The first significant clue that account planners and brand managers were no longer in control was the debut of "BrandXSucks.com" sites that often served as a focal point for negative comments about a brand or company. Many companies fought back against this sort of behavior, either by threatening or filing lawsuits, or simply by buying up any Internet domains that could be used by consumers to provide said focal point. Other companies learned to live with the criticism.
Since then, it has become only easier for consumers to affect brands by lending their voice to the collective consciousness. Many companies are acutely aware of the value of reviews on sites like Epinions, Amazon.com, and Shopping.com. But even such repositories of consumer reviews do not comprise the totality of consumer opinion easily available online. The rise of blogs and consumer-generated media has solidified a decentralized model that would drive corporate lawyers absolutely bananas if they were to attempt to stifle consumer expression. With myriad distributed conversations serving as natural extensions of consumer-to-consumer advice or over-the-backyard-fence neighborhood gossip, such a campaign would resemble a game of lawsuit Whack-A-Mole.
Each day the writing on the wall becomes increasingly clearer. The best way to contribute positively to consumer perception of a brand and what it stands for is to participate in the conversation. What many stewards of brands don't understand about this is that silence is often telling.
A lack of participation can serve to confirm suspicions about a brand or company in the mind of the consumer. An increasingly cynical frame of mind has emerged on today's consumer landscape, one in which what is suspected and left uncommented on by a company is often taken to be true.
Given this, and also given that these distributed conversations cannot be stifled by any reasonable means, does it not make sense for brands to become involved in the conversation with the aim of presenting the company's point of view?
I'm surprised that companies faced with business and communications challenges have not, in large part, responded with integrated online campaigns consisting of public relations and advertising. As more consumers take the assets of a brand and interject their own opinions and personal feelings toward it, the resulting communication to anyone with the time and bandwidth to consume it begins to resemble a "mash-up." Not only should brands be addressing this, but they should be participating in it in a meaningful way.