Tag Archives: mobil

As the Crowds Get Less Wise, an Opening for Brands

The honeymoon with the wisdom of crowds is pretty much finito. And that opens up an interesting opportunity for brands to do some public good.

This isn’t to say that crowd-sourced online ratings are dead. But the relationship has certainly gotten complicated.

When the Web first burst onto the scene in the 1990s, excitement took hold for a new kind of democracy. As Rich Barton, the guy who started Expedia and Zillow, once told me: “Everything that can be rated, will be rated.”

Before the Web, if we wanted to know whether a book or restaurant or barbecue grill or dentist was any good, we’d either have to rely on experts (a newspaper, a guidebook) or word of mouth from friends. The Web, though, let anyone rate anything. And while any individual rater might not be credible, the idea was that a lot of raters in aggregate would give you a pretty accurate assessment.

We bought into this, big-time. Amateur reviews on Amazon started to have a big influence on a book’s sales. TripAdvisor could make or break a hotel. And then the big dog moved in: Yelp turned into a powerful force in every community.









As eyeballs moved to those sites, expert reviews withered. The media cut back on book reviews. Guide books lost influence or disappeared.

But, as always, power corrupts. And the crowds have been corrupted. Last month, Yelp started publicly shaming businesses it catches paying for fake reviews. Within a couple of years, 15% of online reviews or ratings will be fake positives paid for by the reviewees, says Gartner Group. That’s enough to skew the aggregate, calling into question the crowds’ wisdom.

Now you’ve even got Lifehacker writing about how to figure out what reviews to trust.

If this trend continues, as Gartner predicts, ratings sites will get increasingly corrupted. At some point, maybe soon, consumers are going to get sick of it. And then they’ll look, once again, for the voices of credible, proven experts.

This could be a really interesting play for the right kind of brand with the right kind of incentive. Old media has spent the last decade laying off expert reviewers. They’re not likely to bring that back. But a brand could pull this off, and generate a lot of good will.

Let’s take business book reviews. Mainstream media used to do a lot of them. Now, publishers will tell you, it’s almost impossible to get reviews for anything but blockbusters from the likes of J.K. Rowling. Business books rarely get written about.

It might be interesting for a brand to hire a journalistic editor and start a serious-thinking on-line business book review site, featuring credible and authoritative writers. What kind of brand? Maybe one that would benefit from a better-informed business community and would want to be linked to concepts like thought leadership and journalistic narrative. A bank like Citicorp? McKinsey consultants? General Electric?

Apply this thinking to anything we’ve been leaving to the crowds: restaurants, hotels, doctors, toys, college professors. The right brand could become the expert we all appreciate having around.

There is precedent in history, and a great example is the Mobil Travel Guide. Mobil funded experts to write reviews of travel destinations, and the guides became trusted companions. Mobil was just the right kind of tangential brand to pull it off: It benefited when people drove and bought gas, but it had no direct benefit in which hotel they stayed at. Mobil played that perfectly.

Here’s to hoping some other brands find new ways to rise above the crowds and bring some expertise into the game.

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Ancient Branded Journalism

Even Elvis had his predecessors. Likewise, branded journalism isn’t a completely new concept. We’re seeing a ton of emerging forms and models of branded journalism, and there are new reasons this kind of content is important and effective, but it’s all built on the shoulders of some pretty amazing predecessors.

Two of the best: the Mobil Travel Guide and the Merck Manual.

The Mobil Travel Guide was created by Mobil Oil in 1958. It’s purpose wasn’t so much to market Mobil gas in particular — it was to spur driving and, not exactly as an afterthought, gas consumption. The guides used experts to rate hotels and restaurants — giving birth to the Mobil star ratings still in place today.

The Mobil guides were so effective because consumers felt the guides could be trusted. The booklets were impartial and expert-driven. They were a form of journalism — the kind of thing Conde Nast Traveler might do about “best restaurants of California.” While there’s no telling how much Mobil gasoline the guides sold, certainly they made consumers feel good about Mobil.

(The guides were licensed to Forbes Media by ExxonMobile in 2009. So now the guides are owned by a journalism company, which gives credence to the idea that these were journalism all along. Lately, the operation has been turned into a web site called Startle, which seems like a really bad name for a site devoted to planning a trip.)

Even older than the Mobil Travel Guide is The Merck Manual, first published by the pharmaceutical giant in 1899. It is an example of business-to-business branded journalism — the manuals were at first a physicians desk reference, available only to doctors. The first edition set out to detail the effect on the human body of every substance used in medicine.

Again, The Merck Manual did not hawk Merck products. It was written by experts and reviewed by esteemed scientists and doctors. Instead of feeling like biased marketing material, it felt to physicians like a valuable, impartial resource. So doctors accepted the Merck Manual and put it on their bookshelves — a constant reminder that Merck was a trustworthy company.

Years later, Merck realized that individuals were getting their hands on Merck Manuals to keep at home as a medical reference. So Merck created a less-technical consumer version. By 2000, the 16th edition of the Merck Manual sold 2 million copies and was translated into 16 languages.

The Mobil Travel Guide and Merck Manual were so successful and enduring because of one key reason: trust. Both valued trust over salesmanship, and trust won the day.

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