Balance of brand power tips to ‘wired’ consumers

Consumer-centric branding was once about exercising choice. Now, thanks to interactive technology, it means total consumer control.

What is the most important brand in the world? For me it is the Alan Mitchell brand. For Mary Jones it is Mary Jones, and for Peter Smith it is Peter Smith. The idea that brands might represent people rather than products is accepted for celebrity entertainment and sporting stars, but what about ordinary consumers? Is there mileage in creating brands controlled for consumers by consumers?

Consumers started exercising control over brands a long time ago, as the Coca-Cola company found when it introduced New Coke and sparked a consumer revolt against the change made to “their” brand.

The classic way companies create a sense of control for the consumer is by offering them choice. By choosing to read only particular sections and particular articles, I make a newspaper “my” newspaper. By shopping a particular set of fixtures and buying a particular mix of brands, I may construct my own experience of a store: I make it “my” store.

The more choice I have, the more chance I have of carving out from what’s on offer something that is uniquely mine. That’s the thinking behind Amazon.com’s zShops initiative. The idea, says chief executive Geoff Bezos, is that consumers will be able to use Amazon as “a place where they can buy anything they might want to buy online. The notion is that you take customers and put them at the centre of their own universe. [Amazon becomes] ‘a Katrina store’ or a ‘Jeff store’.”

Choice, however, can also be a hassle for the consumer, and direct control over a brand can trump choice: if a brand does what I ask it to do and involves me in the process, I really feel it is mine. This is a possibility now being opened up by new interactive technologies and software.

My Yahoo is a classic example. The service is still branded Yahoo, but I see what I choose to see. What I get on my PC is no longer dictated by the provider, but my me.

Reflect.com, Procter & Gamble’s experiment with the online selling of cosmetics and toiletries, is another example. Consumers can configure their own products to suit their own skin type, hair colour, style preferences, and so forth, through the Website, and have the items delivered to their door. The name reflect.com expresses the thinking perfectly. When consumers look into it or its products they see themselves reflected back.

The same is happening in media. The Daily Me – a news service that provides only the news I’m interested in – is an ancient dream. But many Websites allow consumers to access customised newswire services, specifying its subject matter by key words, while new mobile phone technologies and sophisticated data warehouse-driven information services are bringing the dream of an electronic Daily Me ever closer.

The next step along the “me” brand trajectory, however, changes the nature of branding itself. Consumers are realising that they also have things they can sell, one thing being their custom. The Internet has been quick off the mark to help consumers market their custom. Reverse auction Websites, for example, like those conducted by Priceline.com, let consumers register an interest in purchasing a particular type of product or service and would-be sellers “bid” for the business. Buying clubs, which aggregate consumer demand to create increased buying power for their members, go one step further, packaging a number of different buyers into a single “offer”.

Communities of interest gather like-minded people (either physically or virtually) to share their enthusiasm for a subject. But members don’t only want to chat about their passion, they also want to buy products, services and information related to it. As Wired executive editor Kevin Kelly remarks: “Community precedes commerce”. It’s not a big leap for such a community of interest to become a brand in its own right – a brand used to attract other like-minded people and vendors interested in selling to them.

Consumers can also sell their attention. They can get free products or services such as PCs or Internet access in exchange for being exposed to advertising messages. And, if McKinsey consultant John Hagel is right, they will also start putting information about themselves onto the market.

There is no reason, Hagel argues, that current market research tools and techniques such as the hand-held scanner or the “people meter” cannot be appropriated by consumers to gather information about themselves so they can sell this information to the highest bidder. The offer becomes even more attractive to vendors if and when similar people are gathered together into a single package, which is one of the many tasks future infomediaries will undertake, Hagel predicts.

Put developments like these together and we can see a reversal in the making. According to Hagel, today’s brands are “product or vendor centric brands. They are statements about the quality or attributes of the product or vendor.” If he is right, however, many of tomorrow’s most powerful brands will be truly customer-centric, acting as statements about the qualities and attributes of customers. And when asked which of the two sorts of brands are closest to them, consumers are likely to opt for the “me” or “us” brand rather than the vendor-centric “them”.

There has always been an odd contradiction at the heart of branding. On the one hand, expert brand building is all about making customers feel the brand is exactly right for them. Yet the brand is constructed entirely by someone else. Product attributes, design, packaging, brand personality, communication idea and execution, media strategy, distribution strategy are all created by a brand manager. For the consumer, any sense of control comes from the exercise of choice, not control over the brand itself.

Moving from choice to control is a major opportunity for brands. But it is also a formidable challenge, representing as it does something completely different, both operationally and psychologically. Mastering this new form of brand management will be one of the big challenges of the emerging era.

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