Consumer-Created Ads: Power to the People

A great deal has been written about effective ways to promote brand loyalty. Some companies focus entirely on providing ways to effectively promote brands, create viral buzz, reach widespread demographic groups, forecast branding retention rates, and determine how branding efforts affect future sales.

Brands become part of social conscience, culture, and personal identity. We proudly proclaim our devotion to Ford cars or Apple computers. We adorn our vehicles with bumper stickers and signs promoting our beliefs. As a former Macintosh user, I can attest the level of Mac fanaticism is on par with some major religions. Though brand identity and religion are very separate arenas, both provide commonality; a shared experience that helps bring people together for a common cause or experience.

The Internet is the perfect place for individuals to share their perspectives on just about anything. Many companies create Web properties that promote brand buzz by giving visitors something they can use for their own purposes, such as a Cap’n Crunch screensaver, an Ashanti music track from Herbal Essences, or an opportunity to send a branded e-postcard from CuervoNation.

Effective branding can motivate consumers to create word-of-mouth buzz. How should companies handle brand fans who create rich media ads on their behalf?

One of the most recent success stories in this area is the Apple iPod mini tribute ad created by George Masters. For Masters, the “Tiny Machine” spot is a tribute to a product he really likes and an opportunity to play with some cool multimedia development tools. Working evenings, it took him about five months to create the spot. Distribution was as simple as posting the spot on his Web site as an example of his work. The buzz was unbelievable.

Masters had no intention of distributing his creation outside his site. Links on blogs and in email brought over 50,000 viewers to the ad within a few days. Not surprisingly, Apple Computer didn’t send a cease-and-desist order.

Not all tributes pay homage to the brand. The most memorable occurrence is the fake Volkswagen Polo ad featuring an unsuccessful car bombing. The ad wasn’t designed for public viewing and was obviously tongue-in-cheek. It still caused Volkswagen a great deal of embarrassment and resulted in a very public apology by its creators.

Rich media advertising is spawning more examples of ads that don’t fit traditional broadcast formats. Longer formats, such as a spot created for Consumers Union, push messages that would be neither cost-effective nor create the same direct effect if run as TV spots. And that’s not to mention the sarcasm that might occur if a general audience didn’t understand the message.

Giving media production power to regular folks has become a standard marketing approach for organizations such as MoveOn.org, which solicits ad spots from its supporters to run online and on TV. Regular folks have the opportunity to get their 15 minutes of fame, and site visitors can vote on submissions to help decide which ads are put into rotation. This is a full ad-development service, inclusive of focus group marketing, all created and paid for by volunteers. Nice model, if you can get it!

Whether future online ads are created as tributes, protests, or simply parodies of existing ads, advertisers must be mindful that the power to persuade is no longer a one-way street. People can now tell their side of the story. The media is the domain of the masses.

As my colleague Adrian Sweet pointed out last week, the general public’s ability to create and post negative brand ads is also a reality for advertisers. Most computer users are just a few software packages away from becoming media producers. One more reason why companies must be increasingly vigilant in keeping their customers satisfied.

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