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Adapting to Consumer-Controlled Surveillance

  |  February 5, 2008   |  Comments

Six rules for companies to promote, protect, and manage brands under the new culture.

Today we live in a consumer-controlled surveillance culture. Get used to it!

More important, prepare for it. Start building, where appropriate, your defensive branding strategy.

I often worry that in our sometime irrational exuberance over the benefits and wonders of conversation, brands are blind to what it truly means for consumers -- our coveted buyers and lifetime revenue streams -- to be constantly watching, monitoring, evaluating, and talking about us.

At the end of the day, consumers are monitoring brands and companies "for quality purposes" 24/7, far more attentively than companies recording toll-free calls. And that has enormous consequences for how we promote, protect, and manage brands.

Choose Your Weapon

The consumer lens into the brand closet is taking on infrared (define) levels of sophistication and clarity.

Aided by a growing proliferation of smaller and smaller devices, the gadgetry bursting from the CES fire hydrant last month, consumers have greater means than ever to watch our every move. They not only write about brand experiences, they capture them with photos, audio, and video. They aggregate evidence and use add-water-and-stir editing tools to fortify their stories.

Consumers capture, create, and circulate stories that implicate brands faster than a juicy Blair Waldorf rumor on Gossip Girl.

For every user-participation contest marketers create, consumers host a thousand brand-incrimination contests with levels of surveillance sophistication that would make most government intelligence agencies blush. Consequently, bad brand experiences -- lame customer service, unsafe vehicles, gross hotel rooms, defective products, inept employees, mutant gadgets -- are one "record" or ShareThis button away from viral exposure.

But we reap what we sow, so we'd better learn how to live with it. And we'd sure better figure out how to manage it or, where the surveillance culture rewards and reinforces our better half, take full advantage of it. The consumer-surveillance culture requires a fundamentally new mindset, starting with the following mission critical imperatives. So repeat after me, then write this on the whiteboard 100 times.

New Rules

  • We must rethink what it means to be truly credible. In a world of 24/7 consumer surveillance, credibility is everything. Today's infrared-enabled consumer can find every chink in the brand armor. My upcoming book, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000," outlines the six drivers of brand credibility: trust, transparency, authenticity, affirmation, listening, and responsiveness. Getting these drivers right not only neutralizes the impact of piercing consumer radar but also lays a foundation for a win-win situation.

  • We must become better listeners. Marketers must shift from a paid-media marketing model to a listening-centered marketing model wherein all early signals, whether extreme or ostensibly insignificant, are absorbed and internalized across the brand franchise. This requires both internal brand radar, and processes and tools similar to what my own firm (and many others) provide for external listening.

  • We must reposition customer service as the new media department. You can put Dove Evolution, Dove Onslaught, every Doritos consumer-created Super Bowl ad, and dozens of hugely popular user-generated ad spots into a blender, and they still won't come close to filling the Olympic-sized pool of negative media in the conversational airwaves implicating bad customer service. In categories like banking and financial service, conversation indicting customer service owns upwards of 40 to 50 percent of all discussion volume. In electronics, the number is around 20 percent. The consumer-controlled surveillance culture is actively taking notes on customer service, and the narrative -- the content it creates -- can cut in either positive or negative directions depending on how well brands nurture this arena.

  • We must rethink the value and importance of indirect marketing, including human resources and operations. In a surveillance culture, consumers see three levels deeper into the brand. What they see has less to do with the message's polish and more with the brand experience's foundational drivers. Products that work require a superb operational backbone. Meaningful service experiences require a service profit chain of well-trained, motivated, loyal employees. Smart, interactive, responsive online interfaces require excellent business processes.

  • We must close or integrate the silos. Brands need a united, cooperative front to contend with the elevated power and leverage of the consumer-controlled surveillance culture. At some point, it's just not going to work to have PR firms, advertising firms, digital agencies, and other supplier groups messaging against or with these new currents. We can't have eight different groups managing and interpreting influencers. We probably need to refashion and recast what we mean by holistic communication.

Surveillance Has Its Benefits

Finally, remember the world of consumer surveillance and complete brand transparency can also work to the brand's advantage. When consumers like what they see or feel good about experiences, they don't crawl under a rug or duct-tape their mouths. No, they take their mini brand documentaries and put them on the public TV known as the Web. They seek validation from others, which creates link love, which in turn translates into optimized shelf space in search results.

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Pete Blackshaw

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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