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.

How do you escape innovation hell?

At the 9th Annual Razorfish Client Summit, Razorfish Strategy executive Joe Crump asked a simple question: why can’t we innovate more often?  His premise: innovation, like pornography, is something we recognize easily when we see it — the Virgin Galactic, the customized Dell laptop, or just about anything Pixar creates.  But even when top marketers and designers try to innovate, 80 percent fail.  He stated many reasons why:

  • We mistakenly equate innovation with creativity, which makes innovation feel more like serendipity
  • We don’t really try to innovate. Most of us are just content making incremental improvements to our work
  • We measure the wrong things.  We obsess with click-through rates instead of wowing the consumer with brilliant engagement.
  • We use the wrong tools.  Focus groups are the enemy of innovation.
  • We rely on processes that kill innovation.
  • We equate innovation with advertising.  As Joe put it, “If I were in the television ad business, I would assume the crash position.”

So, if what Joe says is true, what’s the answer to actually innovating?  In a word, experience.

Innovation Hell by Joe Crump, Group VP Strategy & Planning, Razorfish from Razorfish on Vimeo.

“Stop obsessing on marketing messages, and start obsessing on better product experiences,” Joe said.  Then he gave a preview of the Razorfish Experience Wheel, a new process that Razorfish is developing to create fresh consumer experiences.

And then Joe did something quite remarkable.

in TED-like fashion, he challenged Client Summit attendees to share with Razorfish a business problem, a global problem, or just something that plain bugs you.  Razorfish will spend the next year using the Experience Wheel to create an innovative solution the problem.

Want to play?  Please send your problem to  Joe will do the rest.  We’ll report back to you in about a year.