How Do You Get Control Back If You Cede Brands to Consumers?

Thoughts on Some Themes From the ANA Conference

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Here's a question: With all this talk about consumers taking control of brands, how do you get control back again if you decide to change direction? Or once you open the gates, is your brand's destiny out of your hands forever?
Right now, Burger King's bad-boy promotions are built around its creepy King character and aimed at male teenagers. But that doesn't give the restaurant chain much to build on if it decides to play nice or to expand its pitch to other target groups. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
Right now, Burger King's bad-boy promotions are built around its creepy King character and aimed at male teenagers. But that doesn't give the restaurant chain much to build on if it decides to play nice or to expand its pitch to other target groups. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.

ANA conference
These musings invaded my brain during the Association of National Advertisers' confab in Orlando earlier this month as a parade of advertisers ceded the direction of their brands to consumers. Russ Klein of Burger King said turning your brand over to the consumer enables "social connectivity" as a means of empowerment.

I couldn't help think but what a dangerous game he's playing. The current BK strategy is for it to develop "social currency," and Mr. Klein said to achieve this aim, "it's more important to be provocative than pleasant."

But you can't build meaningful brand equity on unpleasantness. What does the brand stand for?

Bad-boy promotions
Right now it's bad-boy promotions built around its creepy king character aimed at male teenagers. But that doesn't give BK much to build on if it decides to play nice or to expand its pitch to other target groups.

Between sessions someone told me the story of what happened when Procter & Gamble's Herbal Essences wanted to get away from its orgasmic-moaning-and-groaning theme. P&G had nowhere to go with the brand, and the same will apply to BK when the provocateur approach runs out of steam.

We also heard a lot of talk about how brands need to be true to themselves, to be based on their core essence. But what happens to the brand when it's built on the same assembly line as a competitor and it really has no competitive advantage, yet the marketer wants to charge a premium? That's the dilemma Sony Corp. faced when it started selling LCD flat-screen TVs built by Samsung. Sony went after "techno-socialites" -- consumers who buy the best and most expensive stuff -- to introduce Bravia as "the perfect marriage of performance and style." Research showed that over 80% of TV-buying decisions are made by the woman of the house, so it billed Bravia as "the first TV for men and women."

Sony's reason for being?
But Sony isn't offering something different than anything else on the market. The essence of the Sony brand used to be that it had superior technology (such as Trinitron TV) but it was late to the market with LCD models, so it's relying on someone else's technology. The "first TV for men and women" is made up of whole cloth and is a statement that could be made by anybody. Sony has lost its reason for being, unless it now considers premium pricing to be what drives the company.

Contrast Sony's smoke-and-mirrors approach with that of Ocean Spray. The co-op wanted to make its ads more relevant (consumption of cranberries was falling), so it went back to its roots with the "brand truth" that cranberries are good for you (they help unclog the urinary tract, among other things).

Cranberry bogs
Along with Arnold Worldwide, it came up with a "straight from the bog" campaign about the virtues of cranberries. The idea, Ken Romanzi of Ocean Spray told ANA, was "to make the cranberry harvest as popular as the pumpkin harvest." The co-op got back $1.57 for every ad dollar it spent on the push, which he said is based on "an undeniable truth -- there aren't any Pepsi bogs out there."

Brokerage Charles Schwab tackled pretty much the same problem (a declining perception), by jettisoning everything that wasn't core to the brand. The unifying platform -- "Talk to Chuck" -- was based on "staying true to who you are," said Schwab's Becky Saeger.

But first you've got to know who you are, and that's where some marketers get a little forgetful.
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