Marketers don't control their brand... the consumer does.
It's been the battle cry of social media enthusiasts since The Cluetrain Manifesto was first published over a decade ago. If "markets are conversations," as the book says, then we can't be so presumptuous as to assume that the marketers can both control or lead the conversation, can we? It's actually a myth to think that consumers now control the brand, simply because those consumers can say (and publish) whatever they want and feel about a brand in the online channels.
In the past few weeks, I've come across a handful of blogs that are regurgitating this myth about consumers and control. As someone who spends the majority of my time in the boardrooms of some of the biggest brands in the world, please trust me when I tell you that the marketers are firmly in control of the brand.
What? The brands now control the brand message?
Not exactly. The brands control the brand. The consumers can (somewhat) influence the brand message. Brands still choose their products and services, they decide on the pricing, placement and promotion of the brand. They work (either internally or with an advertising agency) to set the tone, feeling and emotions that they want the brand to capture in the zeitgeist of the world. I'd even argue that they're getting increasingly smarter when it comes to social media and are doing a fairly good job of connecting and engaging in many of the online and mobile channels to give their brands a more human voice and offer consumers an opportunity to have some kind of real interaction between real human beings. When everything goes the way it was planned, it is poetry in motion. When it goes awry, it can get pretty ugly. Either way, the company still decides the brand's path. The are firmly in control.
What doesn't kill us, only makes us stronger.
Look at the many social media mishaps that have happened in the past decade. We can all rattle off instances like United breaks guitars, Dell hell, the BP oil spill (and yes, the list goes on and on). Were consumers really, ever in control of the brand at any point or were they merely able to communicate how they feel? In looking back, did any of those instances make us - as a general mass community - feel like we had any true control over a brand? What consumers did have is the platform to express their feelings - in text, images, audio and video... and in real time. Consumers now have a very vocal voice. Did the brands listen? Yes. They're listening like they never have before, because the world is watching to see if they are listening. Did it fundamentally change the brand and what it stands for? Hardly. It changed the way the brand communicates. It may have changed the way the brand deals and interacts with consumers, but the brands of United, Dell and BP are still -- at their core -- the same. They may be better at communicating and may have changed a lot of their internal processes, but they have not ceded control of the brand over to consumers.
Brick by brick.
Lego is known for saying that, "we own the logo, but our consumer's own the brand." Without being cynical, I'd like to know the last time Lego (or any other company) told their Chief Marketing Officer that they no longer report into the CEO, but that they now report into the consumers? In a world where consumers truly own the brand, we would see a lot more than customer service replies delivered via Twitter or the use of a Blog to crowdsource new and innovative ideas (which - when done - never offers ownership or partnership of those ideas over to the consumer... so much for control).
Welcome to the brand illusion.
Is consumer control simply an illusion? It may well be. Yes, brands are listening like never before (just ask the folks at Gap or Netflix about this). Yes, brands are interacting with consumers like never before (just ask the folks at Dell or United about this). Yes, consumers can now hear what the products and services are actually like by either asking their peers or looking for consumer reviews online. But, all of this has been sprung on brands. For the most part, the majority of brands have been dragged into the realities of social media kicking and screaming. Most of them aren't scaled for it properly and even fewer have shifted social media from a vertical within their marketing and communications department to a horizontal strategy that drives through the organization. Until that happens, the true control of the brand lies in the same place it always has... with the brand.
Let's stop confusing listening and interacting with control.
Mitch Joel is president of Twist Image -- an award-winning digital marketing agency. His first book, Six Pixels of Separation, named after his highly-successful blog and podcast of the same name is a business and marketing bestseller. His next book, CTRL ALT DEL, will be published in Spring 2013.