First of All, Rance Crain is a Genius

But Possibly Due to His Extremely Advanced Age (100), He Sometimes Get Confused

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For a senior American and a triqullionaire, my boss of bosses Rance Crain writes very well.

He also, from time to time, offers some very good ideas -- "Crain's Chicago Business" and "Business Insurance" being two that spring immediately to mind, and, I'm not sure, but I think also toaster strudel.

He is also an impassioned advocate of common sense in marketing. There we are fellow travelers, arm in arm in the struggle against The Forces of Darkness. But sometimes he gets a little confused.

In his column this week, Rance returned from the Association of National Advertisers conference to contemplate the implications of "consumer control." That was the theme of ANA's big annual meeting, confronting all the issues that I raised a year ago in "Listenomics" and which I'm exploring in book version on this very blog.

Rance took note of the speechifying by big advertisers, among them P&G's A.G. Lafley and Burger King's Russ Klein and began musing with a very trenchant question: "Once you open the gates, is your brand's destiny out of your hands forever?"

That is pretty much the $250 billion question. Consumer control and brandedness, after all, would seem to be antithetical. The key to surviving the revolution is to figure out a way for marketers to collaborate with their customers to find the meaning -- and best direction -- for their brands.

But that's where Rance lost the thread. The rest of his column correctly looks at a couple of significant advertising issues: 1) contrived attempts at pre-emption, such as Sony Bravia's silly claim to be the first TV for men and women, and 2) the risks of pandering to the sensibilities of your main target audience -- in his example, Burger King and the creepy King character BK now uses to repulse/impress teenage boys.

These are, indeed, legitimate issues. But they have nothing to do with ceding control to the consumer.

Rance is of course correct that Burger King, now that it has invested so heavily in its adolescent core user, may have trouble if it chooses to broaden or refocus its message in the future, but that's an old-paradigm problem utterly unrelated to consumer control.

What consumer control means is that whatever messages and brand images you promulgate, consumers now will be able to interpret and manipulate and webcast as they see fit. It means they may have thoughts about you that they can and will share with one another, so you'd better be paying close attention, too. It means that when you decide to make the King your mascot, you'd better realize that in due course someone will be robbing a 7-Eleven in a King mask, and somebody else will get shot, and the security video will go viral in five minutes.

So, putting aside pandering for a moment, is distributing King masks for a Halloween promotion really the way to go?

Burger King is actually the perfect poster child for this question. In the old, top down, we-dictate-the-brand-message model, this is a company that for decades has told consumers, "Have it your way."

Well, be careful of what you wish for, because consumers will.
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