The Internet offers people a new relationship with brands where the user, not the brand, makes the first move.
This is a double-edged sword for marketers. On the one hand, there is the marketer’s dream of consumers choosing to engage in a close one-to-one relationship with their brand. On the other, there is the danger of disappointment and rejection if the brand fails to match heightened user expectations.
The power of user choice on the Web calls for a new approach to marketing. And, for many brands, it means facing up to issues of corporate integrity and transparency in its dealings with customers as never before.
One key challenge is the degree to which marketers are prepared to be open about their brand’s shortcomings. Historically, this question has not been an issue. Marketing through advertising, promotions and PR is a form of controlled communication, which is focused on the positive benefits of using the brand.
In reality, the relationship between brand and consumer is not so black and white. Sometimes the marketing “promise” is not matched by the product delivery, leading to an undercurrent of discontent that may fester.
The Web allows for an open relationship which can help lance the boils of festering discontent. The question is, should the marketer participate on this basis?
Nike faces such a dilemma. Its www.nike.com site is great. But its listing on Yahoo! is only a line away from anti-Nike sites alleging poor working conditions in Nike’s factories in South-east Asia. What to do? Face up to the discontent or ignore it?
For Nike, reformulating online activity may be too late. But imagine if the original site had opened the door to more critical comment and questioning on corporate policies. Could Nike have spotted the protest earlier? If so, perhaps it could have res-ponded quickly, by explaining policy, thus preventing itself from being singled out by protesters.
Such a strategy is risky. You have to accept that people responding through public fora are not always going to be saying nice things. But it does allow other customers to see that you, as an organisation, are responding to customer grievances.
Some UK sites have already shown courage by opening up to criticism (for example, Channel 4).
Whilst the knee-jerk reaction may be to ignore criticism, the Web does not work that way. It is an open system which empowers individuals and expectations of open relationships will grow.
Companies which are seen to respond to customer complaints may enhance not threaten brand equity. And in the field of e-commerce, those which engender trust in their sites will flourish.
We may not be exactly sure what best practice in these areas is. But it’s time for marketers to address these issues, as we begin to exploit the medium.