Working in the CPG industry for many years (9.5 to be exact), it was beat into me by the marketing function that they were the keepers of the brand and voice of our consumer. Sitting at the "country club" in R&D, I was told time and time again how important this function was to the success of our organization. And back in the late 90's early 00's, they were right. They would do their focus groups, run their in home use tests and simulated test markets so Bases could tell us how big of an idea it was. That database had years of benchmarking to accurately tell us what it took to be successful. And if we didn't spend enough on the "marketing" budget the model told us we should, it wouldn't succeed.
In addition, I had the pleasure of sitting in dark rooms with bowl after bowl of M&M's listening to a moderator talk to 24 consumers so we could leverage their expertise in neutrally discussing new ideas in a systematic format with a group of 6 strangers who weren't influencing each other. And then we would sit together and discuss what we learned getting a report that was the letter of the law. I remember distinctly one time sulking in a corner as I listened to this very key discussion around a new idea and why it was a bad one. In fact, I was labelled as sour grapes for sort of calling bullshit on the whole ordeal.(I didn't get to go for a while).
But my favorite memory of my interactions with CPG marketing came in 2006 when we started looking into a new idea of using social media data to explore sustainability trends. In that study there was a trailing insight about water. It just kept popping up again and again. It seemed that water was becoming an important topic even though it wasn't being discussed. When presented with this idea, green was green and it wasn't blue because the demographic didn't care about that. We know our consumers and that is not what they care about. They fit into this group who is 14% of our main focus target and if they are not part of these two groups...blah blah blah blah blah (bring sing songy blah blahs to bear here).
You know what happened 18 months later...blue was the new green. It was as if this large community of people might have the right idea about things. They might be exhibiting coffee talk behavior amongst themselves with (no big whoop), and there might be something to it. But the internet is only run by young people and it will never be a viable means of doing things.
Does this picture sound familiar? My question is this...how many of you have sat on the other end of a crisis that started on the web and not in the news? Is that happening to you more often? Are the issues going more viral? Have you witnessed a blunder on the market by a company and are you thinking to yourself that thank god that wasn't me and my brand?
My more important question is do you have a plan if it is you? Do you have the methods to handle that particular situation or isn't it a concern for your company because you know the demographic you focus on? The reality is this. As consumers the influence general traffic has on our lives is increasing and while we go to work each day to follow the corporate mantra and color between the lines we are told by leadership, as consumers we need clearly think for ourselves. We are influenced by our peers, by our friends and most importantly by strangers who are talking. When you feel something do you find data that sounds the same and go holy shit I have that? Well, this voice is getting louder and it is getting more powerful.
The problem for most marketers I believe is that think the ghost from family circus NOT ME is going to be around when you need him during a corporate crisis is folly we can't afford to believe in. All your methods, while clearly still important, are becoming more outdated by the second. And as the voice of the customer gets louder on the web, the less control you have in your brand.
Do you have control in your brand? Do you think that by simply pushing marketing content virtually you have control of the message? Facebook likes is a measure of success? Do you even know what a like actually means? How much are they actually spreading the word versus clicking the like button? Do you think that because you talk to a specific consumer target via voice of the customer methods that you are safe for the GIANT voice swelling within the virtual world? Guess what you are not safe anymore and if you are only pushing content to a group you want to reach because they are on a mommy blog, think again.
Back in the day, I once remember doing research on disinfecting wipes (my clorox history) and I found a post talking about this product on a NEO-NAZI website. There it was, a women talking calmly about much she like the product sandwiched between hate posts towards who knows what (true story). This is not the demographic, but if there are enough data points it gets interesting doesn't it?
The point is this...C2B or consumer to business is becoming a way of life. The consumer is now controlling the message, not the companies. We can believe that we are, but the cadence of change is increasing (see my last post link to the walmart whistle blower) Or how about pink slime? You think consumers might have told you in a controlled test lab that cheap beef tastes great littered with that stuff until someone showed them what was in it...boy did that demographic speak up and maybe they weren't even yours.
There is no one size fits all solution to things, but if you are not getting open the concept that the consumer is now part of your business in ways they never were before you are going to lose. As a change agent, I have always been about trust, transparency and collaboration. And to drive change you need to find ways people will own the change not the other way around. Guess what...the sooner you stop treating your consumers as someone there for your to sell to and realize they can sell for you and sell against you more loudly then ever, the sooner you got a shot to get some measure of control.
Or maybe you need to let go and figure out how to sniff what's going on in the ether...