Douglas Rushkoff spoke at Pivot, a conference on branding, last year and recently linked to a video of his talk. It's worth watching if you're involved in social CRM or any other sort of social business.

For the first approximately 20 minutes of the talk, Rushkoff rants about the corporatization of the Internet and summarizes his book Life Inc. He explains the origins of the modern corporation during the mercantilist period of European economic development, and how branding came about as a means to put a friendly face on mass production. But during the final 10 minutes, Rushkoff gives some practical advice to companies trying to make sense of the social Web.

Rushkoff thinks branding is irrelevant in the age of the social network. He compares social networks to the original bazaars and marketplaces of the past. The bazaar was the center of commerce, gossip, political debate and more. He says that people weren't interested in "branding" then - they were interested in exchanging factual (or supposedly factual) information.

Rushkoff gives the example of the Carl's Jr. advertising campaign in which Paris Hilton ate a cheese burger while washing a car. Rushkoff says that even though this campaign was considered a "viral success," sales at Carl's Jr. actually went down while the ad was circulating. People were sharing the video on social networks, but it didn't translate into sales for the company.

On the other hand, he says, social media has proven to be an effective medium for damage control. It's a good way to spread information (I would add that it's also a good way to spread misinformation). He says actual information, and not branding, is the currency of social networks.

He takes another example of corporate branding: the Keebler Elves. He says the elves were created to keep people from thinking about how Keebler cookies were actually made. He says no one is going to talk about the Keebler Elves on social media, but they might talk about the ingredients used in the cookies and whether they're organic or what the environmental impact of the product's packaging. In other words, people will talk about the actual product, but not the mythology.

Rushkoff says branding has no future, but products might if the people making them are willing to engage their customers honestly through social media.

I'm always surprised how much the contemporary debate over social CRM and social engagement sounds like The Cluetrain Manifesto, which was written way back in 1999. Whether its authors are right or wrong, they were clearly ahead of their time.

Thesis number 11 of the manifesto is: "People in networked markets have figured out that they get far better information and support from one another than from vendors. So much for corporate rhetoric about adding value to commoditized products." That sounds like Rushkoff's thesis in a nutshell.

What do you think? Is branding finished?