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:
- They’re accessing more information about you and about what you are selling than ever before.
- They’re talking to each other about you and what you are selling, without necessarily including you in the conversation
- 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.
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.