How Best to 'Lose Control' of Your Brand?

American Consumer Panel Explores the New Wild West of Advertising

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- How should marketers best lose control of their brands? That very serious question was one of several discussed today by four marketing and media executives during a panel moderated by Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired magazine.
Chris Anderson, editor in chief of 'Wired,' discussed the benefits and dangers of ceding control of a brand to consumers.
Chris Anderson, editor in chief of 'Wired,' discussed the benefits and dangers of ceding control of a brand to consumers. Credit: Rohanna Mertens

The event was part of Advertising Age's "The American Consumer Conference," held at the Hilton New York in Manhattan.

'Undeniable and growing'
Consumers' control over media and content is undeniable and growing: Today the public uses Tivo to watch programs whenever they want, free of commercial interruption; downloads songs from online sites to create personalized, commercial-free playlists; and even creates homemade commercials for the products they love or hate. Marketers' ability to stop them from doing so is virtually nil.

That's a marked change from the days -- not too long ago -- when marketers had near-total control over content and the environment in which their brand existed.

Some marketers have embraced this Wild West of advertising. Burger King, for instance, allowed consumers to "run around with their King," Mr. Anderson said, referring to a late-2005 feature on Heavy.com that gave masks of the brand's icon -- the King -- to loyal users, who then created some entertaining content with the image.

"Over the next 12 to 18 months, more brands will be doing that," said panelist Mark Stoever, senior VP-consumer business, Monster. "When done right, it is a powerful vehicle. We're considering doing it, too. But you have to be careful."

Learning from consumers
Mr. Anderson, whose Wired is owned by privately held publishing company Conde Nast, said his company is moving toward "being more open" with its brands. But another panelist, Troy Young, exec VP-chief experience architect at Organic.com (Conde Nast's interactive agency), noted that doing so "is tricky" for Conde Nast. "Right now, people are taking and sampling from different brands because they can. It forces organizations' marketing departments to be better listeners and to watch and learn from how consumers use them."

As an example of an opportunity missed on the part of Sony Consumer Electronics, Mr. Young talked about a group of Williamsburg, N.Y., consumers who gutted old Sony Sports Walkman devices and used the remaining thick yellow plastic cases to make iPod covers. Dubbed RetroPod, the new product hit a chord among consumers. But in September 2004 Sony's law firm quashed it and sent a cease-and-desist letter to the product's creator, citing copyright infringement. "It's a shame," Mr. Young said, that the company couldn't take advantage of the "authenticity of such grass-roots innovation."

Indeed, many panelists agreed marketers can get ahead in today's consumer-controlled world by recognizing grass-roots innovators and then getting them into a company's marketing system.

Michael Kubin, CEO of Ionic Marketing, explained how one of his company's clients, the robotic vacuum cleaner Roomba, dramatically changed its marketing program after carefully tracking and monitoring consumer comments about the machine on blogs. "People had named their Roombas," he said. "[The marketers] realized that consumers were humanizing their machines."

'Let it go'
Monster's Mr. Stoever said that at the online careers company, taking cues from customers is a crucial aspect of new product development. "Most often, we learn when we put it in front of consumers and let it go," he said.

Adam Hanft, president-CEO of advertising and consulting firm Hanft Unlimited, noted that one of the most valuable lessons marketers can gain from paying attention to consumer interaction with their products is how to talk about their brands in the language of consumers, adding that marketers should "come on down off the high horse."
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