Consumer Power in a Flash

On the January 2, 2007, something unusual happened in the small German city of Braunschweig. Nine hundred thirty-one of its 245,500 inhabitants arranged a raid on the local McDonald’s restaurant. It wasn’t the type of raid that ends in violence. It was the type of raid known a flashmob. Coordinated via cell phones, the flashmob is a gathering of people for a specific purpose. In this case, it was to storm a McDonald’s and order some 2,211 burgers all at once — to go!

Naturally, the incident made headlines in the local press. News of this event may not have gone any further, if it weren’t for YouTube.

A young guy, nicknamed churchill225, was the first to capture the flashmob raid on video and upload it to the file-sharing site. Soon, thousands of people began downloading the video and sharing rumors about making another surprise mass visit to another McDonald’s. As I write, 10 more German McDonald’s restaurants are on the hot list. The phenomenon has become a game between McDonald’s and its customers.

It’s a game because both sides love the sport. Never before has McDonald’s secured this much positive attention in the press. And never before have sales skyrocketed like this. McDonald’s didn’t have to do a thing. I interviewed the CEO of McDonald’s Germany about the flashmob phenomenon in my video blog.

Welcome to the brave new world of marketing — marketing run by the consumer not the companies that own the brands. In effect, brand ownership has shifted to what I call the Me Selling Proposition (MSP) generation. Companies no longer own their brands. In a heartbeat, a single consumer can knock down a brand. This fact was proven in cases such as that of Jonah Peretti. Peretti took Nike iD, Nike’s customization service, by surprise by ordering a pair of shoes personalized with the word “sweatshop”. Nike declined to produce the order, and its legal team started a headline-grabbing campaign that quickly spread worldwide.

Then there was the Australian Qantas passenger, Allen Jasson. He caused a million-dollar PR disaster for the “Flying Kangaroo” when the airline’s representatives refused Jasson permission to board a flight unless he removed the anti-George Bush T-shirt he was wearing.

There’s a fine balance in striking the right policy chords for brand builders. The reality is this is just the beginning. Companies clever enough to understand this have the best chance of beating the trend at its own game.

What can you do to play successfully? Here are a couple of pieces of advice:

  • Give the consumer the power to play with your brand. You might discover your logo used in unusual ways or see your brand in unusual contexts. You may even discover a couple of unfavorable words associated with your brand. But if you’re ready to play the game with consumers, chances are they’ll admire you for it. The duel might indeed provoke your next brand wave of attention, one run by consumers rather than you.
  • Monitor your brand not through press clippings but online: in chatrooms, on YouTube, on MySpace, you name it. Be alert to emerging trends that may be or are linked with your brand name. If you detect an interesting trend, let everyone in your company in on it. Consider how to push it to your brand’s advantage by supporting the community making it happen. Don’t make it mainstream. Adopt a laissez faire approach. It’s up to consumers to spread the word and up to you to encourage them.
  • If the consumer-driven event seems to be a success, take it one step further. Set the next challenge. Don’t portray your brand as a saintly, untarnished entity. Who’d believe that? Instead, develop an idea that makes your brand fun by returning the consumers’ challenge and, without manipulating their message, demonstrate you listen and care for them.

It’s not easy. But you’d better push the envelope if you’re to negotiate Brand Building 2.0.

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