The ability for consumers to avoid, ignore and subvert messaging is getting stronger every day. And with privacy at an all-time premium, marketers are unlikely to be able to push any harder.
What’s more, consumers, including me, hate being targeted by brands they don’t want to hear from and in ways they don’t appreciate. Paper-based direct mail can be a disaster on this front, but increasingly, so can spam, Web banners and print ads be out of sync with surrounding content.
On top of this, people who have little or nothing to do with our brands can now affect them dramatically and unexpectedly. From the citizen journalist shaping news agendas to “brandjacking” on social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, we are at the mercy of the random, unexpected and potentially devastating nature of the “global conversation.”
So what can we, as brand managers, do? We need to let our brands go and guide the conversation to be more positive than negative.
A comprehensive study by Paul Marsden of the London School of Economics concludes that a relatively modest 12 percent increase in a brand’s recommendation doubles the rate of brand growth. The Bain consultancy suggests that the most recommended brand in a category grows four times faster than the category average. In short, it’s hard to doubt the impact of conversations as a force in brand growth or decline.
The many media we use, from the humblest in-store sampling to the most expensive Super Bowl commercial, are only important in so far as they are contagious, and that they change the conversation in a positive way about the brand.
Brands that become conversation leaders can go beyond the confines of their product categories to shape or try to shape the conversation in society.
European cell operator Orange (a client) believes that telecoms should be about collaboration and brighter human futures, not about minutes and pre-paid plans. When it launched in the U.K. in 1994, analysts gave it little chance of succeeding because it “spoke” differently. Today, Orange is the key brand of the France Telecom Group in over 25 countries. The global brand Lynx/Axe, a deodorant, talks about sex, not sweat. With its “Sense and Simplicity” positioning, Philips wants to show technology being less about cold specifics than about delivering innovative solutions that are easy to experience.
To help create these conversations, brand managers need to be brand cultivators and influencers. They need to create optimal conditions for attachment and manage the conversation through tough times.
When a company’s brand becomes the target of assault on Facebook or by the media, it shouldn’t default to solutions of the past — sue the miscreants, scrub the negativity and so on. That creates a perception of monolithic and careless corporations that betrays the vibrant cultures bubbling up from within many of the world’s great companies.
We’ve nurtured the brands like parents do children and now it’s time to see how they thrive on platforms we’re priming — just as you learn to sleep through the night when your child moves away to college, despite your worst fears.
Brands must learn, as the best already have, the importance of ceding some power to the ecosystem of engaged evangelists. Let the evangelists make the decisions about what their experience will be and how the products will be
Smart brand managers and companies already accept this: consumers are the true owners of brands and imbue them with genuine qualities through personal recommendations and word of mouth.
And I don’t just mean amateur assistance from those passionate about a brand. Technology has enabled us to open up vaults of data and let sophisticated and interested parties look inside and see if they’d be willing to commit resources to help solve problems.
Netflix is a fantastic example. It offered a $1 million prize to any developer team that could improve its recommendation algorithm. Imagine a major auto firm offering citizen engineers the chance to constantly redesign the batteries in its new electric car, or its computer system, to make it more efficient. In this case, fans influence the very fabric of society.
U.K. retailer Tesco (parent of U.S. startup Fresh ‘n Easy) has also experimented in this area, allowing access to its grocery API for application development and appointing Nick Lansley, head of R&D at Tesco.com, to oversee it. Lansley was recently named No. 35 on Wired U.K.’s “Britain’s Top 100 Digital Power Brokers” list.
The message is simple: Let go of your brand, give it to the people who care for it most — those who buy it. And then spend time and money predicting flash points and seeking to manage them to your advantage. The possibility of a negative conversation may be significant. The value of a positive conversation is even more so.
Richard Pinder is COO of Publicis Worldwide. He can be reached at Richard.firstname.lastname@example.org.