Brand Control To Major Tom

I attended Unica/IBM’s recent Marketing Innovation Summit. A very good event, with lots of excellent presentations. In one of the keynote presentations, the speaker said:

“You are no longer in control of your brand. Brands are shaped by consumer-generated content on customer experiences and interactions.”

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard this, early retirement would be a reality for me. But there are two problems with this statement.

Marketing gurus love to spout off about how marketers aren’t in control of their brand. But, as Stephan Chase from Marriott said in a panel discussed labeled The Future of Marketing:

“We haven’t lost control of the brand because we never had control. Look what happened to Coke when it tried to introduce New Coke. That happened long before the Internet and social media.  What is different is that in the past consumer influence on the brand was invisible. Now we can see it. So if anything, we have more control than we did in the past.”

Second, if brands were shaped by customer experiences and interactions, then how do you explain Harris Interactive’s reputation rankings? At the bottom of the barrel of corporate reputations — in last place and in third from last — are AIG and Goldman Sachs.

Fact: Few consumers have direct interaction with AIG or Goldman Sachs.

That can only mean that those companies’ brands — or as Harris is calling it, their reputations — are shaped (at least in part) by forces other than customer experience. Which means that your advertising and PR efforts are still valuable and impactful.

In fact, a lot of the discussion around the so-called “customer experience” is pure BS.

In a lunch roundtable discussion about how multichannel marketing needs to move towards customer experience management, the discussion host, Mike Coakley from Epsilon, admitted that few firms are really able to get their arms around managing the “customer experience” without significant, if not radical, reorganization of the firm.

In the marketing panel, Matt Smith from Best Buy nailed the reason why:

“Few people in marketing think of the customer experience. They advocate for their business, their product, their function, or their channel — they don’t advocate for the customer.”

Preaching and proselytizing about the importance of customer experience — which is what I would argue is all that most customer experiences gurus do — ain’t gonna change that, folks.

By the way,  although I came up with the title of this blog post on my own, it turns out it’s been used before. So let me credit Roger Sametz, from Sametz Blackstone Associates, who published an article on MarketingProfs.com of the same title. As Roger wrote: “Yes, the new age of extreme participation is a challenge for brand managers. No, you haven’t lost control.”

Phew. Glad we agree. 

14 thoughts on “Brand Control To Major Tom

  1. Good post Ron. but now I’m going to have “Space Oddity” in my head all day:-)Oh well, I’ll take my protein pills and put my spacesuit on.

  2. The notion of “brand control” is misleading. Brands are all about feelings and perceptions, and no one can control other people’s opinions — no matter who you are (Coke), what you do, or how much money you throw at it. Influence? Yes. Guide and shape? Yes. But “control?” No.

    The art of branding is about developing a strategy then using all your touchpoints (people, products, places, ads, etc.) to try and influence people’s opinions. With a branding strategy, you may have intentions about how people should/might/will react, but there are no guarantees your message(s) will be received the way you want/intend.

    Re: Goldman Sachs. The company doesn’t really care what the general public thinks about its brand. I’d wager that 97% of those who say “Goldman Sachs sucks” have no clue what the company actually does. For the top 0.1% of the richest people in the world, the Goldman Sachs brand is probably in excellent shape. The point of branding isn’t to make yourself appealing to everyone, just your base.

  3. JP: All good points. No arguments from me. To be clear: I’m reacting to the thoughtless, unsubstantiated comment about “lost brand control” that is so prevalent in the marketing press and blogosphere.

  4. Amen, JP. That’s what I teach my students: you can’t control, but you better influence.

    Ron is also spot on. Any marketer who claims that the consumer is 100% in control of the brand should just resign right now. They’ve already abdicated responsibility for the brand, so what are they getting paid for? Oh, right, to give keynote addresses and sound like they’re hip to the “consumer revolution.”

  5. Freddy: I’m paying $4 for a gallon of gas, my health insurance premiums just went up (AGAIN), and in no way, shape, or form do I deceive myself into thinking that I got a great deal on the car I purchased in March.

    If I, as a consumer, am “in control”, then I’m doing a really lousy job of controlling things.

  6. Freddy: Oh, wait. I misunderstood the whole thing. It’s GEN Yers who are in control. Not me. Sorry for the mistake. Senility must be setting in.

  7. Thanks for the mention on Roger’s behalf – I’m lucky enough to work for that smart guy. 🙂

    He actually presented on the topic at an educational conference this year: http://www.slideshare.net/SametzBlackstone/case-d-2-2011-brand-control-to-major-tom-new-rules-for-increasing-your-brands-gravitational-pull

    We’re big fans of the notion of effectively influencing how your brand is perceived, using the tools you have at your disposal. There’s always *something* you can be doing to strengthen it.

  8. You always have a great point and this is no exception.

    My only comment is that brands ARE shaped by experiences and interactions and because those are not tangible or manageable, each brand is perceived differently by each person whether they have “direct interaction” or not. That is why I also agree that advertising and PR efforts are still impactful as well.

    I believe customer experience management is as much about marketing advocating for a specific business, product or function as it is about creating processes and systems that advocate for the customer experience. And yes, that generally means a major overhaul in the organization. And no, that usually does not happen.

    So I conclude there is no control over the brand…but we sure can try.

  9. The only people out there saying “customers control the brand” these days are social media zealots. These are the same people that say “ROI doesn’t matter.” In other words, these are folks that should be ignored.

  10. Pingback: You Don’t Control Your Brand (And Actually, You Never Did) | The Financial Brand: Marketing Insights for Banks & Credit Unions

  11. I’m laughing out loud. I’d love to meet those people who think the aging cliche about “the consumer controlling/shaping/owning brands” is a real insight. I have a sink hole in Florida that I’d like to sell (would make a GREAT snowboarding slope).

    Consumers don’t make the fricking decisions on where, when, how, and why to market the brand, the brand marketers do. Moreover, giving consumers license to shape a brand is delusional. “We do it your way,” is fraught with land mines. For one, consumers will tell you what they think they want yet do something completely different. Just ask Coke about how wonderful New Coke performed in taste tests. Additionally, established brands have acceptable belief guard rails that have been built up over time. Move outside those rails is tempting fate. Try as you might, you just can’t milk a turkey.

    Certainly the voice of the consumer should be heard, but marketers need to take responsibility for the decisions they make. In the end, consumers don’t control brands, good judgement does.

    BTW, I’ll add that I think one of the reasons this “consumer controls” idea works is because it allows marketers to hide behind process. Who at the top is going to blame the marketing department that follows what research says about what the consumer wants. Not everyone at the top understands research enough to do anymore than trust those in charge of it.

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