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January 19, 2005
Curator Economy

We’re overwhelmed. There’s simply too much choice and access to information to manage on our own. And, the oppressive amount of complexity grows each day. To cope, we rely on influencers, retailers, friends, bloggers, style mavens, critics, publishers, TV networks, and trusted brands to help guide our personal choices.

As a result of this new changing reality, we now live in a curator economy. Businesses that understand, embrace, and harness the power of the curator have the opportunity to tap into newfound loyalty. From the Latin, to care, “curator” aptly describes the role a business must play on behalf of its customers. Some standout businesses have a strong grasp of this responsibility. They authentically empathize with their audience yet go far beyond simply giving them what they want. A great curator challenges an audience to expand its horizons.

While the obvious curators of our time reside online in brands such as eBay, Yahoo!, and Google, where the limitations of physical shelf space disappear, traditional marketers should also consider how they can adapt to the curator economy. For brand managers to think of their role as curator rather than marketer is to define the brand’s point-of-view, reason-for-being, needs and desires it fulfills, brand essence, and then to stick to the rational and emotional benefits that make the winning brands unique.

Consider Whole Foods. One of the touchstones of the company is its Whole Philosophy. As a curator, Whole Foods carefully screens the products it carries and shares this standard with its customers:

We carry natural and organic products because we believe that food in its purest state—unadulterated by artificial additives, sweeteners, colorings, and preservatives—is the best tasting and most nutritious food available. Our search for quality is a never-ending process involving the careful judgment of buyers throughout the company.

Whatever you buy at Whole Foods, you know that it meets this standard. Shopping at Whole Foods is, therefore, fundamentally different from that of a typical grocer that does no screening. And, as the benefits of natural food products continues it rapid move to the mainstream, more and more consumers will seek nutritional curators such as Whole Foods. But, Whole Foods’ curator philosophy goes far beyond products: it endeavors to be the curator of the shopping experience itself. The result is a far more emotional and satisfying connection versus typical grocery experiences.

The curators of the Apple brand must create products that live up to the high expectations promised by the retail experience. The spirit of the Apple brand demonstrates empathy and real care for the needs of its consumers. This is in stark contrast to the feature-driven mentality of most technology companies. Features can be matched and quickly become points-of-parity. But authentically sharing the views of your consumers and reflecting them back in every decision becomes the proprietary point-of-differentiation that insulates brands from competition.

Perhaps publishing and media have the most overt curatorial roles. Individual interests are conveniently segregated by editorial content. InStyle magazine harnessed the power of the celebrity endorser and became the curator of the curators. Oprah first established a shared bond with her viewers/readers and then became perhaps the most trusted arbiter. When The Sopranos can begin to challenge the ratings of the traditional networks despite HBO appearing in only a fraction of households, the image of the curator comes into focus. HBO is to entertainment quality as Whole Foods is to nutritional quality.

Of course, the actions of the curator can also work to restrict ideas and narrow content. Fox News stands out in its field because of its obvious point-of-view. The brand essence is clear and viewers tune in to validate their beliefs and values. The audience wants only support in their opinion and doesn’t look to Fox to challenge them to consider the subtleties of a complex issue. In this case, the curator relies on the changing current events to provide the newness while leaving the slant constant.

While the curator analogy is clear with retailing, publishing, and broadcasting, it is equally relevant to service companies and traditional consumer packaged goods. There are many hospitality companies, for example, that employ a multi-brand strategy. The parentage of the individual brands is invisible out of fear of lower tier brands in the portfolio denigrating the premium tiers. Starwood Hotels decided to break that mold by promoting a powerful endorsement brand that confidently stages its less expensive Four Points right next to St. Regis and The Luxury Collection. Starwood curates the hotel choice based on your needs for each trip while positioning its brands relative to each other.

Consumer products companies can similarly provide a curatorial role based on clear positioning of their brands. Kashi offers cereals, nutrition bars, and sub-brands such as GoLean. The parent brand stands for a nutritional integrity that includes a foundation of whole grains. The clear halo-effect of the Kashi brand travels to any new offering – only to be broken if a product betrays the curatorial standards consumers have come to know and trust.

People will seek out trusted curators in proportion to the growth of choice and information. To leverage the curator effect, it’s up to us to consider how to respond in both the products we conceive as well as the way we market them.

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As the CEO of the Addis Group, Steven Addis has used his training in brand management to build a company that services world-class clients. With a roster that includes Intel, Dole, Kellogg, Pepsi, Capital One, and Kodak, Steven’s influence and work is felt far and wide. steven@addis.com

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