Do A Vocal Few Consumers Exert Too Much Influence?

[Update: I've changed the title of this post to more accurately reflect the subject matter]

Heresy, I know, to even ask that question in 2009. 

I'm not sure where I'm going here, but let's see where I land ...

Before I go on, a question: Do you do your own taxes?  More on that later. 

Legendarymarketers of yore [both fake and real] – the Don Drapers and Berry Gordys of the world – must be shocked at the power shift in the consumer-brand dynamic. 

Don Gordy

Draper eschewed market research for his own instinct – that’s what he was paid for.  And do you think Gordy – the genius behind Motown – would have considered even for a second consulting Twitter as he was developing The Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson or The SupremesWhat Gordy might ask, do everyday people know about picking a single?  Next thing you know they'll want to name the album and decide what Diana wears on stage.

But something’s changed on Madison Avenue.  A prolonged recession combined with the rise of social media seems to have put the destiny and direction of brands in the hands of a vocal few.

Let me make one thing clear:  I have embraced social media – both personally and professionally – as much as anyone .  Suffice it to say, I agree with those who see it as one of the biggest sea changes of our time.  What’s more, I think it is absolutely incredible how social media has facilitated a dialog between brands/fans, and between fans/fans. 

At the same time, I love brands – big, sexy, authoritative brands that command my attention.  Nike, Apple, Levi's, U2 to name just a few.  And what’s more, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many talented, smart and dedicated brand gatekeepers (i.e. brand managers) – a good brand manager is a true asset to any organization.  And the brand manager of the future - folks like Dave Knox - will drive marketing innovation for years to come.

So we’re all clear … Ian loves social media and brands, and certainly their intersection.  This is not an indictment on either.  But I am somewhat conflicted about the direction in which things are moving.

Here’s the rub … brands [and actually, not the ones listed above] seem, well, scared of their customers these days.  And the resulting action of that fear is not always positive.  Some examples that immediately come to mind:

  • A few idiots puts a booger on a pizza and the CEO of Dominos has to respond with a video begging for forgiveness [and then he gets criticized for being slow to react; and not coming off as authentic enough in his video].
  • A few people take umbrage with a Motrin ad and the company is forced to take it down immediately and issue an apology.  Turns out there was a big group of moms who totally agreed with Motrin's message.
  • A few dozen loud detractors don't like how Best Buy writes a help-wanted listing - requiring a new recruit for a digital position to have more than 250 Twitter followers - and the company is forced to change it.  What's more, Best Buy decides to "crowdsource" a revised job listing [and apparently, that effort falls pretty flat].
  • A guy with a grudge, Flipcam and the ability to write a jingle can bring a corporation to its social media knees - United Airlines knows what I'm talking about.  Turns out there's more to the story than first reported, and that UA wasn't the big bad airline everyone made them out to be [at least not in this case].
  • YouTube is littered with consumer-generated-content solicited by brands.  But here's the thing - the everyday consumer isn't skilled at making TV commercials [in fact, there are professionals who are really good at doing so].  Nor are they good at naming products or designing packaging.  And I'm pretty certain they don't know the first thing about the logistics of customer service.

So here’s my conflict:  I love the new dialog.  I love the new accountability.  I love the new consumer empowerment.  But what I don’t love:

  • Bad products based on the demands of a few
  • Bad advertising based on consumer-generated-content
  • Knee-jerk reactions based on fear [too precedent setting]
  • Companies who are active participants in social media getting too much credit for engaging in social media, while their products/services remain well below par

So what's the solution?  Heck, I'm not even sure I've articulated the problem.  But I go back to my question: Do you do your own taxes?  I don’t.  I understand the theory, and I’m sure I could power my way through a 1040.  Yet I choose to pay an accountant to do them for me.  Why?  Because an accountant has developed muscles that make them more adept than the average person at effectively preparing a tax return. 

Brands posses a unique skill in bringing a product to market – I would love to see them start flexing that muscle again.  Maybe I'm a romantic - maybe the era of great brands is coming to an end.  Or maybe, as Noah Brier might say [and I don't want to put words in his mouth] a brand is no longer what it says it is, but rather what we perceive it to be.  If that's the case, maybe brands are right to bow to every complaint, every outcry, every Twitter storm ... if that's what it takes to manage perceptions.

Thoughts?  Comments?