Is trolling the new branding?


Buycott is a new app designed to support voting with your wallet. 

Created by Los Angeles-based developer Ivan Pardo, the app helps people scan the barcode on a product to see which companies own it, and avoid companies whose principles they disagree with – such as those owned by the Koch brothers, or who oppose labeling GMOs. The app provides contact information for each company, and includes a family tree of corporate lineage, linking smaller brands to the bigger ones that own them, and as Fast Company points out, “reminding consumers that seemingly indie brands are owned by much larger companies” – i.e., that size is often a branding effect.


Buycott’s “knowledge is power” approach to consumer activism reminded me of the recent New York magazine profile of Buzzfeed’s CEO Jonah Peretti, in which I was surprised to read that Peretti had actually started out as an internet artist and activist. In fact, his first notoriety came from culture-jamming Nike in 2001, by trying to make a pair of Nike iD sneakers that said SWEATSHOP. The resulting email correspondence, in which Nike repetitively refuses, went viral.

Since then, Peretti has reconfigured the line between activist and capitalist. An interesting moment in the New York magazine profile describes how he had created a mass-email tracking program called ForwardTrack, and although it was originally intended for liberal political groups and charities, “when Procter & Gamble wanted to adopt it for use in connection with a detergent promotion, he confessed no hesitation.” 


I realized I’d first heard of Peretti in the excellent book Brands: The Logos of the Global Economy by Celia Lury, where his Nike iD sweatshop stunt is put in historical terms. Coincidentally enough, the same chapter in Lury’s book includes an earlier, much weirder run-in between Proctor & Gamble and viral activism: the 1985 redesign of their 134-year-old logo in response to rumors that it as a mark of the devil. (When viewed in a mirror, the man’s curly beard was said to resemble a devilish 666, which is totally true if you look at it that way.) After a multi-million-dollar anti-rumor campaign that included private investigators, lawsuits, and a toll-free hotline, the company gave up and changed its logo to today’s plain old P&G.


At the time, the decision was described by marketers as “a rare case of a giant company succumbing to a bizarre and untraceable rumor” (New York Times News Service). Today, it’s clear that it was an early example of trolling – an effective, asymmetrical assault levied by an anonymous source on a visible public body. Which might not be so different from how branding works, itself:

 “Traveling anonymously, without clear meaning, authority, or direction, rumors colonize the media in much the same way that commercial trademarks do, subversively undermining the benign invisibility of the trademark’s corporate sponsor while maintaining the consumer’s own lack of authorial voice.” –Intellectual property expert Rosemary Coombe

To put it another way, rumors, trolling, and corporate branding have two important features in common: anonymity and amplification.  

Whitney Phillips, an anthropologist who wrote her PhD thesis on trolling, has a lot of great perspectives on this topic. She did an interview in The Awl that does a good job of showing how the new landscape of branded content is troubling what we take for granted in “authentic” media – specifically the elements of spontaneity and immediacy. Phillips defines memejacking as “the process by which marketers attempt to tack brand identity onto an existing meme, like some sort of unholy game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey” as well as The Buzzfeed Effect (paging Peretti) as the behavior of a “nest of insanely influential organizations acting as ex post facto gatekeepers who have the power to make a meme by saying that something IS a meme—a process central to any smart ad-revenue-based business plan.”


The difference between memes and brands, of course, is that brands usually have a much more intelligible source, if you know where to look. And it’s precisely this possession, in the case of corporate branding, that the Buycott app is designed to figure out, cutting through the information soup to the money source. Let’s see if it works.



Gossip Girl

Future Patrol is a series of macrotrend posts by Emily Segal, a strategist at Wolff Olins New York. 

CES 2013 in pictures

Vegas is like a microwave for your brain. And CES is like the Olympics or a world’s fair - a place where we get to see what everyone can now take for granted in terms of the possibilities of technology. Still, the show is more about confirming the past as the present than really showing you the future. 




Ultra high definition remained the key arena for big brands this year.


The 4K TVs are so high definition that very little content exists to show them off. In a poignant twist, Sony used scans of regular newspapers.



Certain brands seem to be floundering in times of innovation overload. Polaroid was a heartbreaker, whereas United Healthcare’s “Dance Dance Revolution in a fake park” concept was just kitschy fun.


Extreme sports, durability and performance gear were key branding elements across the board, but particularly for cameras and accessories. 


Our creative director Todd Simmons spoke on the Digital Hollywood panel about creating branded media.

“‘Branded content’ is usually just a fancy 21st century name for advertising. Creating branded media based in fact, bravery and risk is what makes all the difference. It doesn’t come from a brief. No client has ever said hey, we want a man to jump from the stratosphere,” Todd said.   


For me, it was most fun to see all the weird little things, like a cigarette lighter that’s powered by your iPhone, or a calorie-counting fork. Digital home goods, as well as interfaceless and wearable technologies, appear to be the most exciting area for growth. 


Headphones and sound-related brands threw down the hardest, style-wise.

Booth babes ;)

Some people (Wolff Olins included) caught the famous CES plague (a communal cold that comes from touching the same consumer electronics as 150,000 other stressed out attendees) :(


Leaving Las Vegas. CES, we’ll see you next year…

Emily Segal is a strategist at Wolff Olins New York.

Three Quotes

About the Future

1. If we’re looking to invisible Mayans for the answers to our world-historical crisis, then something, somewhere, has gone very wrong. Against a background of peak oil, protein, attention, and confidence, perhaps we’ve reached peak future… Despite the monsters, this is not the time for retrenchment. Far from it! Instead, post-normal times call for post-normal measures; they urge you to up your game. In the immortal words of Hunter S. Thompson, ‘when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.’

– Futurist Justin Pickard’s The Gonzo Futurist Manifesto


2. At a more human level, I find that I am unable to relate to people who are deeply into any sort of cyberculture or other future-obsessed edge zone. There is a certain extreme banality to my thoughts when I think about the future.…Technology only becomes interesting once it becomes technically boring. Technological futurists are pre-Fieldists. Marketing futurists are post-Fieldists.

– Consultant Vankatesh Rao’s essay Welcome to the Future Nauseous from his blog Ribbonfarm

3. It’s similar to the experience of getting a cell phone call for the first time. “This is weird, this is magic.” It’s not just newness, either—it’s an experience where the previous understanding of the universe is broken. You don’t get many experiences like that if you don’t do drugs or have some sort of meditative practice.

–Hacker Eleanor Saitta in Rhizome’s essay series Guide to Future-Present Archetypes


Images via Damon Zucconi and John Hildell.

(This is the fifth Future Patrol, a monthly series of macrotrend posts by WONY Strategist Emily Segal. You’ll see Wolff Olins’ established macrotrends called out with a hashtag.)

Case Study:

Ford Keyfree Login

I. What it is:

Ford Keyfree Login is a new app that uses Bluetooth and a Chrome plug-in to automatically unlock your Facebook, Google, and Twitter passwords, as long you approach the computer with a preapproved smartphone nearby.  

Created by Ogilvy Paris for Ford France, it’s both a marketing riff on Ford’s NFC keyfobs for cars and a legitimate tech product made by an ad firm for a car company.

Though the functionality of Ford Keyfree isn’t exactly a new thing - apps like Lastpass get a similar job done – it’s the first that requires no typing whatsoever, and the first one made by Ford.  After all, who can lay better spiritual claim on the idea of “mobile” than a car company? Ford Keyfree portends a future in which you’ll never again have to declare your identity through a set of numbers and letters ­– just zoom along the Google superhighway with an Android in your jeans. 

(See how it works on Vimeo.)

II. What it means for brand:

As Fred Levron, exec director at Ogilvy, Paris said in a statement: “Ford Keyfree technology is built on a strong digital belief: Don’t try to reinvent the wheel.”

It’s a big pun, but not necessarily true: marketing through a product that’s completely outside of Ford’s traditional space is a pretty inventive move.

As a marketing strategy, Ford Keyfree fits into the category of the #Useful behavior from our recent Gamechangers report: rather than using tech or big budgets for novelty impact, companies are funding real products or services that make consumers’ lives easier or more convenient, blurring the divisions between offer and communications, industry and agency. In Ford’s case, Keyfree positions them as interdisciplinary, tech-sensitive, and clued in to what consumers need (likely for very little money compared to traditional campaigns).

Taking Nike’s success with Nike+ and their Nikefuel API as a key example (“Why Nike is Now a Tech Company,” Digiday) it won’t be long before all successful companies will be “tech companies.”

“If I already own an iPhone and a Mac, why isn’t Apple doing this on its own? Talk about incentive to have a closed ecosystem…?” Mark Wilson wonders in in Fast Co. Design (“Ford Schools Apple With Clever Phone Login App…Wait, What?”),  and the Atlantic Wire agrees: “Ford’s ‘Keyfree’ App Is Something Apple Should Have Invented”.

If media incredulity is any indication, Ford Keyfree is a great reminder that no brand is disruption-proof. 

III. Related issues + examples

+ Ford Keyfree brings up basic but important digital security questions. For instance: how secure is Bluetooth? How sensitive is my information? How should we protect our passwords? Lowering the threshold of your next Facebook post might be very exciting to a digital marketer but less advantageous for the user. Where is the threshold between convenience and vulnerability?

> The app Lockitron allows you let someone into your house with a text message

+ A bigger question is how personal identity is defined by these kinds of products. In the case of Ford Keyfree, the only thing you have to do to ensure your existence as the rightful user is hold a smartphone. 

 > Then there’s the countertrend: cheap biometric security, al a these biometric thumbdrives

 + What happens with seamless logins when there’s financial information involved? In an age of accidentally purchased Kindle eBooks and robosigned mortgages, not to mention the potential of a surreptitious Kinect camera, it’s a bit chilling to imagine quite how invisible payments could become. As we mentioned in our #Funny Money post, related to our #Instapurchasing trend, there is such thing as too seamless especially when it comes to money.

 > Dashlane payment app’s express check-out feature stores and autofills your payment info, making any ecommerce as frictionless as Amazon One-Click


(This is the fourth Future Patrol, a monthly series of macrotrend posts by WONY Strategist Emily Segal. You’ll see Wolff Olins’ established macrotrends called out with a hashtag.)


I. What it is:

Loyal3, launching in May, is a new startup that enables consumers to buy shares of companies (really $10 fractions of shares) directly on Facebook, an idea CEO Barry Schneider is calling “the ultimate ‘like’ button.”

Loyalty programs have already become a focal point for incenting consumer behavior, creating personalized perks, and gathering consumer data. 

Loyal3’s move to put real stakes behind consumer engagement shows that loyalty is beginning to generate new revenue models. The #Hyperloyalty trend is about precisely this kind of consumer-focused shift from marketing to value creation.

Future Patrol predicts that loyalty programs will become an expectation for every brand –even in industries that have conventionally gone without them – with elements such as crowdfunding, branded currencies and extra perks for good social media behavior as key features.


II. Some examples:



The line between jokes and innovation has become increasingly blurry. Virgin Holidays’ April Fools’ Day hoax, a branded currency with Richard Branson’s face on it, recalls a trend we discussed in Future Patrol’s #Funny Money post: loyalty and rewards programs are becoming alternative currencies unto themselves, with points that can be redeemed for nearly as many things as cash can.

 “Most large companies – from Starbucks to British Airways to Sheraton to American Express – are evolving their reward and point loyalty systems into digital micro-economies, complete with redemption and exchange between systems.” (Cayman Financial Review) 


Frequent flyers are the day traders of this new economy.

“Mileage runners are the high-tech nomadic wanderers of the air. Predominantly male, generally obsessed with flying and miles, and typically employed in white-collar careers that involve significant business travel, they scour the web for cheap flights, phoning in sick or using vacation days to fly the longest itineraries they can string together.”



Loyalty programs – and games – are both about incenting customer behavior, and both use feedback loops and points to that end. But a loyalty system need not actually be a game to feel like one.

“Assembling a mileage run means deciphering complex fare rules and pulling together information from up to a dozen websites. It’s an achievement that tickles the same satisfying problem-solving centers of the brain as a Sudoku puzzle, and always ends in the deep-rooted human thrills of travel and flight.” (Wired)  (“Frequent Flyer” documentary on Vimeo)


Freedom is the best perk. 

“Designing programs with an overarching theme of “freedom” can instill incredible power into our initiatives.” …. “Not “freebies.” But “freedom.” The ability to do things, to make decisions, to enhance one’s life, in ways that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. The word is telling. Many elements contribute to freedom, and, yes, the freebie is one such element. Others include privilege, convenience, assistance, guidance, choice and ease.” (“Freedom: Perhaps the ultimate aspirational reward” Colloquy Blog)



However, “freedom” is not the first word that comes to mind when integrating social media into loyalty schemes. Giving consumers deals or discounts because they have desirable social media influence is a marketing trend, but also can create a coercive situation in which consumers must forfeit deals if they want to preserve their privacy

Gilt Groupe provides extra discounts for users with high Klout scores

+ Amex / Twitter: The new Twitter integration lets American Express cardholder receive special offers by tweeting with a special hashtag. Initial partners include Zappos, the Cheesecake Factory, McDonald’s, Best Buy, Virgin America, and Whole Foods. In order to redeem a deal, you send a tweet with a hashtag and the offer is loaded on to the account. The credit appears automatically when the card is swiped. (Venturebeat)

+ Exchange systems like Pay with a Tweet, or that exchange goods for social media “love” and personal data from consumers

+ Reputation currencies like Whuffie Bank (where you get discounts and rewards based on your online social reputation)


III. What this means for brand: 

+ Extreme consumers and mileage runners have invented their own rituals around current loyalty infrastructures. There’s an opportunity for brands to leverage the subcultures that spring up around the way they architect their companies. What seems like extreme niche behavior today will likely be mainstream tomorrow.

+ Don’t become so seamless and ubiquitous that you slip beneath the convenience threshold. Failure and friction are important elements in building brand loyalty – and put the “social” in social media. Help your customers “play, fail, replay, achieve, succeed and progress” (LS:N). 

+ Brands that make customers feel free are powerful, but the feeling of getting away with something may be even more powerful.

(For more on rethinking value download Value-Creative: Change the Game)

Untitled watercolor by Ken Price

Tug of Store is a new project by OKFocus, the digital agency responsible for, Is the L Train Fucked?, and other good web sites.

Tug of Store is simple: A picture of an item pops up, and you click on the left side if it’s crap, on the right side if it’s cool, tugging against whoever else is clicking on the site. After a hundred clicks, the verdict flashes on the screen, and the next watch / kayak / pair of shoes steps forth to be judged. 

The site is an experiment with the recently released Svpply API, playing on elements of Chat Roulette, Hot or Not, and the convention of Facebook’s thumbs up.

Mercifully, there is no nuanced engagement, no “thinking,” and no actual shopping. After only a few moments, Tug of Store gives you a clear verdict, and a list of the coolest and crappiest stores.At the time of this blog post, the coolest is Etsy, and the crappiest is End Clothing.

The site accelerates what shopping on the internet has become: this product is crap, this product is cool, and that’s the whole story.

"Totally the zeitgeist of 2012" - Eric W.

(This is the third Future Patrol, a monthly series of macrotrend posts by WONY Strategist Emily Segal. You’ll see Wolff Olins’ established macrotrends called out with a hashtag.)

#Immortal Consumers

“I Was No Longer Afraid to Die. I Was Now Afraid Not to Die.” – Joan Didion

This post is one in a series of sketches that will look to extreme consumer behavior to see what ideas they open up for brands. The following sketches are of “immortal” consumers who consume in the context of a very long time scheme.

What it is:

Ray Kurzweil believes that humans will outsmart death in 2045. If people can live forever, we’re going to overpopulate and run out of resources. On the other hand, if we’re immortal, do we need to hang on to precious things?

The more that the mainstream concept of time shifts, the more basic consumption models will also likely shift. It seems like the ultimate collaborative commerce scenario (what we call #Streaming Ownership) may come when people are no longer worried about passing their possessions on to their children. It could be like the Shakers-meets-AirBnB. Resources may be limited, but brands (in the form of stories, ideas, and feelings) can be unlimited.

Some current examples: 

The Long Now is an organization that “hopes to provide a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common…to creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.”

This is part of a giant clock Long Now is building to tick for 10,000 years.

- Life Extensionists or Longevists believe that by supporting/consuming the right technologies, they can “conquer the blight of involuntary death.” This segment thinks future technological breakthroughs in tissue rejuvenation with stem cells, molecular repair, and organ replacement will eventually enable humans to have indefinite lifespans through complete rejuvenation to a healthy youthful condition. 

- Preppers are also preparing for a long future, but of a different kind: they believe that the collapse of civilization is imminent, and are stockpiling accordingly.

Preppers, as a community, are trying to solve a difficult consumption problem: what stuff to buy, how much of it, and how to store it. Usually people focus on guns or water, creating Without the Rule of Law (WROL) and Shit Hits the Fan (SHTF) videos and sites that read like Consumer Reports for the End Times.

Does “Without the Rule of Law” imply “under the rule of brand”? After all, much of the Prepper advice centers around brands, i.e., “this is a quality brand of antibiotic to stockpile.” Brands that are stickier than the civilization that spawned them are a scary thought.

"We could see a cascade of higher interest rates, margin calls, stock market collapses, bank runs, currency revaluations, mass street protests, and riots…The worst-case end result would be a Third World War, mass inflation, currency collapses, and long term power grid failures." (Subculture of Americans Prepares for Civilization’s Collapse, Reuters)

- Self Quantifiers who obsessively count, track, and analyze data about their lives (here, a video from Catherine Hooper, who’s known for planning her life by the hour) are not uniformly interested in living forever, but do have a very intimate relationship with the clock. In this highly scrupulous pocket of consumption, wasted time (and wasted energy) are major concerns and something to be avoided at all costs.


What this means for business:

> Is the implication of immortal consumers that companies should sell things that are going to last, and/or guarantee lifetime upkeep, in the manner of Patagonia, Barbour, LL Bean, or other “heritage” brands? Probably not. Make things that people can hack, measure and share. Eternity is a long time to stay enthralled with a single jacket.

> Create services and products where people feel safe. Starbucks as a reliable third space is almost a good example.

> Disrupt the disruption: be consistent and steady while every other business is radically changing.

> Longer consumer memory means that accountability has legs: you can’t “worry about it later” because older generations of customers will be around to remember.


Images via Wired, the Long Now, YouTube user   and Quantified Self


The energy of your energy drink

By Emily Segal

iAura is an app that uses your smartphone camera to capture the energy fields and true colors of those around you.

The app is the 2012 version of Kirlian photography, which captures electric currents on film.

The word aura comes from the ancient Greek for “breeze” or “breath,” and came to stand for the groovy emanation of a living creature’s essence, discernible by those with special spiritual vision. In brand strategy, auras account for the X-factor or emotional environment of a product or company, discernible by any regular person.

Future Patrol did an experiment using iAura to gauge the brand vibes of three popular energy drinks. Results below:

Your Aura is blue!

A blue aura indicates tranquil, relaxed, energy, and a desire to communicate. Blue may also be interpreted as mournful or emotional sensitivity. Common in artists, philosophers, spiritual seekers, and other intuitive, inwardly focused individuals, that convey wisdom and reliability.

Your Aura is green!

Green auras denote natural healing, high self-esteem, tenacity and prosperity. Green can also indicate frustration and loss.

Your Aura is grey!

Grey Auras represent negative thoughts and emotions. Fear, depression, and a lack of courage are common in those exhibiting this energy. Can potentially lead to health problems, especially if focused on a specific area of the body.

(This is the second Future Patrol, a monthly series of macrotrend posts by WONY Strategist Emily Segal. You’ll see Wolff Olins’ established macrotrends called out with a hashtag.)

#Funny Money

Every time you pay for a magazine subscription with Hilton loyalty points, or exchange a foursquare checkin for a shot of tequila, or donate your time as a volunteer, you’re using an alternative (or complementary) currency, which can be defined as anything that serves as a medium of exchange, a stored value, and a standard of value

Money has always been “virtual,” since it refers to something that isn’t present. But our current scenario is another turn of the screw:

“We are moving towards a world in which money consists solely of data that is kept someplace in the network. When we pay someone in that world all we are really doing is causing some data to move around. The shift from the physical to the virtual raises a number of exciting possibilities for the future of money including the rise of reputation currencies.” Union Square Ventures

Financial upheaval, rapidly decentralizing power and peer-to-peer networks mean that consumers are increasingly down to trade directly with one another and stash their money with nontraditional businesses. (The recent success of the low-fee money transfer startup Dwolla, which just completed their first round of funding with Union Square Ventures is a good example.)

What it is:

The #Funny Money trend is about a new situation in the near future in which it is normal to choose among many different currencies – either in addition to or in place of dollars – when paying for stuff. Imagine a bank where you can pay in combinations of time, personal data, loyalty points and governmental money. Barter, rental, and gift systems will be central parts of mainstream finance, as well as built-in discounts for positive social behavior and wide social media reach. 

“Value” and “trust” may be moving targets, but are more crucial than ever. KS12’s Future of Money video defines it this way: “Banks will be whatever best mediates trust in communities.”  Brands, too, will be under increased pressure to create/sustain/communicate trust.

Some current examples: 

+ local currencies, like the Brixton pound

digital currencies, like Ven and Bitcoin

virtual or in-game currencies, like Farmville credits or World of Warcraft gold

time banks

trade groups like Ourgoods, Skillshare, and One blue dot, which work on a model similar to food coops

exchange systems like Pay with a Tweet, or, that exchange goods for social media love or personal data from consumers

reputation currencies like Whuffie Bank

loyalty and rewards programs: “Most large companies – from Starbucks to British Airways to Sheraton to American Express – are evolving their reward and point loyalty systems into digital micro-economies, complete with redemption and exchange between systems.”  Cayman Financial Review 

(more initiatives here)

Ven is a digital currency that began as a way to pay for stuff within the social network Hubculture. In late 2008, the currency became tradeable to anyone with an email address, making it the first global digital currency to become valuable outside of its original social network, as well as the first ‘invented’ digital currency to be listed by Thompson Reuters. 

Unlike the controversial Bitcoin, Ven is weighted against a basket of currencies and commodities that includes carbon futures, which gives it a “green” point of view. 

As one of the creators of Ven writes: “Including carbon in the basket makes the Ven ‘language’ for finance slightly different and puts emphasis on sustainability in a way old currencies cannot.” Rise of Private Money, Cayman Financial Review

The Metacurrency project also describes money as a language and a way of looking into the future:

“In everyday English, we use the words money and currency interchangeably. However, we are reclaiming the word “currency” for something much more powerful than money alone. Money is still certainly a type of currency, but currencies are much more. They are the creators of currents — part of the language of living systems. Currency: a formal system used to shape, enable or measure currents.” MetaCurrency

Currencies have a POV, money is editorial, and land, labor, and capital (the traditional components of capitalism) – are not sufficiently telling the story. As Jerry Michalski, Founder of the Relationship Economy Expedition puts it: the new “relationship economy” needs to find a way to nurture the commons, the gift economy, and the commercial economy all at once.

What this means for business:

> If consumers have way more currencies to choose from, brand comes in as a major way to negotiate the options

> There is such a thing as “too seamless”

“Is it possible to make a system that’s too easy to use, where you reduce so much friction from the transaction process that people aren’t necessarily aware of what they’re spending on something?” NYT  

> An opportunity to rethink loyalty programs 

“Most large companies – from Starbucks to British Airways to Sheraton to American Express – are evolving their reward and point loyalty systems into digital micro-economies, complete with redemption and exchange between systems.” Cayman Financial Review

> Actual peer-to-peer value creation from social networks

“What if Facebook evolved to have a functionality like Zopa or Lending Club, allowing you to directly lend and borrow with other Facebook users, and earn a great rate of interest. Extend that one step further to Facebook offering an entire mobile based money transfer system, something like M-PESA, which could then create a simple mechanism for international microfinance. If Facebook goes this far, Credits could quickly face regulatory scrutiny if they actually influence or devalue currencies in other markets.” Forbes

> New freedom to compare systems and rethink the distribution of wealth: 

OWS Bloomberg bucks

images via NYT blog, Mad Magazine, rapper Curren$y