But on the Internet, with the responsible company only a mouse-click away, it's a different story, as Pete Blackshaw discovered when he was interactive brand manager for Procter & Gamble Co.
Consumer comments weren't always flattering, but they were bountiful -- and they provided the spark that ignited Mr. Blackshaw's new interactive venture, Planetfeedback.com.
Mr. Blackshaw, who left P&G in October, secured $6 million in venture financing last week to launch Planetfeedback early next year, aiming to give consumers a streamlined way to get their points across to companies about ads, products and services -- and give marketers easier access to their most vocal and influential customers.
Planetfeedback.com aims to become the Priceline of consumer affairs, a one-stop shop for consumers to contact any company about any problem or positive experience.
But beyond its consumer identity, Planetfeedback also aims to provide a host of new services that could blur the line between consumer affairs and marketing as never before.
IT'S A MOVEMENT
"Clearly it's a business, but it's also a movement," Mr. Blackshaw said. "It's a different way of enabling consumers to make their voices heard."
Planetfeedback's market research indicates only one in 25 consumers inclined to give feedback actually do.
"It boils down to barriers the Web has the potential to completely remove," Mr. Blackshaw said.
Though one of the many Internet domain names Mr. Blackshaw registered was bitchsession.com, he said: "We believe that if you remove the barriers, consumers have as much propensity to provide positive feedback as negative feedback. Right now, it's so difficult and time consuming that sometimes the only thing that gets through is the negative."
The site will use a "dynamic letter generator" to lead consumers through the steps of elaborating on their feedback. Planetfeedback will route their e-mail to the most appropriate corporate mailboxes, and provide online filing space for consumers to track their correspondence with companies.
The site also will have links to consumer protection information and public agencies that can help consumers.
Data from consumer feedback will become the fodder for ratings of various products and marketers, a cross between eBay's seller ratings and Consumer Reports. Hence the Planetfeedback slogan, "The voice of one. The power of many" and its logo, which features an exclamation point that turns into a megaphone.
Consumers may provide the feedback, but marketers will put up the cash. Although Planetfeedback won't sell ads, it will sell data and services to marketers -- such as reports on how consumers view a company and its competitors.
Mr. Blackshaw said ads aren't being sold because they don't jibe with the site's mission.
"We're not about trying to sell a product online," said Mike Nazarro, VP-marketing of Planetfeedback. "We're about empowering consumers."
Besides collecting data for a variety of companies, Planetfeedback also makes it more quantifiable and usable than ordinary calls or letters to a consumer affairs department, said Mr. Blackshaw, because the site will channel all feedback into standard forms.
The data that marketers get will be aggregated so individual consumers can retain their privacy. But consumers who agree to participate can be paired with marketers of their favorite products.
`A VIRAL INDEX'
Here lies the real power of Planetfeedback as a marketing tool, Mr. Blackshaw said. By tracking such factors as what consumers provide feedback about and the number and types of people they send copies of their correspondence to, Planetfeedback will develop a "viral index" that identifies the most influential consumers for particular products or categories.
Such relationships will only happen, Mr. Blackshaw stresses, when consumers opt in -- which he envisions will take the form of relationship or loyalty programs offered by participating marketers in cooperation with Planetfeedback.
Essentially, Planetfeedback will present a turnkey system for reaching at least the online segment of a brand's most influential consumers, Mr. Blackshaw said. He expects marketers to use these virtual groupings of their biggest fans for everything from "expert panels" to test new-product concepts to a sort of advance guard in the war for word of mouth in product launches.
Such an approach already works at least in a limited way for P&G, which has had success tapping the power of consumers who e-mail positive comments for some brands by giving them the chance to send product samples to their friends.
"As marketers gravitate to relationship marketing, moving from mass to more one-to-one, they're placing a high premium on identifying highly viral consumers," Mr. Blackshaw said. "The new rule of thumb is, empower your ambassadors and sandbag your terrorists. And, of course, we believe we would be able to add a couple of new tools to the tool kit for doing that."
Planetfeedback's first target isn't going to be package goods; it will focus first on the airline, car rental and hospitality industries, which Mr. Blackshaw said generate more feedback -- or potential feedback -- than any others.
Planetfeedback won't be doing marketing of Amazonian proportions at first, but will try to leverage word of mouth from relationships with consumer advocacy groups in its early marketing efforts.
CoreFive Design, Cincinnati, is designing the Planetfeedback site, and Northlich Stolley LaWarre, Cincinnati, is handling public relations.
TALKING TO AGENCIES
Mr. Blackshaw is talking to ad agencies on the East and West coasts about the agency of record assignment, he said.
"We're going to enable diffusion marketing," Mr. Nazarro said. "It only makes sense to try to leverage those same principles in trying to market ourselves."