Billion-Dollar Brands’ Word-of-Mouth Ambitions

Have you ever wanted to peek behind the curtain at some of the world’s largest marketers, and see just exactly how they’re handling the revolution in media and communications that’s rocking the advertising world? I have. And I got the chance, or close to it, this week when new media bigwigs from Procter & Gamble and General Motors (and Starcom MediaVest Group’s GM Planworks) took the stage at the Supernova conference in San Francisco. (Thanks to my fellow ClickZ author, Pete Blackshaw, who moderated the panel, for turning me on to these folks.)

The topic: How marketers can take advantage of the rise in social multimedia, rather than be mowed down by it. I was especially interested in hearing from GM, who’d taken heat for a Chevy Tahoe effort that had given SUV critics, rather than brand advocates, a megaphone.

The Sad State of Affairs

Michael Wiley, head of new media for GM, did the best job of showing how the big boys do “get it” (even if they’re not always sure what to do about it).

“The existing advertising paradigm sucks,” he said. “It’s woefully inefficient. We spend these huge dollars and we run them on television and we give the consumer very little information.”

Incentivizing Brand Enthusiasts

For GM, social multimedia is about identifying both fans and detractors and engaging them in dialogue. For the negative people, GM wants to “engage them on a one-to-one basis and try to change their perceptions about the company,” said Michael.

As for the fans, Curt Hecht from GM Planworks said they figure greatly in the company’s marketing future. “This whole enthusiast thing and word-of-mouth is fricking huge for automotive. We haven’t leveraged that relationship yet. It’s as important to us as our relationship with Edmunds or Kelly Blue Book. We’re going to be spending some time trying to figure that one out.”

Michael was a big fan of the enthusiast-created ad concept, suggesting, ” Why not put out a brief and say ‘this is the kind of ad we’re looking for, for product X’?”

For P&G, on the other hand, it’s more about tapping into existing communities or providing people with the tools to connect with one another. (The company operates word-of-mouth networks Tremor and Vocalpoint.) This is partly because the products P&G offers aren’t as conducive to brand enthusiasm. “Buying toilet paper or Metamucil is a different level of involvement,” said Stan Joosten of P&G. “Who the heck would want to go to And the fact is, people don’t.”

Stan pointed to online moms’ groups like Southern California’s Peachhead, profiled in the New York Times recently (registration required), as an example. “Those are the kinds of discussions that we’d like to look into. [Consumer-generated videos like the Diet Coke/Mentos clip], those are one-offs,” he said. “You need to be agile enough to jump on it when it happens, but you can’t count on it to forge your relationship with consumers. It’s underestimated how important these [online communities] are in people’s daily lives.”

Nothing to Lose

Interestingly, the guys from GM and its agency thought the company’s tarnished image made it more, rather than less, likely to boldly engage in digital efforts to engage consumers.

“If your brand is pristine, you are going to be a bit more averse about putting yourself out there and exposing yourself to extreme criticism. Whereas with GM, we feel that there are misperceptions about the company,” Michael said.

Still, Stan of P&G seemed equally game to put his company’s brands out there. At one point, he lamented the fact that P&G hadn’t made enough mistakes. “The number of ‘oops, we shouldn’t have done that’ isn’t as high as it should be, because that’s a sign of a company on the move,” he said.

Turning a Big Ship

Getting the GM and P&G behemoths “on the move” is a lot more difficult than just talking the talk, both Michael and Stan acknowledged.

“We try to stay one step ahead of the curve,” said Stan, adding that the old mass-marketing process is “deeply ingrained” in the company culture and is based on years and years of data. “It’s hard to say ‘throw it out, we need to do something new,'” he acknowledged, “because it’s a proven success.”

Michael described the new media evangelists at GM as “a few people” in the company. “So it’s a little like a band of brothers that are trying to change the world. Businesses like General Motors need to fundamentally change the way they operate and it’s just beginning…. It’s really something that becomes to be a way of life. There is some intransigence in the way business is done…. To move that beast and change the way business is done is a slow process.”

Meet Pamela at Search Engine Strategies in San Jose, August 7-10, 2006, at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.