Branding in the new economy (strategies for relationship building)

Flickr_1Everyone with a Flickr account got this email yesterday. It’s an innocent little communication, not to be given a second thought.  Click the “delete” icon and it’s gone.


The Flickr team has up and moved this week to Californ-i-a and has
been singing Beach Boys songs non-stop since arrival. And you’re
moving too!

We’re moving each and every pixel, bit, and byte, all your data, lock,
stock, and barrel, from our humble server shack in Canada to our new
server palace in the U.S. of A!

This process will begin during the week of June 28 and will result in
speediness, stableness, and happiness. For more information, please
visit the FAQ about the data center move.

Thank you, Flickreebies, for making Flickr such a wonderful place to
share, connect, and befriend. We love you! (In an entirely non-creepy

– The Flickroobies

But we’re laborious here at This Blog Sits At.  We sweat the details, interrogating them until they “spill.”

Here’s what we got when we tortured the Flickr email. Why the interrogation? If brand building is a process of relationship building, this could be interesting. 

1) The email tells us something we don’t need to know. Indeed it tells us something that would otherwise have been invisible. (We don’t care whether Flickr is resident in Canada or the US, just so long as our accounts are available on line.) It seizes a pretext for communication. The motives here can’t be informational (or referential, as the linguists call it).  They must be otherwise. Interesting.

2) Flickr doesn’t just announce a move, it uses a voice that is revealing and chatty.  (They are singing Beach Boy songs at Flickr.) The tone is exuberant and a little corny (“Californ-i-a,” “U.S. of A.”) 

This kind of communication is characteristic of contact between friends.  We tell friends about the small, nonessential details of our personal lives.  (The closer we are, the more likely we are to do this.)  The function of this kind of communication is that it keeps us in sync.  We might call this “phatic information.” It is designed to give us the sense that we are “in touch.”.  (When do relationships end?  It is precisely when this kind of information dries up and blows away.)  Interestinger.

3) I wonder if we could say this is a performative (“wishing makes it so”) strategy.  If Flickr talks to us as if there is a familiar relationship, then they create a familiar relationship.  The full intention of the email are revealed: Flickr use a familiar tone to create a familiar relationship, and so to create an intimacy and bond. Interestingest.

4) Actually, the tone is not merely intimate, it is sentimental. “Thank you for making Flickr such a wonderful place to share, connect, and befriend. We love you!” To my flinty, Protestant soul, this feels like it goes right over the top.  I am grateful that Flickr provides a service. Their love, I can take or leave.  On second thought, I will leave it.  Hmm.  Less interesting.

5) But here’s the thing that really struck me, the people at Flickr call themselves Flickroobies and they call us Flickreebies.  Suddenly, I feel like I am back at a United Church summer camp where they were used to put us into groups of 4 or 5 and give us "jazzy" names designed to whip up a little tribal enthusiasm without actually encouraging us to stage an amateur production of Lord of the Flies.  (Naturally, we did anyhow.)

Strickly speaking, I don’t care what the people at Flickr call themselves.  But I am pretty sure I do not wish to be called a Flickroobie or even to know that I am so called at Flickr. 

Call it an arc. The first three stages move upward, using simple linguistic strategies to help build the Flickr brand, and then, Icarus like, things go too far, and the entire enterprise  comes crashing down.  Hey, it’s still early days and we are learning. 

19 thoughts on “Branding in the new economy (strategies for relationship building)

  1. good point

    very interesting points – and i don’t think you have to Protestant to feel that this email goes a bit over the top by the end.

  2. brian

    I saw a bumper sticker that stated if I approached too closely, the driver ( a memebr of the nasal reserves ) would Flickroobies at me

  3. jeanphony

    Maybe I’m a cynic, but when I received this e-mail what I read between the lines was “Please make sure you remove any photographs that you feel the U.S. government might take a particular interest in.”

  4. Steve Portigal

    I saw that item on their blog (or somewhere on their site) a few days ago and so was surprised to see it appear in my inbox today.

    Some reactions:

    Flickr was purchased by Yahoo! – based in Silicon Valley. Northern California. I assume that the Flickr move is to this part of California. We don’t sing Beach Boys songs here. They might as well have announced they were moving to the USA and would now be singing Billy Joel and Wayne Newton songs. The cultural inaccuracy and naivete stunned me. And these are folks from Vancouver, a fairly culturally diverse and aware (and West Coast) location. How could they now know better?

    There’s something here about local kid making good, too. Getting bought by the big powerful firm, growing, doing well, making us all proud, those of us who have been with them since the start, etc. It’s that weird collapse (whether actual or perceived) between consumer and producer. Hey, we have nicknames, I guess, and we care about what is going on with them not because “there may be several hours of down time while servers are re-calibrated” but because we care about THEM. At least, that’s the story they are putting out there. And for those early adopters in the tech-savvy blogosphere (i.e., do you know how to create a trackback? Do you know how to best use (or spell) perhaps that is true. Flickr isn’t Flickr, it’s Stewart and Caterina, the Evan Williamses of 2005.

  5. Grant

    Good point, good point, I didnt want to be exclusive, just to explain which brand of flintiness I was talking about. Thanks, Grant

    Brian, yes, because in california people remain youthful forever. Thanks, Grant

    Jeanphony, you live in a dark world, my dear. I do hope this was not their intention. Thanks, Grant

    Steve, illluminating! thanks, Grant

  6. Chareu

    Grant, very interesting post – my first reaction when I got this mail was of irritation… and then the question, so what does this mean for me as a user – the answer, nothing – sometimes, such hey-nonny-no kind of communication can get too friendly – to the point of being intrusive and you want to say ‘back off’ –
    the truth I guess is that “brands” are actually a peripheral and insignificant part of our lives – much more so than communication and marketing professionals can accept or even believe…

  7. Matt

    When I get emails like this, the first (and generally only) thing I think of is “just how pathetic does one’s life have to be, before they’ll think that cutesy faux-cool emails from a web service they use are a value-add for their life?”.

    I don’t even like it when my _real_ friends send me emails full of data of no consequence.

  8. debbie

    nothing gets passed you Grant, and that’s why we love you so much…great, great post.

  9. JD

    When all else fails, consult the oracle Goffman. He won’t clear up the matter, but he will make it even more interesting. In his essay “Strategic Interaction” he asks, but omits to explain how to decide, “When an individual seems carried away by feeling, is he intentionally acting this way in order to create an effect?” Later he points out that one reason to give weight to words is the belief that they offer a window into intent, a window as he puts it into a room lit from within by emotional expression. So are Flickr’s words illuminated by a sappy lamp, is Flickr not sappy but thinks their customers are, are they not and know their customers aren’t but think their customers might like them more if they pretend that they are? Is the goal to make us feel superior to Flickr so we’ll feel safe during the otherwise deeply disturbing process of becoming hopelessly dependent on them (raised to an art in the serving professions, see Joseph Losey’s The Servant)?

  10. Grant

    Charue, I think they play an enormous role, but they have to be careful that they do not presume a familiarity they have yet to earn. But we are still working out the boundary issues, I guess. Thanks, Grant

    Matt, exactly, there are lots of models to be accommodated, and I think there is a gender split that says that males communicate much less “phatic information” than women tend to do. This will be part of the targeted proposition, I guess. Thanks, Grant

    Debbie, thanks, much appreciated, Grant

    JD, good questions all, and only ethnographic or some other method would supply the answers, but you leave out the one I find most disturbing, the one that uses a peppy tone to say, “we are not a business, and can be trusted to act from other, higher motives.” This is a consumer expectation I find disturbing, but I am not judge from a couple of recent threads, in the minority. Some people want to hear that your motives are non commercial, because, I guess, commerce is dangerous. Frankly, I find myself much more uncomforable, threatened, actually, when someone is pretending to be my friend. Or, as you say, perhaps this is the new coin of deference. Thanks, Grant

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  12. Steve Portigal

    It’s interesting to see in the comments what strikes me as a fairly cynical tone about corporations. Again, from the Silicon Valley perspective, there’s a cultural myth about startups that I believe (that’s not me saying the myth is true, but just that living here where it’s part of the air, that I believe it) – that these emerging ones (from Pyra Labs (the Blogger folks) on down) are friendly, real people, smart, funny, social, excited, jazzed, driven and wanting-to-do-well for us.

    The companies that buy these startups (Yahoo and Google, at least) may have that in their roots, but no one feels that way about them now, do they? Especially the people that work there, no doubt.

    So Flickr is making that transition from beloved-among-the-digerati startup to part-of-a-corporate-monster. And the missives from them make sense, given that. And I believed them as earnest if inaccurate (rather than the Snidette Whiplash of Yahoo! Marketing composing it complete with geographical referenes to make ’em sound just small-town-hick enough to be charming, etc.) indicators of what was going on for those individuals that were having a career change.

    And for me (and not the others here) it FIT. It fit perfectly with my expectations of ’em. Did you folks see blog entries with Yahoo buys Flickr? Did any of you care? I don’t know how universal that was, but I suspect not at all, and it’s not really that relevant.

    Please note I’m not correcting or chastising anyone here; I’m really intrigued by the space between us in terms of what these brands mean to us.

  13. Grant

    Steve, really splendid, thanks, the very ethnographic context that needed to be specified here. Best, Grant

  14. Caterina

    Ha! I was amused by all these remarks here because I was the person who wrote the email.

    Flickr users who’ve spent any time reading any of the writing on the site (including the privacy policy, FAQ and other typically unamusing text) — or who read the Flickr Blog — will recognize the email as my own fairly corny and/or over the top voice, and see that it’s exactly the same kind of jocularity as Flickr has had since its inception, even when making serious announcements, as in

    The email was sent out at the behest of the legal department. Surely we as small-timers up in Canada would not have even known there was anything to be done when moving datastuff from here to there, but indeed, it turns out when you move people’s stuff over international borders, you have to tell them.

    We whinged that legalese was not our style and insisted that this Very Informative Email use the same, semi-ridiculous, and vaguely mad voice we’ve always used, and they said, well OK. Even to the point where we had the lawyers attempting to write their own paragraphs in Flickrese.

    Lucky for us, our corporate overlords at Yahoo are sensible people, allowing us our odd idiosyncracies, and thus you received my wholly overwrought and sadly uninformative missive.


  15. Tom Guarriello

    “Whinged”; I love it! This is one of my family’s favorite words for describing that sing-song tone that children adopt when trying to break down the will of authority figures, (“But, I don’t waaana go to beeeeed”); whining elevated to art form.

    I can just see the Flickroobies (!) accosting the evil attornies now: “You caaaan’t make us say thaaaat!” and then watching them relent, like we ineffectual parents everywhere inevitably do, “OK, but only this one time!”

    It reminds me of The Flaming Lips song, “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots”:

    Her name is Yoshimi
    she’s a black belt in karate
    working for the city
    she has to discipline her body
    ‘Cause she knows that
    it’s demanding
    to defeat those evil machines
    I know she can beat them

    Oh Yoshimi, they don’t believe me
    but you won’t let those robots eat me
    Yoshimi, they don’t believe me
    but you won’t let those robots defeat me

    Those evil-natured robots
    they’re programmed to destroy us
    she’s gotta be strong to fight them
    so she’s taking lots of vitamins

    ‘Cause she knows that
    it’d be tragic
    if those evil robots win
    I know she can beat them


  16. Edward Cotton


    I believe the issue is all about targeting. The Flickr email reads
    like it’s sent from the passionate owners to the equally passionate
    group of consumers and users. Perhaps to should have just been sent
    to the most frequent users and earliest adopters, rather than everyone.

    It’s like being a music fan and liking a song; both are interactions
    with a band, but the relationships are very different.

    If bands treat fans differently, why shouldn’t brands?

    Some people want a relationship and others want to be left alone.
    Surely we are smart enough to tell the difference.


  17. Grant

    Caterina, thanks for taking this with such good grace, and for the backgrounder on your intentions. Much appreciated! Thank, Grant

    Tom, thanks for a timely pop culture reference! Thanks, Grant

    Edward, If smart enough to tell the difference then one would hope skillful enough as marketers/rhetoricians enough to make the difference. Great point. We have at least 3 relationships out there (according to diffusion stage) and we should have one language for each. But if you are assuming that all the early adopters are passionate and wants an intimate language, I’m not sure this is so. Some of the early adopters are thinking not “you have done something wonderful” but “so you’re the ones who figured out, what do you want, a medal?” Thoughts only. Thanks, Grant

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