To Live in Interesting Times

Consider for a moment that the humble Amazon product review can nullify millions of dollars of ad spend, that a search for "best razor" on Google can route around all of Gillette's best efforts to communicate the "best a man can get," and that a "hate Comcast" group on Facebook has the power to drive a consumer straight into the arms of DirectTV.

The obvious conclusion from this, which is being stated more and more vociferously is that brands no longer have any power, any control, any influence. "THE CONSUMER IS IN CHARGE!" commentators scream. Brands, you must passively accept your fate.

This, of course, could not be farther from the truth. When we live in such times, the emphasis is actually on brands to do more, and be better, rather than take the passive stance.

That is what makes this possibly the most exciting time for brands that we have ever seen—the power of conversation is the great equalizer. Not just between brands and the people who consume these brands, but between dominant brands and their challengers.

Over the past 50 or so years, brand building became almost the sole preserve of the richest corporations. In the U.S., it became almost impossible to build a brand of any scale unless you had around $100m or so to spend on advertising.

It didn't matter how bad the experience was, how terribly the car drove, how awful the beer tasted, how painful the hold music was, or even how many guitars the airline broke. Advertising would fix it. And largely, it did. At least on the surface.

But it can't fix it anymore. In a world where consumers trust each other more than they trust brands, we have to fix what's really broken—the products, services, and experiences that people buy. And thank God for that. For the consumer the Internet made things better forever. It will also make things better for those brands that choose to actively shape their own destinies.

In fact we're already seeing exactly this from brands both large and small. Here are three things that leaders seem to have in common.

  1. Innovate by leading your customer
    Consumers don't always want you to ask them what they want. Often they don't know what they want, because it hasn't been done yet. Just look at Flip Video from Pure Digital. On the market for 3 years, selling 2m units, inspiring Cisco to buy the whole firm for $590m. The secret? Innovating a line of incredibly cheap, simple video cameras, which easily put video on the Web. The product of focus groups? Absolutely not. The product of a true unmet need that Flip could meet? Absolutely.
  2. Create amazing experiences
    If the experiences you create aren't unique, you're a commodity. In a conversation driven world, no amount of advertising can fix that. Instead, you must focus on what your unique experience will be—for Amazon, it's about choice, service and the community of users, for Virgin America, it's about style and modernity. Whatever you decide to base your experience on, you have to brutally ensure that everything the customer experiences is consistent with it.
  3. Get involved with the conversation
    Social media allows you to listen to the people who are talking about you, or to you, and then engage them right back.

Just look at WholeFoods, who has over 1M Twitter followers. A typical message:

@LWSparkles Hi Lorianne, we've forwarded your concern to the store team & customer service and they'll be reaching out to you via email.

Here's a firm that isn't afraid of its consumer—instead they realize that conversation has become a part of the experience, and as such something to be embraced and acted upon.

Read more of Paul Worthington's blog

Paul WorthingtonPaul Worthington is head of Strategy for the New York office of Wolff Olins, a global brand and innovation consultancy. You can find both Paul (@pworthington) and Wolff Olins (@wolffolins) on Twitter.

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  • Philippe Gadeyne

    This blog sounds like my preaching about social media and how social media has changed business as usual and put power back into customers' hands.
    Yesterday, during a conversation about social media I even mentioned creating Raving Fans as one of the great advantages of social media or suffer dire consequences
    Validation is always good to hear.

  • Richard Lipscombe

    We do live in interesting times... that saying is essentially used as a Chinese curse because it implies as many threats as opportunities exist out there for all of us... the big threat is to brands.... brands are a C20th construct we no longer need - they were useful in a mass production world of differentiation via price or other means of exclusion.... the notion of scarcity in a world of consumers with insatiable wants and needs helped the concept of brand equity to survive.... today we do not need brands other than to name products or services.... we have gone, swiftly I know, from a brand to a referral world... everyone who tweets today does their little bit to kill off brands.... brands are dead or dying.... tweets tell us what we want and what we need because they are an integral part of the new referral economy.... they link us to want we want and through those links we tend to settle our wants with purchases... brands can not match the 'group think' power of belonging to a facebook or twitter crowd... sorry you are simply wrong with this line of reasoning.... Amazon bought Zappos.... a company that lives off its ability to manage the flow of inventories bought a company that can not .... why? well it has nothing to do with brands.... it has everything to do with the fact that the folk at Zappos know how to get referral business.... they have a corporate culture that is worth around $US900 million... yeah I agree we live in interesting times....

  • Michael Minor

    I would amend the first of the "three things that leaders seem to have in common." I say: Customers do always want us to ask them what they want. But they often don't know what they want, so you've got to also be thinking creatively. You can't know whether you as the company, or they as the customer, will come up with the next new idea.

  • Britt Beamly

    Great commentary on how social media is impacting the marketing world. I think one of the main watch-outs is that brands that reach out to unhappy customers have a seamless approach on how to handle their issues. The worst thing a brand could do is further upset an unhappy customer. The squeaky wheel now lives in a digital world where complaints can be searched by millions.

    Your event social media manager,
    Britt Beamly

  • Peter Hartwig

    I actually wrote about this on my own blog not to long ago, in the context that advertising agencies need to look at what they're doing, as marketing seems to be changing to reputation management more so than making cool ads.
    Great writing, thanks.