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[Review] Conversational Capital


By now, many would’ve heard of buzz and viral marketing, experiential marketing, and the art of conversational marketing. Many would have also learned about three key marketing ideas: creating a “Purple Cow“, and pushing an idea over the “The Tipping Point“, and the almost religious need to use social media in marketing.

What’s the newest trick in the marketing bag? Enter “Conversational Capital“, a book written by Bertrand Cesvet, Tony Babinski, and Eric Alper from experiential brand collective SID LEE.

According to the authors, Conversational Capital can be seen in many leading “talkable” brands like Cirque du Soleil, Apple, adidas, Red Bull, IKEA, and the Volkswagen Beetle.  It is about designing and creating products and services that are so meaningful and engaging that one’s consumers feel personally invested in sharing stories about the brand.

At its core, the concept is embedded in the eight engines of Conversational Capital:

1. Rituals.

These are behaviors or rites that one engage in that mark an “exalted” experience.  Examples include the clowns interacting with audiences prior to each Cirque du Soleil show and the squeezing of a fresh lime into a Corona beer bottle.

A special category – Initiation – may even involve some degree of work (think of the first time you went swimming).  Resonant rituals help to enrich experiences.

2. Exclusive Product Offering (EPO).

This occurs when a consumer experience is specially customised and individualised such that it appears to be tailored just for you.  When it is created in such a personal fashion, it helps to strengthen the salience of the brand. Examples include having monogrammed napkins with one’s name for first time diners at the Regent Hotel in Hong Kong, and Starbucks allowing you to order coffee anyway you like it.

Over-delivery is what happens when a brand goes out of the way to strengthen customer engagement.  It includes features, services or benefits that “Wow” customers and create talkability.

3. Myth.

Yes, urban brand legends are always good for storytelling.  As an engine of Conversational Capital, myth is about creating a strong brand story that captures the attention and imagination beyond just product features and benefits. Examples include Steve Jobs founding of Apple, and the “secret ingredient” in Coke.

4. Relevant Sensory Oddity (RSO).

Here, Conversational Capital meets experience design.  As much as possible, one should surprise one’s consumers by stimulating his/her range of senses: sight, sound, taste, scent, touch and feel.  This should however be relevant and resonant in a meaninful way. Examples are Herman Miller’s uniquely designed (and expensive) Aeron Chair, Abercrombie & Fitch (famous for the buzzworthy nude male torso in Singapore) for their anti-retail store environment, and Innocent Drinks with healthy juices in six ounce bottles.

5. Icons.

These have strong symbolic value and can be anything that is rich in association and evocative power: places, buildings, people, logos, product designs, packaging, labels, and more. Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates are icons, and so is the Red Bull can.

6. Tribalism.

Tribes are about forming customer communities and drawing like-minded folks together through brand stories that form and affirm their identities.  Customer Capital happens when companies help to facilitate the formation of groups and communities based on their tastes, preferences and principles.  The Build-a-Bear retail workshop forms tribes amongst lovers of customized cuddlies, and Harley Davidson riders themselves have formed strong tribes (most notably the Harley Owners Group or HOGs).

7. Endorsement.

Here, endorsement is about getting your consumers to freely and independently advocate your brand without any solicitation or endorsement.  In other words, if you build the experience compelling enough, “the magic will happen”.  It is not about paying celebrities or dignitaries to speak up for you.  Endorsers are “converts”.

8. Continuity.

The final engine of Conversational Capital is about ensuring that you walk the talk, say what you mean, and mean what you say.  It is about coherence, integrity, and consistency across every step of the way, as shown in this figure below from the book:

Source: Conversational Capital

To bring the eight engines roaring into life, the book provides tips on designing and implementing a solution. On design, one is told to know oneself and one’s story, know what people want, assemble a multidisciplinary and culturally diverse team, multipl one’s cultural referenes, dare to be different, think like an entrepreneur and to use the 8 engines above. Implementation, on the other hand, is about packaging one’s ideas, building a prototype, monitoring progress, rolling out one’s experience and improving one’s work along the way.

While the ideas aren’t entirely new – many of the concepts appear to be old wine in new wineskins – I like how the authors attempt to piece various marketing ideas into a coherent whole. As a trigger for action, Conversational Capital” does set one thinking about how experiences can be better designed, looking at one’s consumer pathways while emphasising unique and salient features.

If you’re looking for some ideas on how you can generate more word-of-mouth in your business, this may be a good place to start. However, be warned that it isn’t a comprehensive self-help book. Ultimately, the success of brands like IKEA, Cirque du Soleil or Schwartz’s (a much loved smoked meat restaurant in Montreal) may be equal parts accident and equal parts design.

This article was first published as Book Review: Conversational Capital by Bertrand Cesvet on Blogcritics.