Why online consumers are the building blocks of modern branding

Traditional advertising models are no longer enough: the internet means consumer opinion will spread, whether brands like it or not

P15_LegoLego is tapping into a worldwide community of adult enthusiasts to help with the design of new products. It says the results are better than what is produced in houseIn the 18 years since the arrival of the commercial internet, business has seen it as predominantly a marketing channel or a sales channel; its function as a research tool has been less celebrated.

But even before Tim O’Reilly codified the idea of perpetual beta testing in his Web 2.0 formula, it was obvious that one of the key aspects of interactive communication would be that people could respond to companies’ marketing messages. This was ridiculed by the non-believers, usually by demanding to know what kind of relationship a customer could possibly want with a toothpaste brand. But one of the things revealed by the growth of social media is the extent to which people discuss the products and services they buy.

The beauty of online communications is that suddenly those discussions are visible to all. So while a toothpaste site will almost certainly struggle for traffic, you can be sure that, somewhere on the internet, people will be discussing the benefits, or otherwise, of the brand.

More importantly, the greater the customer involvement a product or service can command, the greater the value the brand can derive from those customers. A perfect example of this is Lego, which is tapping into a worldwide community of adult enthusiasts to help with the design of new products. According to the company, the results are better and delivered more quickly than what is produced in house, and best of all, their creators only want paying in bricks.

In fact it was Lego’s marketing manager for business development, Helene Venge, who I first heard talking about the declining importance of the advertising campaign, when she was digital marketing manager for Levi’s Europe three years ago.

Her view was that while there would always be a need for companies to use campaigns to launch new products, constant communication with customers via interactive media would be vital to deepen the brand’s relationship with those customers.

This is a fundamental shift, and not just for marketers. The Lego example illustrates the view that Leo Ryan of digital marketing consultancy Ryan Macmillan expressed at Marketing Week and NMA’s Online Marketing show earlier this year, that the internet is, among other things, a giant focus group that allows you to understand what your customers think about you, your products, your services and your values. This clearly has an impact on new product development, but also on customer service and corporate social responsibility issues.

How much of this a company takes on board is clearly its own choice, but it’s also important to remember that while you can ignore what your customers think of you, social media also means you can’t separate yourself from it, not least because it can affect how your brand appears in the search rankings. If a company behaves particularly badly in the eyes of its customers, or the wider world, it’s not uncommon for a “thisbrandsucks.com” site to appear above the official site in organic search listings because disenchanted customers will link to it far more than anyone will link to a corporate site, and links are what search engines feed on.

As companies move away from discrete campaigns, there are also legacy issues to contend with. The goodwill created by a web application that delivers something valuable to customers will be nothing compared with the anger resulting from taking it away.

This picture is further complicated by the speed at which interactive media, and social media in particular, are developing. Speaking at a Wunderman seminar last week, P&G’s head of digital marketing, Emma Jenkins, highlighted the fact that the lifetime of ad formats in online media is much shorter than in offline, and it’s getting shorter, particularly in social media.

She talked about the way Facebook has gone from being the hottest thing on the planet to being slagged off in a musical viral for its proliferation of applications in little more than a year.

“What we will do on Facebook now is not what we would have done last year, or what we’d do next year,” she said.

Jenkins’ point was that wait-and-see is no longer a tenable strategy for marketers. There is so little stability among advertising formats and properties, especially in social media, that there is nothing to be learned from waiting. The best a brand can do is simply to get involved and experiment, revising and rethinking as it goes.

This, of course, adds an extra level of complexity to marketing communications and requires a new way of thinking. But whether the aim is to realise the value of constant communications with customers, or simply to keep up with the competition, new thinking is inevitable. vMichael Nutley is editor-in-chief of New Media Age

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