Whose Brand Is It, Anyway?

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Marketers can do more to shape consumer perceptions—without relinquishing control over their brands.

Today’s brands must answer to several powerful constituencies. Two key stakeholders—retailers and the consumer—often exert so much influence over a brand that a marketer may well ask: “Whose brand is it, anyway?”

Consider recent business developments. Amazon is convening a meeting next month at which it will attempt to convince consumer packaged goods companies to bypass retailers (namely Walmart and Target) and sell goods directly to consumers exclusively online. The brazen pitch speaks to the growing imbalance of power between brands and retailers, which is being magnified by Amazon’s stranglehold over the e-commerce race. Meanwhile, brick-and-mortar retailers are putting an even greater squeeze on brands to keep prices low as they try to ensure their own continued survival.

This is no formula for marketing success!

Other forces are also taking control of brands away from the marketer. Consumers have numerous ways to avoid marketing messages and to formulate their own opinions of brands. The unchecked power of social media to create a public relations nightmare (as witnessed in the recent United Airlines mess) and the alarming rise of fake news add even more fuel to the fire for any brand whose image or message may be spiraling out of control.

So what is a brand to do? First, let’s reset the conversation. Simply put, the marketer owns the brand. Marketers create the brand persona, nurture its development and protect its identity. However, the consumer elects how to perceive the brand. And this—shaping consumer perceptions—is where many marketers get off track.

Show, Don’t Tell

All too often, marketers try to tell consumers what to think and how to feel about a brand. A far more effective strategy is to give consumers more reasons to like (and Like) the brand. Those new commercials for Nationwide Insurance, for example, are memorable because they are likeable. Audiences are invited into the creative process as talented artists compose songs around the familiar jingle. Yes, there’s a pitch for services beyond auto insurance, but what makes the vignettes so effective is their universal sensory appeal. Consumers invariably like the brand more, even if they don’t realize it.

Social media and public relations are two other spheres of influence in which marketers need to do more of this—i.e., show rather than tell.

Social media is an incredibly powerful learning tool. It tells us what consumers are thinking and feeling about a brand. Yet rather than facilitate a dialogue, marketers often try to control the conversation. In this way, social learning becomes indistinct from brand management or pr; there is too much talking and not enough listening. Thus, it is a wasted opportunity to demonstrate the truthfulness and transparency that consumers crave from today’s brands.

The recent United Airlines debacle is a prime example of such a wasted opportunity. United CEO Oscar Munoz could have taken to social media to apologize directly to the passenger who was violently ejected from an overbooked flight, and to let all customers know that United would seriously re-examine its policies. Only in the face of extreme public backlash did Munoz decide to genuinely apologize.

In stories like these, there are no winners and no brand is liked better.

Make the Consumer Your Brand’s Amplifier

Going forward, every marketer’s goal should be to inspire consumers to amplify the brand’s message. Instead of earned media, think of this as generating earned volume. Marketers don’t want to drown out the conversation around their brands, but they do want to produce a good quality sound.

Here are three tips on how marketers can do that:

1) Value the truth over messaging: When confronting a pr crisis, focus on getting accurate information across rather than reinforcing your brand’s message. And use social media to learn from your customers. Hyatt, for example, pro-actively monitors hospitality websites for sub-par ratings and reviews, and uses a CRM analytics tool to acquire feedback from customers at individual hotels. Local field marketers use all of that information to help create a better overall customer experience.

2) Content is (still) king: Go where your customers are, and use technology to your benefit. Create stories around the brand with User Generated Content and Native digital advertising. And don’t over-think creativity: Whether it’s the Nationwide spots or those Discovery Channel Shark Week commercials, sometimes consumers just want to be entertained.

3) Break down barriers: Take the brand beyond the world in which it naturally lives. Consumers embrace brands with a compelling back-story. Hamdi Ulukaya, founder CEO of Chobani yogurt, started the company after he arrived from Turkey and bought a former Kraft Foods plant in the rust collar town of New Berlin, New York, holding early “board meetings” in the local pizza parlor—a first generation immigrant who created thousands of jobs and saved a town.

Marketers must walk a fine line in all of these endeavors. The key is to allow consumers to share in the success of a brand—and make them an integral part of the brand experience—without actually relinquishing control.

Remember, marketers: You own the brand! Just be sure to give consumers a reason to like—and not (diss)like—the brand too.

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