Democracy dawns on the modern marketer

Last week’s column by Andrew Harrison would have worked beautifully in this issue. Our columnist was in combative mood as he railed against the widely repeated notion that “your brand does not belong to you but actually belongs to your customer”.

In many ways, we’ve seen the opposite argument in action this week. British Gas wrote an open letter to its customers in the press on Tuesday, in which managing director Phil Bentley invited customers to come “inside” the business by joining a customer panel. A nice marketing ploy or a genuine attempt to start shaping the business around the demands of customers?

Time will tell how seriously British Gas takes the feedback given by those it serves but the idea looks similar to initiatives put in place by Asda in October when the retailer extended its customer panel and gave members direct influence on buying decisions. Asda chief executive Andy Bond called that move “democratic consumerism” – a phrase that has deeper implications than the use of focus groups to gather customer insight.

Unilever also announced this week the winners of its Peperami crowdsourcing initiative. It outsourced the creative brief to the public and for weeks the marketing community has been divided over whether the scheme was innovative thinking or a cheap exploitation designed to purchase an idea at low cost.

Our cover story on the latest developments in “democratic marketing” examines the arguments on both sides of the debate. This will not be the first time you’ve read about crowdsourcing and co-creation – Amelia Torode’s “Life Moves Pretty Fast…” blog from 11 November is interesting in itself and also references a separate article in Forbes magazine – but Louise Jack draws out some fascinating angles on the issue of democratic marketing and how valid it could be in the new world order.

For my money, I agree with those wise sages in the feature that warn agencies against blanket denial of crowdsourcing’s potential to become the norm. Maybe the Peperami initiative was just clever PR since the two guys that won it were both professional creatives, but it should be realised the progress of digital technology alongside the current social climate has left consumers more demanding and more empowered than ever before. That will not go away and, as marketers, your job will be to understand, engage with and make the best of it.

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