's Implications For Advertising

This post was originally published in an earlier edition of Online Spin.

“The future has arrived – it’s just not evenly distributed yet” -- science-fiction writer William Gibson

If you ever get the chance to see Erin Yogasundram present, you should. Erin is the 24-year-old CEO and founder of Shop Jeen, a “playground for Gen Z and young Millennials to explore, share, shop, experiment, interact, learn & discover,” and she is rewriting the future of fashion retail. For Erin, product, sales, social marketing, customer service, branded content and customer service aren’t separate things, bolted together across departments and agencies; they are one thing, organically inseparable.

She has the hustle and positive energy of a true entrepreneur. As an 11-year-old on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Erin would hang out by the doors of “The Late Show with David Letterman,” solicit autographs from celebrities, then quickly sell them on eBay. She started Shop Jeen from her dorm room at the age of 20.  



Erin combines the skills of fashion curator, cultural linguist, and psychologist. She talks to her customers like personal friends, and they love her for it. Millions of dollars in sales and a huge Instagram fan base later, half a million people think  think Erin is totally bae AF. The importance of TV for gaining this kind of reach and engagement? None at all.

The point isn’t that every brand should start talking like a 22-year-old.  The point is we that we live in a culture that increasingly values personalization and authenticity and scale in all communications, whether with friends or brands. And it’s pretty much all happening in social.

The are two (intertwined) reasons for this. The first is cultural: Gen Z was not alive during, nor conditioned by, the era dominated by linear media (the time that ad execs of a certain age refer to as The Golden Age). That reality -- of few channel options, pervasive :30 second spots, brands talking at people rather than with them, media devices that were huge but dumb --  isn’t their reality. So why should they give a shit about it now?

The other reason is technology. If you squint your eyes a little, the world in 2016 looks a bit like a sci-fi movie. What do we see? Well…

— For the first time in history, every human on the planet has or wants a pocket supercomputer. Often called a smartphone, this device is really just a magic portal into a galaxy of infinite options for communicating, entertaining, consuming and creating content,, buying things, returning things (after you realize those jeans aren’t really going to fit, c’mon let's be real), and getting work done (if you must).

— We also see continent-size populations communicating with each other at a rate of 60 billion messages per day. And that number includes Messenger and WhatsApp.

— We see artificial intelligence that can beat humans at the hardest game ever invented by humans, Go. (What will the hardest game that AI invents for us be? The Matrix?)

— We see bots, bots, bots in every place where at least 100 million people are gathered, Facebook, Slack, Telegram, Kik. This is the real birth of what Chris Messina calls “conversational commerce.”

— We see people not only talking to bots (Siri) and trusting them with their money (Amazon Echo), but also trusting them with their emotions. We rational adults might not be fooled, but many children actually believe that Siri and Alexa are real and would be sad if they died (thankfully neither can be killed by normal means, only by corporate parents).

In other words, a brand doesn’t need to be Shop Jeen in order to bring a high level of personalization and authenticity into its interactions with consumers. During F8 last week, Facebook basically rolled out the red carpet to make this process as easy as possible for brands: Come on in, this is where your consumers are.

Increased authenticity and personalization will change the shape of advertising, I think.

Advertising done poorly has always felt like a dislocation, a wedge between us and our desired experience. And so we skip it, switch it, block it, or opt out of the whole environment altogether and find shelter in Netflix and Telegram.

Great advertising, however, is an experience in itself, interesting or useful in its own right. These days, great advertising contains the same attributes we value highly in human communication: authenticity, integrity, intelligence, empathy, humor. Thus, as great advertising gets closer to The Real Thing, it starts to become it. Still commercial yes, but shorn of the unhelpful baggage accrued during earlier eras of advertising.

Conversation is one of the simplest, yet most personal, forms of communication between two individuals. As brands adopt chat and conversation as new modes of consumer interaction, advertising itself will change, and for the better.  

The future has arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.

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