The shifting sands of marketing

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I recently was briefed by the VP-marketing at a global company on a product launch that was critical to its future. His knowledge at that stage was patchy, with very few details. Yet, hours later, we were able to find out everything we needed to know through chat rooms, blogs and fan sites.

This raised two interesting questions: Firstly, who exactly represents a brand? The people who make the products? Or the people who form impressions and avidly consume those products?

Secondly, how is it possible that huge companies have become so internalized that, despite all their talk of consumer-centric thinking, it has never been so evident that they have been overtaken by their more passionate and brand-defining customers?

Consumers have multiple means by which they arrive at brand perceptions: friends, peer-to-peer networks, retail trials, experiences, packaging, editorial, contact with people in the company.

If marketing is the function of helping customers form positive brand associations, few if any of the above are channels typically assigned to marketing departments who are oriented toward paid-for communication in traditional media. In this world where consumers are seamlessly connected and are likely to form impressions based on customer service or the functionality of a product, marketing departments must reach out throughout a company. The CEO and chief financial officer must also become marketers. Everyone on the inside of any customer-dependent company is now in marketing.

But take us one step further. Customers are vitally important in a company's efforts too. Marketers would do well to embrace real-life views in a deeper and more meaningful manner than through simple focus groups; by all means, listen to friendly voices, but listen harder to detractors and enemies.

Leading-edge customers should be treated like shareholders. Shareholders can shape and account for financial growth. But companies need an equal and opposite voice that carries the vision and the creative flame represented in part by real-life objective users. These are the "brandholders," and every company will want some one day. Customers as well as shareholders are value creators. Embrace them.

John Harlow is partner at Naked Communications, London, a global communications-strategy shop with offices in six countries.
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