Say hello to consumer affairs.
If conversation is advertising's new sweet spot, should consumer affairs play a more central, strategic role in the marketing equation?
This is a question I've been furiously debating for the past three weeks across a host of presentations and conferences. I've written about this before, but rarely have I felt such confidence and conviction. Owners of the "consumer's voice" need to be smack in the center of the marketing universe.
Let me reestablish my case with three important inflection points.
Remember the Alamo
Let's start with an awakening that occurred in San Antonio. After speaking to a large gathering from the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals (SOCAP), I was invited by the group's executive team to lead a two-hour conversation about the challenges, roles, and opportunities of consumer affairs. My core thesis echoed the theme of a cover story I'd just published in SOCAP's quarterly magazine: consumer affairs risks missing the boat on consumer 2.0. "This is your space, but you're losing ground," I explained. "It's time to reassert your leadership at a time when your cash-rich colleagues in marketing are suddenly frothing at the mouth, at least rhetorically, about conversations, dialogue, feedback, relationships, and more."
Just about everyone agreed, and the ensuing discussion was incredible. It was spirited, intense, self-critical, and, of course, consumer-centered. The conversation was an inflection point for me because only six years earlier, many in the consumer affairs community took issue with a business model I'd created, a site that makes it easier to provide feedback (even complaints) directly to companies. Now I was experiencing a candid "we need to change our mindset" attitude about the rapidly changing rules of consumer expression. I felt the ground shifting. We all enthusiastically agreed to continue the discussion. I felt great, and I can't wait to reengage!
A week later, Tom Asher, the head of consumer affairs for Levi Strauss and current president of SOCAP, invited me to lunch with a few of his colleagues, including several marketers. During lunch, we probed more deeply into how a global brand like Levi's can leverage consumer affairs and the customer's voice to create new value with marketing and other departments.
In many respects, the question for Levi's seemed less about doing something fundamentally new than reasserting and refashioning what the company has done so well since the California Gold Rush (1848-1855): listening to consumer feedback. This point was underscored during Asher's tour of the exhibits in the Levi's foyer. They capture various aspects of the company's history and legacy, from the display of old commercial reels to exhibits on the company's commitment to social responsibility.
To the immediate left of the foyer is a massive exhibit -- nay, monument -- of select consumer letters to Levi's going as far back as 1906 (most records from Levi's Gold Rush heyday were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake). The letters are touching, revealing, emotional, even critical. In many respects, they reflect the brand essence, experience, and equity far better than even the historic advertising copy reel in the adjacent exhibit. This reinforces the incredible power of storytelling in the broader advertising equation and the unique opportunity this presents for brands, particularly in the age of CGM (define) and Web 2.0 (define). The exhibit was fabulous. I encourage you to take a look.
"Our consumers are so passionate," Asher explained. "We receive calls, letters, and e-mails from Levi's consumers, some of whom have been wearing our product for decades. Others tell us their grandparents and grandchildren wear Levi's."
This is clearly an opportunity in the age of conversation.
Interestingly, Asher underscored the effectiveness of offline methods. He said Levi's frequently sends "written thank-you cards to some consumers after they call us." This is a critical point because half the game in customer relationship management is calibrating brand responses with consumer emotion.
Beyond Paid Media
Energized by my Levi's visit, the next day I moderated an extremely well attended panel at ad:tech San Francisco, "The Next Big Thing: Is Advertising Still Relevant?" My panelists included Beth Thomas-Kim, Nestlé USA's head of consumer affairs; Scott Wilder of Intuit; Paul Woolmington, founding partner of Naked; and Tip Rose of Resource Interactive. My goal was to push the envelope beyond paid media to other activities that ultimately create advertising for the brands.
I wasn't disappointed. Wilder told us how Intuit's 200,000-member online communities are not only creating a new form of advertising for the brand but also feeding directly into product development. Rose talked about the new concept of open branding (the subject of a new book by Resource colleague Kelly Mooney) and how Web sites for brands like Miracle-Gro are actively encouraging participation and community. Woolmington looked at the entire marketing mix, from customer service to retail touch points. He pointed to great sites like Ikea.com that take usability and experience to the next level and sites like VW.com that put search in the center of the experience.
Thomas-Kim's presence was perhaps the most provocative, in part because I've rarely seen anyone from consumer affairs invited to discuss marketing at marketing conferences. (For all our talk, we rarely give a platform to the folks who actually bother talking to consumers.)
This point wasn't lost on Thomas-Kim. "You can't fully and credibly build a community without first building one internally and with your partners," she said. She also rightly reminded the audience several times that "you are not the consumer. People are passionate about the things that are important to them -- which may not be important to you. Don't marginalize them for that. Embrace it!"
Among her suggestions: "Redirect some of those advertising dollars to consumer affairs. Take advantage of the intimate conversations already taking place with the most loyal consumers. Listen to what consumers are saying. Tune in to the passion and great ideas they have."
Don't take this feedback lightly. Thomas-Kim is also the newly elected chair of SOCAP, replacing Asher. Don't assume for a second this oft-ignored group will remain even marginally content in their underfunded silos while the marketing community throws unqualified cash, resources, and energy at the conversation.
At the end of the day, we'll drive more enterprise value by nurturing our best expertise sources.
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Pete Blackshaw, whose professional background encompasses public policy, interactive marketing, and brand management, is executive vice president of strategic services for Nielsen Online, a combination of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a firm Pete helped cofound, and Nielsen//NetRatings. One of Pete's key focuses is helping brands interpret, manage, and act on consumer-generated media (CGM). A former interactive marketing leader at P&G and founder of consumer feedback portal PlanetFeedback.com, Pete cofounded the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). He authors several blogs, including ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com, and is the author of an upcoming book from Random House, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World."
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