LONDON: The rise of digital media means "the fundamental nature and role of brands is changing", and is also "ushering in a new era of marketing and brand development", according to Unilever's cmo, Simon Clift.

Writing in Marketing Week magazine, Clift (pictured) argued that the financial crisis means "traditional bastions of trust are being re-examined. And brands will be part of this."

However, he added that the "more perfect market of information" available online gives companies an opportunity to "separate out in consumers' minds the good from the not so good."

The "extraordinarily imaginative" presidential campaign for Barack Obama, the "first YouTube-era President", was just one example of "how the media scene has been permanently redefined." (Obama's use of digital media is discussed in more detail here.)

One key lesson for companies like Unilever, Clift said, is that "the speed of change has far outpaced our ability as brand custodians to accompany it."

For some sectors, such as "recorded music and photography", the "breathtaking changes in technology have already spelt doom."

Many other marketers, however, have been "seduced into a false sense of security about the profundity of the changes that the internet will drive" after undergoing an "initial scare."

While predictions about "the abrupt demise of television advertising have been inevitably shown to be premature", Clift argued that digital media is much more important than simply "the successor" to the 30-second spot.

The "old world" was characterised by "top-down, one-way communication", where a "company told you what it wanted you to hear, and you had the choice to take it or leave it."

However, in the "new world of transparency and ready-access to amazing quantities of detailed information on just about everything, companies will be made much more accountable for what they say and do."

As the "conversation is no longer one-way and restricted to 30-second TV ads, brands need to take into account all of these consumers' concerns," which can be raised on mediums varying from Twitter to YouTube.

This applies even to "subjects that might seem peripheral or that the company may be keen not to talk about."

Unilever discovered this first-hand when "Greenpeace-sponsored orangutan-costumed protestors" arrived at its headquarters, and the company has since focused on sourcing sustainable palm oil.

Indeed, Clift warned that "however big an advertising spend, small groups of consumers on a tiny budget can hijack a brand's chosen field of communication."

However, he added that the "reason it's exciting to be in marketing now" is because brands are "the meeting point between consumers' desires and concerns on the one hand, and companies' commitments on the other."

Data sourced from Marketing Week; additional content by WARC staff