The point of advertising is to place an idea in a consumer's mind that generates value for a company. Sounds simple, right? That idea could be to take an immediate action ("Have a cheeseburger!") or to have an attitude or engage in a behavior ("Sports Company X is Your Workout Partner").
Throughout advertising's history, methods have changed but never the core goal. That history is well documented. Take the creative revolution of the late '60s, famously sparked by the Volkswagen "Lemon" print ad. There was a major shift in the means and methods of advertising, away from feature lists and toward a compelling connection in a consumer's mind. But that was simply a decision (really, a realization) that the old way was no longer generating value.
We're in the midst of another advertising evolution, but this time it's about putting the consumer in control. Yet, counterintuitive as it may seem, companies must remember they're still in the business of getting consumers to believe something.
The Trouble With Tahoe
Chevy's SUV, the Tahoe, is in the midst of a consumer-generated media (CGM) campaign that's going... interestingly. The brand and its agency decided to build on a product-placement gig with "The Apprentice." On the show, contestants were tasked with developing a :30 spot for the Tahoe. The tie-in allows anyone to do the same: grab some stock footage, choose a soundtrack, and write your copy. The resulting ad is stored on the server. You're given a URL to distribute to your friends and family so they can see your ad.
Problem is, armies of Chevy evangelists didn't descend on the site to create love notes to their favorite SUV. Or maybe they have. But the consumer-generated ads garnering the most attention (from personal blogs, communities, "The New York Times," etc.) have been the ones with fairly aggressive, pro-environment, anti-SUV sentiments. Brand spokespeople have been publicly mature and diplomatic about the situation, saying they fully expected this and they fielded this campaign to let people have their say.
I can't imagine they're too happy privately. No one wants to see the product he builds and sells connected to such strong negative feelings. Not in public, at least.
But It Worked for Converse!
Let me be crystal clear: I love the concept of giving consumers opportunity to express themselves. Consumers have an incredible amount of control, and they're going to use it, either with a brand or against it. But harnessing and channeling CGM in this way is an advertising tactic, and tactics without strategy are simply bad agency/advertising business.
A brand that's going to field this type of campaign must have some sense of the emotions they're going to unleash as they pierce the veil between consumer-generated and advertiser-generated content. Converse fielded a very similar campaign for its Chuck Taylor brand and it worked quite well.
The difference, of course, is the sea of emotions connected to the brand. When Converse opens the floodgates for Chucks, it can be pretty confident it's going to get a lot of love, connections to cool subcultures, nostalgia, and pride of ownership. When Chevrolet does the same, it taps into a strong backlash against not just the Tahoe but SUVs in general that's been long building. The consumer-created commercials aren't anti-product, they're anti-category. Chevy is catching heck for the perceived evils of Ford, Hummer, and any number of other car manufacturers.
Yes, we're in the midst of the next great marketing revolution in which the consumer has control. But advertisers still must find ways to get that control to help achieve their goals.
Part of the reason advertisers must view CGM as a potential advertising tactic is because we already know unprompted consumer creations of brand messages simply happen. The fact someone may have a Chevy Tahoe blog is a totally independent phenomenon from the Chevy Tahoe marketing Web site. Chevy reaching out to that hypothetical blogger to support her efforts is also independent from its marketing. These are things every brand should be doing.
Word of mouth in general and CGM in particular must be a part of an ongoing relationship campaign. Agencies are always looking for creative ways to communicate brand messages. Allowing consumers to play with ads and remix them is one way to do it. You just have to keep these separate in your strategic approach to this new world.
If you feel love will spring naturally from the consumer space, by all means allow it to happen. But the fact consumers have increased ability to express themselves means you need a very clear strategic vision of what the potential outcomes will be.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
March 19, 2014