Opinion: It's time to give consumers the freedom to speak about your brand

The authors believe brands need to embrace the public's desire to share their opinions and channel them more constructively

Picture courtesy: Campaign Creators
Picture courtesy: Campaign Creators
Once upon a time, marketing was a simple affair. A brand about to release a new product or service would rope in their marketing department and off to work they would go, using long standing tactics and stratagems to promote said item and inform the general public of its impending launch. And for years, these methods worked. They were reliable, they delivered assured results, and there was virtually no chance of any major negative blowback or long-term repercussions. Marketing was a one-way street, from the mouth of the business to the ears of its customers, and that was the way brands liked it.
But as with so many other things, the advent of the internet turned this comfortable equation on its head. The internet gave the public a voice, and all of a sudden, companies lost the ability to control the narrative. Online fan clubs, discussion boards, and chat forums offered a place for customers to gather, produce content, and share their perspectives on brands, both good and bad. The rise of social media platforms in the mid-2000s only exacerbated the situation. People now had an exponentially larger audience with whom they could share their opinions. These circumstances also led to the rise of influencer marketing and a new wave of social media celebrities. With millions of devoted followers hanging on their every word, these influencers can now make or break a brand’s fortunes with a single post. 
It’s understandable that these changes haven’t been well received by the majority of brand managers. The truth is that most brands don’t want consumers to be their voice on social platforms. And while that may just sound like a reluctance to adapt to the times, much of this resistance stems from two understandable fears. 
The first is that the quality of the content produced may not reflect the essence of the brand. It’s only natural for brands to be extremely protective of their public image. After all, most companies have spent decades and a great deal of money carefully cultivating a brand identity and set of values that resonate with the public. For example, everyone knows that Nike is about unleashing your inner athlete, and that Apple stands for imagination, design, and innovation. But one viral tweet that misrepresents a company could see all of that hard work and effort come tumbling down. 
The second reason is the constant and ever-present fear of a negative review or comment. For all of the internet’s many benefits, it can also often serve as a hub of negativity. Web trolls, disgruntled buyers, and even rival businesses are just some of the challenges any brand faces online. And once a negative opinion gains some traction, it can have an enormous impact on a brand’s fortunes. In an attempt to counteract these issues, brands have tried various strategies. Some choose to disable comments across their social media channels, hoping to cut off any potential problems before they arise. Other companies take a more aggressive approach, issuing cease and desist letters and takedown warnings to online content creators and posters.  
But no matter what a brand tries, the truth is that any attempt to regulate customers talking about your brand is doomed to fail. People will always talk about you and find new ways to circumvent restrictions. And the harder you try, the harder the pushback will be. Instead, brands need to learn to embrace the public’s desire to share their opinions and thoughts and channel them more constructively. Educate your customer base by providing them with examples of good content and empower them to create even better content by providing them with the right set of tools. Global clothing brand H&M has been one of the earliest adopters of this approach. Through their #H&MxMe campaign, they encourage users to fill blank spaces in their content media strategy – essentially crowdsourcing their work - while also providing other users with an example of the quality of content H&M stands for. By gradually enabling word-of-mouth (WOM) content these measures can then be scaled by using social media tools and platforms like Brandie and Trell. 
Otherwise known as crowd marketing, WOM marketing describes the actions taken by a business that drive their real customers to organically promote their products, services, or brand. By turning active customers into partners, brands can harness their enthusiasm to serve as unpaid promotional activity. Once this has been achieved, brands should do everything within their power to maintain and encourage an active and thriving online community. This approach is especially critical in a country like India, with a massive population base and hundreds of different languages, subcultures, and identities. Creating local content that resonates with each of these groups would be beyond the capability of any brand, but supporting and encouraging fans from each of these groups to create relevant content is easily achievable. 
Aside from amplifying a brand’s own marketing efforts at no extra cost, WOM marketing has also proven itself to be the most effective testimonial a brand could hope for, with more than 92 percent of consumers stating they believe suggestions from friends and family more than they do advertising. The user-generated content (UGC) that results from this relationship is also invaluable to a brand, with the public viewing it as 35 percent more memorable and 50 percent more trustworthy than a brand’s own social media content.
Another key reason to support customers talking about your brand is due to their willingness to fight on your behalf. Angry and negative comments are issues every brand has to deal with. By encouraging positive WOM and UGC, brands can create a barrier against trolls and critics and drown their voices out in positive and supportive feedback. By making the effort community-driven, brands can avoid escalating the issue by directly intervening and instead focus their attention on bigger issues. 
Customers will always find a way to talk about your brand, for both good and bad. And the earlier a brand comes to terms with this fact, the better placed they are to capitalise on it and come out on top in a new era of marketing. 
The authors are co-founders, Brandie
Campaign India

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