The Consumer Isn't Really in Control

Why Agencies Need to Counsel Marketers That Their Brands' Narrative Is Still in Their Hands

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Mike Wolfsohn
Mike Wolfsohn
When it comes to buzzwords and catchphrases, marketing professionals tend to fall into one of two camps: those who use them excessively, and those who roll their eyes at those who use them excessively.

I'm a proud member of the latter contingent.

Since the advent of the DVR and social media, "The consumer is in control" has been among the most popular refrains uttered by those in the business of counseling brands on how to connect with their audience. Unfortunately, this widely embraced platitude is a predicated on a fallacy: Consumers may have a louder voice than ever, but they're hardly in control.

For starters, let's look at the DVR, the device that gives consumers the ability to skip TV ads. Just because the audience isn't required to watch commercials does not place them in control of anything but their viewing habits. This is identical to the dynamic that still exists in print advertising: Ads are periodically placed in between the featured content and the audience has the option to ignore them when turning the page. So while TV viewers now have the option to avoid viewing ads, thereby increasing the onus on marketers to grab and hold consumers' attention, it never results in a brand forfeiting control of its narrative.

In fact, consider how much control consumers have actually lost in recent years. From behavioral targeting and re-marketing practices that result in ads that follow internet users from site to site to the use of personal information and photos in ads on social networks, consumers are increasingly finding themselves members of an involuntarily submissive, even ad-abused audience.

Now, some would argue that the instantaneous and sizable Twitter backlash Groupon suffered as a result of its controversial Super Bowl spot reflects a power shift that now favors consumers. But does it? That advertising is now subject to immediate, mass feedback does not mean marketers have given up control; it simply means they've lost the freedom to be thoughtless.

Furthermore, the abundant and accessible tools that allow consumers to create their own content does not make them proxies for a brand. In 2006, when Chevy created an application that allowed consumers to make a commercial for its Tahoe SUV, the brand failed to consider that its gas-guzzling truck might elicit some less-than-favorable submissions. This represents a loss of foresight on behalf of the brand, not a lack of control. For further evidence that consumers are not equipped to tell a brand's story, one need look no further than the user-generated, groin-gag-laden Super Bowl ads aired by Doritos and Pepsi in recent years.

Many people consider the recent Gap logo fiasco to be an example of the consumer's new-found authority. When Gap tried to introduce a new logo that was unanimously and vociferously panned online, the retailer within a matter of days reverted to its former, iconic visual identity.

But let's consider a similar situation that had a vastly different result. The Sci-Fi channel endured widespread disapproval after announcing its rebranding effort in 2009 to change its name to Syfy, but the network stuck to its guns. Within a few months, not only had the dissent all but disappeared, the network was also on its way to setting several viewership records -- further reinforcing the idea that brands are not beholden to the whims of consumers.

I'm a passionate advocate for digital and social media. I firmly believe in and constantly preach the importance of reacting to the needs, requests and sentiment of consumers. Additionally, building an online community and empowering it to amplify a brand message is fundamental to almost all of the strategies we develop for clients. But I simply don't buy the idea that the consumer is in control.

This oft-cited apothegm is just a convenient excuse for advertisers and agencies that are unwilling to do the work required to shepherd a brand in a more complex media environment, or unhappy with the results they've garnered in their attempts to do so.

It's critical to distinguish a consumer's increased ability to amplify a brand's successes and failures from his or her actual control over the story a brand tells. In the purest sense, consumers have always wielded immense influence with their wallet. That their votes are now cast on public websites long before the ballots are counted on confidential P&Ls only makes it easier for marketers to react more quickly.

If brands were in "control" back when their only option was to launch expensive print, TV and out-of-home campaigns -- and then wait several months to see the sales data -- then, by comparison, modern media has made them practically omnipotent.

Mike Wolfsohn is founder-chief creative officer at High Wide & Handsome.
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