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Information Is ‘A Thing’ And Should Be Treated Like A Brand

Pause for a moment and think about “information.”

I’ve been thinking about it for the past two decades. No, not generically or in the “data, information, knowledge, wisdom” hierarchy. Not as a concept or just a word. I’ve been thinking about it as a thing: a concrete, tangible thing.

You should, too.

In fact, as a marketer “information as a thing” is the only form of information you should think about. Like all other things, information has attributes, and attributes are what describe or even define a brand. As digital interactions replace physical interactions, the need to understand information attributes—and manage information as a brand—grows more critical with every megabyte collected.

And in a world of augmented reality, virtual reality, bots, and IoT (we’re rocketing toward 50 billion connected devices), understanding information as a thing gives you the best defense against irrelevance.

Brands born in the Industrial Age have long since learned how to leverage attributes to differentiate (and even create) things that have value. Concurrently, their manufacturing and supply chain colleagues have created value by optimizing the systems that produce and distribute those things. Embracing information as a brand requires applying those same principles, except, in this case, the “thing” is information and the “manufacturing and distribution” is the internet and all of the machines attached to it.

I am sensitive to protests by pragmatic brand managers who will say this is too esoteric. To be fair, there is a great deal of debate within the fields of semiotics, informatics, library science, and computational linguistics. The notion of information as thing has been dismissed by some who say information isn’t “stuff,” which means it can’t be branded. (They would prefer to think of information as knowledge or process.)

But being equally pragmatic is Dr. Michael Buckland, of the Berkley School of Information, who encourages us to think of information as thing because “it is the only form of information with which information systems can deal directly.” This braiding of information, thing, and system, along with a declaration of “information as a brand,” provides an elegant solution to aligning CMO and CIO functions.

But understanding information as a thing is not enough. Just as brands are understood by their attributes, information cannot become a brand unless until it is understood in terms of its own unique attributes. Data scientists speak about big data as having four attributes: volume, velocity, veracity, and variety. “Value” is often included as a fifth attribute; however, there are probably even more than that.

Here again, the literature is academic, making a full discussion both time-consuming and beyond the scope of this article. Luckily, a conveniently titled paper, “Attributes of Information” (Boell/Cecez-Kecmanovic, 2010), provides a starting point.

The authors’ framework identifies six layers of information: physical world, emperic, syntactic, semantic, pragmatic, and social world. Notice that “presentation layer,” “user experience,” and even “content” is not explicitly called out. Buckland would likely place those in a bucket called “information as knowledge,” which is intangible. He writes specifically that “information as knowledge can be represented, but that representation is no more knowledge than the film is the event.” The experience is separate and distinct from the information.

Perhaps a more accessible approach is one that Dr. Phil Hendrix, marketing Ph.D. and GigaOM analyst, shared with me. He used the word “abilities” to describe information (as in “comparability” or “detectability”). Through this lens we can imagine many potential attributes.

No matter how many layers or abilities, defining and ranking attributes from the perspective of consumer value provides actionable insights into marketing and IT strategies.

The hypothetical graphs below offer three simple examples:

Figure 1: Consumers may have different expectations for similar attributes depending on the brand.

Figure 2: Similar attributes could have different value depending on industry sectors.

Figure 3: The ability to define and prioritize attributes allows CMOs and CIOs to make informed, aligned, and objective investment and management decisions.

When I first started thinking about this, the internet was for all practical purposes the World Wide Web. Consequently, the only interface between consumers and information was graphical, and it was impossible to make the case for branding information.

But today the world is far more complex, and the internet is more than a web browser. It’s Amazon Echo interacting with Domino’s. It’s my Apple Watch interacting with Delta Airlines. It’s my Nest thermostat interacting with Philips lighting. And it’s not close to done.

Branding information made sense at UPS—where I was director of interactive communications—because it had the potential to distinguish its online shipping tools in a deep and fundamental way: not merely on the web but of the web. It was brought to life even more vividly at Coca-Cola, where I held the role of senior group director, global marketing. I worried about being disintermediated by Amazon and the persuasive voice of Echo’s Alexa. She wouldn’t care about Spencerian Script, dynamic ribbons, or Coca-Cola red. Consumers in the future might never see those branding cues when ordering food and drink.

I began to think about putting contours on a database to make it distinctive, in the same way Coca-Cola put contours on a generic bottle to make it stand out. I imagined Coke branded information flowing over the internet and adding curves to Alexa’s sleek but straight-walled hardware: information that would be recognizable even if invisible; information that delivered on a promise in the same way “physical” brands deliver on a promise.

I think all that is possible. All you need to do to get started is believe that information is a thing and that things have attributes.

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