Consumers As Brand Marketers

More and more brands are taking to social networks to engage their consumers. Many seem to approach it with a desire to get free -- and hopefully effective -- marketing executions, insight, or advocacy. This certainly is one way to engage consumers, but it may not have the greatest impact -- and it has the wrong objective and incentive. Rather, given the new world of co-creation branding where consumers set the rules and marketers need to facilitate rather than dictate brand culture, marketers should engage consumers not to get something for free, but to build stronger brand affinity that is consistent with consumer desires and expectations for the brand.

Take, for instance, Harley-Davidson -- a brand that is very active with its consumer base composed of both men and women. To ensure realistic imagery of women in its ads, for example, the brand sought input into a creative brief that would guide the development of a new marketing campaign and communication. User-generated input was collected from Facebook because -- as Amanda Lee, communications manager at Harley-Davidson, said -- “A lot of what we do is not done in a vacuum. It has to be authentic to our target.”



The company’s director of marketing communications, Dino Bernacchi, took it one step further by saying: “Our fans know how to express our brand. They live it every day.”

Over the last several years, many businesses have made it a common practice to seek consumer input into new products and innovation design. This can be accomplished through different channels. Krush is one such newer medium that facilitates this type of feedback for brands targeted to the younger, active sport-driven demographic. Krush encourages these consumers to “make the trends.” Interestingly, academic researchers have studied this and found that such practices result in enhanced brand perceptions.

While some might think seeking this advice and input might negatively reflect onto a brand, the researchers found that companies that are engaging with consumers in this way actually have improved performance metrics such as purchase intent, willingness to pay, and willingness to recommend.

Unilever appears to be embracing this consumer-driven philosophy. The CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman, said it well in an interview with HBR Ideacast where he noted that the company’s brands are “asking [consumers] what the brand means to them, [and] what they want the brand to do.” He further stated: “Part of our model is to some extent turn our company over to these consumers…” and that it’s about “inviting consumers in.”

When one considers Unilever’s reach (across 2 billion people, and in 7 out of 10 households around the globe), it makes sense that they would tap this network for brand guidance. He cites Ben & Jerry’s as one brand in the company’s portfolio that supports specific social issues based solely on what’s important to its consumer base.

So in this new world, from campaigns to products and from causes to conversation, marketers need to rethink not only their role, but also the role of the consumer in brand development. The consumer is now really a co-marketer and co-brand owner. With all this in mind, the marching order for brand marketers is to engage your consumers in brand-building. This means developing a deeper relationship with loyal and target consumers, engaging them in the process, and doing so with a different intent -- one focused on them and not the brand, or the business, itself.

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