You Still Own Your Brand. Best Act That Way

Contrary to popular opinion your brand doesn’t belong to your customer it belongs to you. No, seriously it really does. Just ask your finance team. I’m pretty sure they’ll tell you it’s an asset of the business. A powerful and valuable one at that.

This isn’t to say that how your brand lives in the world isn’t changing fundamentally. It is. And this isn’t meant to be a tongue in cheek statement. I’m deadly serious. You should be too. Because if you really believe that your brand belongs to your customer you might just start abdicating responsibility for your brand. And doing that will lead to nothing but trouble.

Now I don’t blame people for thinking like this. As the world inverts and connected technologies become cheaper and more ubiquitous, your customer is doing three things they couldn’t do before:

  1. They’re accessing more information about you and about what you are selling than ever before.
  2. They’re talking to each other about you and what you are selling, without necessarily including you in the conversation
  3. They’re creating media by and for themselves, faster, cheaper and to a higher standard of quality than ever before (HD video and editing on an iPhone anyone?)

Combine these factors and you begin to see the brand landscape we’re seeing all around us. One where people “hi-jack” brands, bad-mouth, celebrate them or choose to co-opt them for their own purposes.

Fantastic. You should be thrilled. At least people are paying attention. (And believe me, there are a lot of brands out there who’d love to be noticed let alone be talked about)

The reality is that while you used to have to do everything for yourself (with assistance from your agencies and media partners), today you don’t.

If treated well, your customer will do a lot of work for you. Gladly. And for free.

This doesn’t give them ownership of the brand, although it will hopefully make them closer to it. Your job is still to call the shots and decide what the brand will actually do and the direction it will take. It’s also your job to create the context and perhaps the platforms upon which your customers can better participate.

While you can’t dictate what your customer will say about you (and in fact never could), you can decide how you will use what they say about you.

This self-determination is the critical difference between the “customer is in charge” philosophy and mine. Why?  Because I truly believe that brands who abdicate responsibility for leading their customers will become nothing more than the passive victims of their customers. And as a result, they will fail.

Once you get past the volatility of change, the truth is that brands today have more levers of influence over their customer than they’ve ever had. They’re just new levers that need to be thought of a little differently. Three of these are below:

1. Active Listening
Technology that enables you to listen in on your customer and how they’re reacting to your brand is evolving rapidly.  We’re almost at the point where you can have as much or as little detail as you like. The real value in listening isn’t of course in the listening. Instead it’s in the actions you choose to take after listening. If you subscribe to the “customer is in charge” school then you run the risk of constantly putting out fires and reacting to all of your customers all of the time. Even the one’s who disagree with each other. Your job shouldn’t be to do that. Instead, it should be to actively listen and respond in ways that push forwards in the direction of your brand. Not to ignore people, but simply to lead them and navigate this new environment.

2. Crowdsourcing
Crowdsourcing can either be a fantastic tool or a terrible disaster depending on how it is used. The real value isn’t so much in the answers that come back, but rather in the brief you create and how well you curate these answers. This simple fact means crowdsourcing is in no way an exercise where the “customer decides”. The customer clearly isn’t deciding. You are. The customer is giving you options, viewpoints and potential answers all based upon your direction, and from which you get to choose. Done well, this is very powerful. Done poorly, you risk lurching from one seemingly random suggestion to the other.

3. Platforms for action
If your customer likes to create as well as consume, then why not give them the platform to do this? Again, you decide what this platform will be and the context in which it will work. The customer decides what they will do with it. I’m an unabashed fan of Demoslam from Google, but there are many examples of creating platforms, which allow greater consumer participation. Nike+ in running or the much heralded Pepsi Refresh campaign to name just two. In all cases, you decide on the platform and the ‘rules’ of engagement. The customer decides whether and how to engage.

If you think of your brand as a universe, then you get to decide the physics, make up, characters and overall plotlines within that universe. If your customer likes this universe, and it sparks their imaginations, they can then participate and decide how the stories will get played out.

Of course if they don’t like the universe then you’ll know about it: bad service, crappy products, lame advertising and poor experiences have the same effect as inconsistent characters, weak storylines and confusing physics. But then these are things you shouldn’t be doing anyway.

So to finish, please stop thinking that the customer is in charge. They’re not. Please stop thinking you have few levers of influence over them. You actually have many. And finally, please stop thinking that you have little self-determination. Because if you get it right, you’re absolutely the one calling the shots.

Just ask Apple.


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Branding In An Inverted World

Thinking about the landscape for brand building today is a bit like looking at an upside down map of the world. There are lots of things you already know about it. Countries, continents, oceans and seas, but at the same time everything looks quite unfamiliar.

Navigating this new and inverted world means you have to look at things very differently and try to understand the forces that are driving the change.

One of these forces is so fundamental that it actually enables many others. I describe it as being where the traditional information asymmetries have been inverted.

Put more simply, while we as individuals used to have less information than brand owners, today we often have more.

Intuitively we all know the truth in this. For an easy example, just think about how buying a car has been transformed in recent years. Most car buyers today walk into the car dealership with more knowledge of the car they are considering than the dealer does – from how powerful the engine is, to how reliable it should be, to the best pricing deals within a 20 mile radius, to how many of their friends think it’s a great car.

What is less understood is that this traditional information asymmetry has in fact been the foundation of the past 50 years or so of marketing activity and brand thinking.

In the past, the cost of information was high in terms of both time and money. Today it is free. When the cost of information is high, you’re not likely to search it out very often. This reality created the concept of the sales funnel. This foundational assumption holds that a consumer has only a limited number of brands they are likely to consider for any purchase. Depending on the value and emotional significance of said purchase, they will only conduct deeper information searches within this pre-existing consideration set. If we use our car example, the assumption would be that a consumer might only consider from within a subset of the total choices on offer at their price-point and car type, for example Chevy, Dodge, Ford, Chrysler and Toyota and as a result, exclude such brands as Honda, Hyundai, Volkswagon or BMW.

In this world the use of advertising spend and promotion creates a barrier to entry and an exclusionary force preventing new brands from entering the consideration set. Historically, having this power has at times allowed inferior products from better known (and hence considered) brands to triumph over superior products from lesser known (and hence not considered) brands.

However, as David Edelman noted in the Harvard Business Review the assumed funnel no longer exists. Instead the consumer today is constantly flexing their consideration choices throughout the purchase process, sometimes increasing the number of considered brands, sometimes decreasing them, and sometimes changing their minds at the very last minute. He calls this new mode of purchase the Consumer Decision Journey, and the article is well worth a read.

When Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures stated that “I believe that marketing is what you do when your product or service sucks” I’d say it was this old world that is currently breaking down that he was describing.

Living in an inverted world where the information search is free and the traditional sales funnel no longer exists means brands now need to consider some very different things:

1. That loyalty is something to be earned daily
It isn’t that consumers have intrinsically become less loyal. Instead, the elimination of cost (in money and time) from the information search has increased their consideration of other brands with potentially superior products. In this world a brand owner needs to consider what they can do for that customer to earn their loyalty on a daily basis, and not simply assume that past purchase behavior will translate into the future.

It’s no surprise that Apple, Amazon and Zappo’s (who Amazon purchased) have created rabidly loyal customers at exactly the same time as other have bemoaned the decline in loyalty. In each case, their strategies for earning loyalty have focused on consistently delighting their customer. For Apple, this is through building innovative and desirable new products supported by Applecare,  iTunes and the App Store. For Amazon and Zappo’s, this has been through superior customer service and customer relationship management.

2. That inferior products, no matter how strong the brand, won’t succeed
Just ask GM and Chrysler. The days when an inferior product from a better known brand could win over a potentially superior product from a lesser known brand are over forever. Without the Internet, it’s unlikely that brands such as Vizio or Hyundai could have so radically and quickly disrupted existing markets and consumer considerations sets. But they did, and it will happen again to anyone who isn’t focused intently on continuous product and service innovation.

3. That you need to consider the entirity of an increasingly non-linear sales path
The days of the sales funnel were relatively straightforward, and easy to map, particularly in terms of when and where people fell out of the funnel and what you needed to do to become more relavent relative to your competition. In fact sales funnel analysis was (and still is) a staple offer from many marketing consultancies.

Today, we’ve swapped a linear funnel for an often highly non-linear ( and sometimes seemingly completely irrational) decision making journey.

In this world, all channels of communication and of information search, particularly the explosion of digital one’s that exist around the brand become incredibly important.

Today, for example, it may be that having someone providing customer service on a major 3rd party product-category forum be a more important driver of final sale than any of your traditional marketing communications.

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