Tidal Wave of Brand Democratization: Ride it or Else

Consumers around the world are taking charge, transforming their relationships with brands from buyer to reviewer, inventor, designer, ad creator, champion or critic. The insightful folk at trendwatching.com call this phenomenon “Customer-Made,” and believe, like I do, that this is not a fad. If anything, brand democratization is a global movement that will just get stronger as consumers thrive on their increased control. The challenge for marketers is to determine how to ride this wave without crashing into the rocks.

Like most tidal waves, this one was caused by seismic shifts, as the internet, new digital technologies and even Reality TV all converged to create a perfect storm of consumer power. The internet is by far the most significant force, shifting the balance of power from seller to buyer.

Savvy marketers have responded by enlisting the consumer to create their own entertainment (MySpace, Current TV), products (Peugeot, Lego), packaging (Jones Soda) and, of course, advertising (MasterCard, L’Oreal, Chevy, Converse, Firefox and Sony Pictures, to name a few). In fact, with so many riding this wave, one can’t help but wonder what a marketer needs to do to cut through. Here are five tips:

1. Renew focus on customer satisfaction
In this new realm, all client houses are made of glass and consumers can wield some pretty big stones. As such, the first order of business is to focus on customer satisfaction like never before. Satisfied customers won’t throw stones –in fact, they’ll do just the opposite, tossing praise to all who will listen.

In Fred Reichheld’s new book, The Ultimate Question, he describes the success enjoyed by a number of companies focused on customer satisfaction. One such company is Chick-fil-A, a quick-service restaurant chain that enjoys incredible customer and employee loyalty. Very curious about how a fast food place had gained such notoriety, I visited a Chick-fil-A restaurant on a recent business trip to Atlanta. Sure enough, my chicken sandwich was delicious and the lemonade was fresh. But the real surprise was the service –as I was sitting eating my sandwich, a women came up to ask me if everything was okay– I almost fell off my chair –this would never happen at McDonald’s.

A few moments later, I noticed they were selling a book by the founder called Eat Mor Chicken: Inspire More People. When I asked for a copy the manager brought it from the back and subsequently told me his story: he had been with Chick-fil-A since high school, and even though he got a college degree in engineering, he enjoyed the company too much to leave. This kind of loyalty is unheard of in the fast food industry but was completely understandable once I read the founder’s book –it all boils down to this simple notion– give more than you get and you’ll do just fine.

2. Keep it real
In the world of brand democratization, where everyone can know everything about your company, it is essential to keep it real. One of the ways to do this is to support blogs –allowing employees to state the truth as they see it, sharing the good and bad about your company and products. Companies like IBM and Microsoft have done a good job enabling employee blogs, making these companies appear more human and less bureaucratic.

Another approach to keeping it real is by employing a “blog monitor.” Starwood Hotels has the Starwood Lurker, an employee who spends 40 hours a week in the blogosphere responding to consumer comments. In the last four years, he has generated over 11,000 postings, engaging in conversations with Starwood’s most valued customers and undoubtedly calming some of the disgruntled. By being identified as the Starwood Lurker, not posing as an everyday consumer, Starwood is enhancing its credibility and showing its willingness to listen to customers.

3. Reward content generators
As more and more companies ask their customers to create ads or other content, consumers are going to wise up about giving away all this content for free. The smart marketer will find a way to reward content creators, especially those that are generating revenue as a result of consumer contributions. Consumers are motivated by a number of reasons –status, employment, fun, access, connection– find the one that makes most sense for your target and make sure you deliver.

Current TV is running a contest that pays $500 for the first ‘pod’ selected for airing and $1000 for the fourth selected submission. While this is unlikely to make any aspiring commercial designer rich, its certainly likely to keep students and other creative types engaged in the process.

4. Filter out the lame stuff
In an environment, where seemingly every marketer has a user generated ad program, marketers that become recognized for filtering out the weak content, will enjoy the most success. The Converse Gallery is a great example of a quality filtering system and their success is largely due to their ability to screen out duds. Because they have become a reliable filter, aspiring filmmakers and ad types consider a posting in the Converse Gallery to be a badge of honor, a critical portfolio piece.

Renegade recently launched a user generated film contest for Panasonic targeting action sports enthusiasts (www.sharetheair.net ) . We seeded the site with content created by professional skate videographers from Girl and Chocolate. We will continue the filtering process as submissions arrive, posting the best and trashing the rest.

5. Create brand experiences

Finally, in this new world order of customers in charge, marketers should seek to deliver a brand experience, not just a product. Apple Computer provides one of the best examples with their highly successful Apple retail stores that have become a haven for the Mac faithful. A few weeks ago, Apple launched a new retail store in heart of New York City on 5th Avenue. The glass cube above the store sets an expectation that this is a special place, that Apple thinks different like its ads promise.

As part of the launch, Apple had a web cam focused on the cube for Apple fans worldwide to see. One enterprising individual actually proposed marriage to his girlfriend via the web cam. Very few brands inspire the kind of devotion that would literally marry the consumer to their brand. Because Apple consistently focuses on customer satisfaction, keeps it fresh, keeps it real and continuously delivers a rich brand experience, they are riding the wave of brand democratization better than most.

Follow these five tips and you too will be able to ride this wave like a pro.

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