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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