Consumers Control the Brand — The Biggest Marketing Myth of the Decade

“Consumers control the brand. Marketers do not.” It’s been the manifesto of social media aficionados for years, but in my opinion, the concept is something contrived as an attempt to validate social media and social media “experts'” position in the marketing landscape. And for the most-part people seem to be buying it.

It’s time we stop confusing “listening” and “interacting” with control. It’s ludicrous to think that consumers control the brand simply because they can say and publish whatever they want and feel about a brand online.

As a steady follower of marketing blogs, Tweeters, and LinkedIn groups, everyday I am come across this regurgitated myth about consumers and the concept of “control.” As a person who spends a large percentage of my time with the decision makers of various companies, I can tell you with absolute certainty that companies are firmly in control of the brand, not consumers.

While consumers can marginally influence the brand message, brands still decide their mission, position, values, and promise. Brands decide who they employ to deliver their promise. Brands set the tone, feeling, and emotions that they want to express. Brands controls their processes to build and deliver their products. And brands determine the marketing and pricing strategies to engage and sell to customers. In other words, brands are in complete control of their own destiny.

Lose your illusion.

If you disagree, allow me to bring up just a few of the decade’s biggest corporate blunders. BP’s oil disaster, Bridgestone’s tire debacle, Domino’s Pizza YouTube scandal, automaker bankruptcy bailouts, Apple’s iPhone 4 antennae issue, and Shell’s recent corporate hijacking.

We can also look to celebrity brand disasters like Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, Michael Vick’s dogfighting conviction, and Tiger Woods’ marital indiscretions.

In any of these instances, were consumers ever in the driver seat at any point in time, or were they merely able to communicate how they felt about the brands?

All that social media has given to consumers is the illusion of control; and it’s the social media “experts” that perpetuate this illusion. Social media is a platform to express your feelings in text, audio, and video. In real time. That is all. Nothing more.

Yes, consumers now have a very publicly visible voice and brands are listening like never before; but I have to ask, has social media fundamentally changed any of these brands and what they stand for? Not at all. All social media has changed is the way the brands interact with consumers. The brands of BP, Bridgestone, Domino’s, GM, Apple, Shell, Janet Jackson, Michael Vick, and Tiger Woods are still alive and well, and at their core, they are the exact same. They may be better at communicating, but they have not surrendered control of the brand over to consumers.

Follow the Lego brick road.

Lego is known for saying that, “we own the logo, but our consumer’s own the brand.” Without being too cynical, I’d like to know the last time Lego (or any other company for that matter) told their CMO that they no longer report to the CEO, and that instead they now report to the customers?

If the day comes when consumers truly own the brands, you’ll see a lot more than customer service replies on Twitter or conversations with disgruntled customers on Facebook.

Sure, brands are listening like never before. Sure, brands are interacting with consumers like never before. Sure, consumers can now hear what the products and services are actually like by asking their peers or by scoping out consumer reviews online. But, until brands engage consumers on every level of decision making such as business strategy, product development, operations systems, marketing tactics, and HR programs, the true control of the brand lies in the same place it always has…with the brand.

Beer Advertising. An Epic Failure in Differentiating Brands.

Think about beer advertising.

Year after year we get slammed with an endless parade of beer ads. A few campaigns make us smile. Most make no impact at all and we’ve long forgotten.

The forgotten ones are failures—of course; but even the memorable ones sometimes fail to move another keg out of the warehouse.

So what’s the problem?

Is it lack of inspiration? Laziness? How else can one explain the same transparent, cliché advertising tactics over and over and over and over and over again? How many times do we have to see the beach bimbos in bikinis? How many times do we we have to see the stylish bar stars giving each other a silent nod of approval for choosing the right beer. How many times do we need to hear about a beer’s “coldness?”

COLD! Ice cold. REALLY?!

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How the heck is COLD a differentiator? It has nothing to do with the actual product itself, and everything to do with how we as the customers prepare it. When a brewer advertises its beer as cold, you know there is literally nothing unique about it. It’s swill at best (in an average looking can).

The more a beer is advertised, the worse it must be.

It’s the only way you can explain how the conglomerate brewers get their crap into the hands of the masses. It’s forced down our throats with billions spent on advertising dollars, exclusivity rights, under the table deals with bar owners, and prime locations in the liquor store shelves. Customers don’t have much of a choice but to give in.

Then there’s the mysterious case of the Brooklyn Brewery…

Located in the heart of New York’s trendy boroughs, the Brooklyn Brewery is one of the coolest American craft beer manufacturers around. Over the course of its 26 year history it has amassed a loyal tribe of die hard fans all jonesing for a sip of its sweet malts.

The most interesting brand in its arsenal of beers is Brooklyn Black Ops. The name alone demands attention. And, if you’re one for reading labels you’ll be captured immediately by the story found on the back.

“Brooklyn Black Ops does not exist. However, if it did exist, it would be a robust stout concocted by the Brooklyn brewing team under cover of secrecy and hidden from everyone else at the brewery. Supposedly, “Black Ops” was aged for four months in bourbon barrels, bottled flat, and re-fermented with Champagne yeast, creating big chocolate and coffee flavours with a rich underpinning of vanilla-like oak notes. They say there are only 1000 cases. We have no idea what they’re talking about.”

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Now that’s how you differentiate a beer.

It has everything an unsuspecting consumer could want. Mystery? Absolutely. Romance? Definitely. Taste? Without a doubt. Exclusivity. Yup. There’s only 12,000 bottles available.

And while many might balk at its premium price tag of $38 a bottle, it’s a highly profitable beer. It has all the makings of an incredibly positioned brew, and I wonder when the big boys will learn to take a page out of Brooklyn’s book.

The Best Rebrands of 2013

2013 proved itself to be a strong year for rebranding. Especially in Australia and Canada.

That’s not to say there weren’t any duds. Earlier this month I examined the three worst rebrands of 2013. Today I’m switching gears and focusing on the best.

While it’s impossible to know the depth of the underlying brand strategies; from the results these organizations achieved, each has clearly put strategy before creative.

From redefining their visions and market positions, to reshaping their audiences’ beliefs and perceptions, going through the complete rebranding methodology delivered first-class executions, and ultimately brands of more substance.

Here are my picks for the three best rebrands of 2013.

3. QUAGOMA:

The Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) was the original arts institution in Brisbane, Australia dating back to 1895.

In 2006, the Government of Queensland created the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA)—the second gallery within the Queensland Cultural Centre. While QAG was known for its preservation of Indigenous Australian art and its innovative museum-based learning programs for children, GOMA had quickly become the largest gallery of modern and contemporary art in the entire Australian continent.

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The success of GOMA led to the perception that there was a split and that one dominated the other. To make matters worse, the two buildings were situated only 200 meters apart. As parent, the Queensland Cultural Centre leadership team stepped in and devised a strategy to unite its two kids under a single brand, which reflected everyone’s achievements.

QAG and GOMA fuse to become QAGOMA.

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“We embraced the unique situation of having two galleries work hand in hand to offer richer, complementary experiences,” stated Chris Saines, QAGOMA Director. “We created two subtly different personalities, and together, they play out across both galleries. Like siblings, sometimes they agree, sometimes they disagree. And sometimes they complete each other’s sentences. Together, they tell two sides of the same story.”

The solution is brilliant. Rather than allowing the infighting continue to divide both staff and visitors, this strategy creates a more well-rounded experience and aligns its audiences. Unified and stronger, QAGOMA can now focus its efforts on building a strong, established international brand positioned alongside MoMA and the Guggenheim Museum.

View this short video on QAGOMA’s brand development.

2. Royal Roads University:

Canada’s post-secondary marketplace is highly competitive. Bricks and mortar institutions still reign supreme, but the popularity of online schools is steadily increasing.

Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia offers a unique blend of both models. Unfortunately it was ineffective in differentiating itself. Tired, stodgy, and dated, the university’s image was at a competitive disadvantage in attempting to attract the younger demographic

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With low awareness and a lack of understanding of its program delivery options, Royal Roads needed to re-establish itself as a credible, prestigious and progressive university.

After workshopping the brand and engaging its stakeholders in the strategic process, the brand architecture was created for Royal Roads’ academic, corporate and partner entities. A new brand identity was created for Royal Roads as well, including the development of a new logo, tagline, and key messaging.

Its logo pays tribute to the iconic Hatley Castle (aka Xavier Institute for Higher Learning), while connecting the university to the digital future through its incorporation of a pixelated pattern. This creative strategy grounds the university in its rich heritage, while leveraging its online course delivery model. It blends the old with the new, the onsite with the online, and celebrates both Royal Roads’ ‘clicks and mortar’ offerings.

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A number of visual components were also updated during the activation ranging from its signage and marketing collateral, to its website and advertising campaigns.

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While enrolment statistics are not yet available, the activation of the updated and repositioned brand resulted in a 250% increase in website visits versus the same period last year. Reports also suggest the University’s various stakeholders are now aligned and everyone is working towards a common vision with new energy and passion.

1. Alzheimers Australia:

My top pick for best rebrand of 2013 is Alzheimer’s Australia.

As Australia’s third biggest killer, Alzheimer’s disease is projected to kill more Australians by 2030 than cancer, and there is no cure.

Sitting at the lowly 112th position for total donations and funding received, the Australian government didn’t recognize Alzheimer’s as a chronic disease. In order to stand a chance of gaining extra funding, Alzheimer’s Australia needed to be a top 10 charity.

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Stigmatized, underfunded, and ignored, Interbrand Australia was given the challenge to “put a bloody great big bomb under the problem, and turn the unspoken into the unforgettable.”

With that in mind, a highly effective but heartfelt strategy was devised to paint Alzheimer’s disease as villain, and Australia as hero by embedding a “fighting spirit” at the brand’s core to galvanize Australians around the cause.

Alzheimer’s Australia created a flexible messaging system to communicate the organization’s name, highlight the problem, and feature a strong call-to-action. It’s versatility speaks to sufferers, care givers, the public, and government.

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In addition to it’s strong messaging, Alzheimer’s Australia designed an edgy and beautiful design system which includes an iconic logo, contemporary colour palette, and quirky illustrations.

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View this short video on the brand activation.

Alzheimer’s Australia has my nod for best rebrand of 2013 not for its brilliant messaging, pretty logo, $700,000 in free media generated, or its 150,000 iPhone app downloads. But rather for the results it achieved. Pure and simple.

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This rebranding effort went well beyond clever tactics and creating buzz. It educated the public and government by turning understanding into action. It transformed a passive, disjointed organization into a proactive unified front. It generated $300M in additional funding and received substantial funding from pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and BUPA. Most importantly, it prompted the Australian government to change its policy, making Alzheimer’s disease a national health priority.

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What do you think?

Did I get it right? Or was there another rebranding effort in 2013 that stood out among the rest? Feel free to send me your insights and opinions.

Content references and image sources: http://www.rebrand.com/

[Br]eaking [Br]and: 10 Signs Your Brand is Ready to Blow

Like Walter White of AMC’s Breaking Bad, you might be finding your business is struggling and you’re not quite sure what the underlying issues are. Even worse, you might not even notice your business is struggling and you’re failing to see the warning signs of complete brand chaos. Lucky for you we’ve compiled a top 10 list of the most common issues we see time and time again.

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1. You don’t think you’re in a position to take a position (on anything).

2. You keep diversifying your product/service offering in the hope of attracting more business.

3. You don’t have a brand story.

4. You keep telling yourselves you have a story but it keeps changing to fit your latest advertising campaign.

5. You don’t have a development plan. You just have an existence plan. (Perhaps you don’t even have that.)

6. You’ve lost your swagger. Good ideas are few and far between.

7. You’ve lost your focus. There’s always a new shiny object to chase and you’re easily distracted into side projects.

8. You’ve lost touch with what makes you special. You have 1000 ideas looking for a home.

9. You have a hard time attracting and retaining great employees.

10. Your category has been disrupted by a competitor you never saw coming, and from an angle you never considered.

The good news is, if you address these warning signs you shouldn’t have to resort to a life of crime to secure your family’s future. The last thing this world needs is another meth dealer. Right?

Strong brands reflect the qualities of the people who tirelessly aim to build equity in the brand. And that ought to be a great cause for hope because brands are based on people and built by people. Failure is not inherent or intrinsic. The fate of your brand is always in your control (even when you think it’s too late). However, it takes open minds and decisive action to take back control, turn things around, and persuade your staff and customers to believe in your brand.