Are consumers really in control?

A musician named Dave Carroll becomes a YouTube sensation by singing about how United Airlines broke his guitar. The Whole Foods brand suffers a blow amid a consumer boycott fueled by social media.  Just the usual signs that consumers are in control, right?

I don’t think so.  And I don’t believe consumers want to be “in control,” either.

We’ve all heard (and told) the same story.  Social media have empowered consumers.  With Twitter, we can publicly shame the restaurant that gives us bad service.  Through blogs and platforms like Facebook, we can rely on our friends and peers to learn about new products without involving the voice of the brand itself.

But I believe there’s a difference between consumers becoming empowered and consumers taking control.  And although word-of-mouth marketing remains the most powerful form of endorsement, I think it’s a stretch to say consumers want to shut out brands completely.  Consider the following:

  • If consumers were really in control, Dave Carroll would not be a news sensation.  His “United Breaks Guitars” YouTube video would be the norm.  But his experience is the exception to the rule.
  • If consumers were really in control, we’d see a huge improvement in notoriously customer-service challenged industries.  But we have not.
  • If consumers wanted to shut out brands, we would not so willingly allow consumer products like iPhones and Blackberries to turn us into a society of inveterate text messengers and screen tappers.  We would not happily participate in their marketing, like the fans at Comic-Con who engaged in a massive scavenger hunts to find teaser trailers for Warner Brothers’s The Dark Knight in 2007, and for Disney’s Tron Legacy in 2009.

As a consumer, I love the fact that I can complain about my Comcast bill on Twitter and receive a rapid response from Comcast Cares.  But you know what?  Although consumers like empowerment, I believe we do not want the responsibility of being in control.  We want a relationship with brands, which means we accept the fact that both the brand and consumer exert influence.  We want companies to delight us with new products and services, and we will gladly pay them to do that.  We want to watch new ads on the Super Bowl.  We want to have fun with in-store and digital experiences.  Nearly 3.5 million of us have become fans of Dell, JetBlue, and Zappos on Twitter.  (Whole Foods, boycott or not, has 1.2 million Twitter followers and has done many things to impress consumers.)  Another 1.4 million consumers have become members of the Victoria’s Secret PINK Page (and are proud to post pictures of their favorite PINK clothing).

The difference between empowerment and control is more than a matter of semantics.  In a world of consumer empowerment, marketers still matter very much, and so do the “old” forms of brand building.  In fact, a recently released report by my employer Razorfish (Fluent: The Razorfish Social Influence Marketing Report) says that when making purchasing decisions, consumers are more likely to trust television ads than online friends.

But on the other hand, consumer empowerment is real, and woe to the marketer who fails to understand that reality.  As Fluent also points out, marketers could help themselves by more effectively employing the same social media and user-generated content tools that consumers are using — hard to pull off, but, according to Forrester Research, worth trying.  Forrester says that 73 percent of online Americans are consuming social media, which Forrester cites as a harbinger for marketers.  Writes Forrester analyst Josh Bernoff, “Marketers, if you’re not doing social technology applications now, you’re officially behind.”

Well put.  There’s a reason why my Razorfish colleague Shiv Singh coined the term “Social Influence Marketing” as opposed to “social media.”  Social Influence Marketing says that marketers can and should employ social influencers and social media to meet their marketing and business objectives.  In other words, marketers can be empowered by social media and influencers, too.  Marketers just need to act wisely by incorporating social into broader forms of marketing, not tossing out the playbook completely — and by creating enjoyable consumer experiences and products that are as compelling as their advertisements.

Consumers will cede “control” to a brand that delights them in an authentic way.

PS: Dave Carroll has become something of a Social Influence Marketer himself. He now has versions of his “United Breaks Guitars” songs and video available for purchase online.

12 thoughts on “Are consumers really in control?

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  3. You make a good point, the post is well written, and I think highlighting the focus on empowerment over control makes sense. I think most marketers today, and especially those in product development should be asking \”what are we empowering consumers to do with our product, our brand and the experience?\”. I think when we enter into more frequent forms of consumer empowerment, we don\’t \”cede\” control, but actually share some of it in the form of ownership. Apple controls final say on the apps, but a small form of ownership is shared with the developer who creates one to be listed in the store. P&G\’s connect & develop controls the final product, but the initial innovation (and some form of small ownership) comes from the outside. @jted and I put together some initial thoughts on this (ignore the google wave in the diagram). What are your thoughts David. Could empowerment lead to a small sharing of control/ownership with the consumer?

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  5. David, you are so right on so many levels. Most of us have more control (and responsibility)than we want from figuring out how to invest our 401ks to deciding how healthy we intend to be in the following year before choosing a health plan. We don\’t want control, we want a voice and yes entertainment, and fun, and a chance to be surprised and delighted.

    So many of our clients fear the social web because they feel it can only point out their flaws but the opportunity for companies to humanize themselves, to make themselves accessible, humble and therefore forgivable is even greater.

    David Carroll\’s video sticks for the same reason the comcast repairman stuck–it resonates for most of us with the experience we had with the brand. If we watched it and said, \”Gee, United\’s always been great to me and my luggage\” we wouldn\’t laugh and we sure wouldn\’t pass it along. Instead we watch and say, \”I\’m not alone!\” If you want to fight the phenomenon, take on the root cause. Comcast may not be perfect but frank@comcastcares and a bunch of other employees have sure brought down the ambient level of bashing.

    I\’ve never been a fan of \”the consumer is in control\’ both for the reasons you stated and because it somehow implies that before the rise of the social web they had no control at all. Thank you for pointing out the nuances and the opportunity for marketers to shine.

  6. Thank you, Jason and Lisa, for your thoughtful replies! Lisa, this blog post was influenced in part by a conversation you and I had at the Forrester Marketing Forum in April. I remember you asking me: if consumers are so eager to seize control and ignore the brand, then why do consumers get so disappointed when they feel like brands ignore them? You and I discussed how consumers do not want to ignore brands; to the contrary, we often just want a stronger voice with brands. Jason, thank you for linking to your blog post. I agree with you that \”sharing\” ownership is a better choice of words than \”ceding control.\” It\’s often been said successful leaders know how to share power rather than hog it — this can be true of successful brands, too, as you demonstrate in your blog. In addition to the examples you cite, Threadless in Chicago is justly famous for collaboration with consumers in the creation of the T-shirts it sells. On the other hand, there are times when companies need to lead the way by introducing new products and services that consumers haven\’t necessarily imagined. I think Apple did just that with the iPhone. It\’s an interesting balance especially for companies in the fields of technology and media/entertainment: finding a way to share power with consumers such that the brand is relevant to consumers\’ needs today while staying ahead of the curve, too.

  7. David,

    You are a busy guy on your blog lately. Well done.

    I\’ll toss something out there on this one. It\’s not control or a relationship consumers crave, it\’s influence. Dave Carroll is a talented musician. Most of us can\’t write a catchy song and are particularly melodic, so he is an edge case. If his video and song was poorly done, it wouldn\’t have had any influence at all.

    Consumers want to be heard and respected and acknowledged. Now arguably one could say that\’s a relationship, but without the exchange of money for goods or services there is not even a hint of connection.


  8. The consumer public stops spending and the economy is brought to its knees; there is excess capacity in almost every product/service category and the leverage has clearly shifted from the seller to the buyer — it seems pretty obvious the consumer is empowered and in control. Are customers pushing brands away? No, they are not embracing them like the used to. Multiple research studies show that brand loyalty is eroding as commoditization c continues to level the playing field. This argument is weak, coming from a narrow perspective colored by digital media — not competence in marketing.

  9. Thank you, Steve and Mike, for your comments. \”Influence\” is a good word, Steve. We consumers want to be respected and heard even if (or perhaps especially if) we choose not to purchase a product or service, and neither can happen without our exerting influence. (Incidentally, on a related note, it would be interesting to compare consumer influence pre- and post-internet. In the 1960s, consumers lacked the internet, but we had crusadors like Ralph Nader to rally around. In the digital age, it feels like that influence has become atomized among many voices.) Mike, you raise good points. You mention that brand loyalty is eroding as commoditization levels the playing field. But brands, not consumers, are the cause for the commoditization. If brands did a better job differentiating, commoditization would not level the playing field. In other words, the issue of commoditization comes down to brand competence, not consumer control. You\’re also right that if consumers stop spending, the economy is brought to its knees. But if brands stop producing products and services we care about at the right time and place, the same is true. I agree that the balance of power has shifted to consumers. But I question the notion that consumers are \”in control.\”

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