Social media has taken away some of the power of brand managers and given it to consumers. This power shift may seem scary for marketers, but can be a positive move for brands.
Not that long ago, brand management was about controlling the way a brand was expressed, no matter what. Strict guidelines were religiously adhered to, PR and advertising campaigns were carefully considered, and customers’ experiences were highly structured.
Now it’s a complex and challenging time for brands and those that manage them. With markets and consumer needs constantly changing, only those that react and adapt will survive.
Time to lose control
"As a marketer, I know that I've never really been in control. Your brand is what other people say about you when you're not in the room, the saying goes," says Tim Leberecht, former Chief Marketing Officer for Frog Design Inc. and NBBJ.
We’ve all seen the power of social media and the damage an angry tweet or Facebook post can do to a brand. So it’s understandable that giving your audience control of the steering wheel is a daunting prospect, but one that offers up many exciting opportunities.
As Leberecht argues: "Hyperconnectivity and transparency allow companies to be in that room now, 24/7. They can listen and join the conversation. In fact, they have more control over the loss of control than ever before."
But how can companies lose control of their brand, in a controlled way?
Collaborating with consumers
Today’s best performing and most relevant brands are looking beyond their rigid guidelines to their wider brand community. They are sharing the reigns and letting consumers be the idea generators, problem solvers, content creators and product developers.
"They can collaborate with them on the creation of ideas, knowledge, content, designs and products. They can give them more control over pricing, which is what the band Radiohead did with its pay-as-you-like online release of its album In Rainbows. Buyers could determine the price, but the offer was exclusive, and only stood for a limited period," says Leberecht.
The album sold more copies than previous releases. So strategies like this really can pay off.
In another example, Microsoft initially wanted to fend off hackers when they launched Microsoft Kinect. However, they changed tack when they realised that there were benefits to actively supporting the community.
"The sense of co-ownership, the free publicity, the added value, all helped drive sales," says Leberecht.
According to Jill Avery, a lecturer at Harvard Business School who previously managed the likes of Gilette and Braun, this landscape is creating what she coins ‘open source branding.’ Consumers aren’t just discussing and disseminating branded content, they are now creating it.
Ask customers not to buy
Some brands are taking a stance against consumerism as a way of empowering their customers and showing their altruistic side.
Outdoor clothes brand Patagonia encourage prospective buyers to look for products on eBay and to resole their shoes, before purchasing new ones. The company went even further by running a ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’ ad during Black Friday.
This blatant anti-consumerism message might have impacted their short-term sales, but in terms of strengthening bonds, trust and loyalties with existing customers, and piquing the curiosity of new ones, it did the job.
After all, if customers feel more supported by your brand, they are more likely to defend you if you ever come under attack.
Giving customers less control
Yes, this seems counter-intuitive, but as Leberecht argues, offering less control might be a great way "to counter the abundance of choice and make them happier."
A case in point is Nextpedition, which takes travellers on a mysterious journey, where the destination and itinerary are unknown until the journey begins. This creates a meaningful experience for customers, and in turn makes for a positive association with the brand.
Of course, no company wants their brand to run away from them. But by taking a risk and giving your consumers useful control, while staying true to your values, brands can evolve with their audience, reinvent themselves and enjoy bigger rewards.