Media Revolution: Brand Democratization, Part 1

Consumers are moonlighting as marketers, and most don’t even know it. They’re being recruited to help create ads and promote brands and products, and they’re happily obliging, whether they receive monetary compensation or not.

Sound a little surreptitious? It’s pure marketing genius. And it’s fast becoming a popular way to boost brand affinity and customer loyalty via the Web.

The last few years have seen advertisers take interactive marketing to an entirely new level. It’s no longer just about including a call to action in an online ad. Consumers are now involved at the earliest stages of campaign development; in many cases, they actually co-create the campaigns.

Among the companies that have invited consumers to get more involved is Converse, which kicked off a short film contest last year. Winning entries were featured online and converted in TV spots.

Mercedes-Benz and Mazda have also solicited potential promotional material from customers. The former collected photos of Mercedes owners posing with their cars, then used them in TV and print ads. The latter invited consumers to submit photos that represented their interpretation of its “Zoom-Zoom” slogan last year.

A more recent example comes courtesy of Audi, which is getting ready to complete its “Step Ahead with Audi A3” online campaign. Audi recently enlisted the help of three American Film Institute (AFI) filmmakers to promote its new premium compact model by producing short documentaries featuring the A3. Consumers were encouraged to vote for their favorite at the model’s microsite, where the films are housed.

“Business Week” calls this trend “brand democratization.” You may also know it as citizen marketing. It’s as much about getting consumers to pay attention to marketing messages as it is about giving them a say in what they contain.

With corporate and promotional blogs that act as online suggestion boxes, alternate reality games that intensify and extend the relationship between consumer and brand, and similar initiatives, marketers have plenty of new ways to ensure they’re being heard. Brand democratization is the ultimate such solution. Blending in with the competition isn’t much of an issue when you invite consumers to share their views of your specific product or brand. Clutter becomes a moot point when your ad creative is audibly unique. And having consumers develop your promotional materials saves a bundle on ad development costs.

This approach to online marketing may currently be popular among brands and companies that have an existing fan base, but it can be equally effective for those hoping to establish a loyal following. New Internet television network Music Plus TV (MPTV) — a platform for independent musicians and bands — is currently inviting student filmmakers to submit music-themed short films, documentaries, and animated works for an online contest. The network’s viewers will determine the winners, and the chosen films will be publicized online and off-.

“The ultimate objective is to have a centralized forum of expression for artists of diverse backgrounds, genres, and crafts to display their work to the world,” says Jeanette Issa of MPTV public relations. “The film festival is just one means of bringing in more artists and further diversifying the pool of talent on Music Plus TV.”

The fact the event will likely introduce hundreds of potential new viewers to the network doesn’t hurt, either.

With so many marketers exploring brand democratization, media buyers have to ask themselves where they fit in this media revolution. Most likely they’ll find themselves working with planners and strategists to develop and execute these campaigns. Eliminate the current in-house segregation, and marketing teams will be far more effective where delivering every aspect of these often complex consumer-based initiatives are concerned.

Those who dabble in this new trend should be cognizant of a few simple rules: Appeal not only to consumers’ interest in your product or brand but to their passion for it as well. Make their contributions the focal point of your campaign. And, offer compensation in the form of publicity, if not cash. As in a real democracy, it’s all about give and take.

Once, interactive marketers were dictators, determining the nature of each and every campaign. Now it’s consumers’ turn to have a say. Are they ready and willing to be heard? Check back next week to find out what marketers have to gain from brand democratization.

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