December 1, 2008

In today's world, can you control your brand? This is one question that is perplexing me for some time. The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that brand managers can no longer control their brands. With the change in the role of consumer, influx of abundant information, spread of internet and virtual communities, and changing role of competition, a brand gets affected at multiple points, many of which are beyond the control of any brand manager. A brand manager can control the physical and tangible aspect of the brand to a certain degree but he can't control the intangible and experience aspects of his brand. The role of a brand manager is changing from that of an influencer to one of a facilitator. The truth is - in future a brand can only evolve through consumer interaction and experience rather than move through a thoroughly charted path by the brand manager. In such a scenario, a brand manager would have to focus on facilitating the evolution of brand in a desired, though concrete, direction through close interaction with consumers, suppliers, competitors, external agencies, and employees.

Standardization may still be an operational necessity to a large extent, but branding has to change to give a personalized experience to the consumers. It has to evolve through personalized inputs of consumers in a co-creation effort with all stakeholders. This can be achieved by activating consumer communities where consumers can actively participate to initiate dialogue, share views, be critic, and in the process shape up the brand.

Traditionally, consumers are a passive participator in shaping up a brand. They react to what marketers hand them. They are not the originator of ideas or dialogue to shape up a brand. This is changing and consumers are becoming an active participant in the branding process and voicing their opinion vociferously through networks and communities. Internet and social networking are acting as a catalyst to accelerate this phenomenon. The challenge before the brand manager is to be an active facilitator to channel this consumer energy in positively shaping up the brand and helping in integrating consumer inputs with the brand.

The key is to view the consumer as an invaluable part of the value chain. Once consumers participate in value creation along with other stakeholders, resulting brand experience tends to be personal. Consumers then think of the brand as an extension of their self and become emotionally as well as rationally connected to it.

Brand personality that emerges through this process is the real personality of the brand. It is not something force fitted through astute communication, but actually given shape by the consumers. The resultant brand is not the marketer's agenda. Rather it is the voice of consumers.

Brand democracy is bound to arrive soon, when the rein of control of brands would be with the consumers. Brands would be of the consumers, by the consumers, for the consumers!