Consumers Control The Brand (And Other New Media Myths)

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Marketers don’t control their brand… the consumer does.

It’s been the battle cry of Social Media enthusiasts since The Cluetrain Manifesto was first published over a decade ago. If “markets are conversations,” as The Cluetrain Manifesto says, then we can’t be so presumptuous as to assume that the marketers can both control or lead the conversation, can we? It’s actually a myth to think that consumers now control the brand, simply because those consumers can say (and publish) whatever they want and feel about a brand in the online channels. In the past few weeks, I’ve come across a handful of Blogs that are regurgitating this myth about consumers and control. As someone who spends the majority of my time in the boardrooms of some of the biggest brands in the world, please trust me when I tell you that the marketers are firmly in control of the brand.

What? The brands now control the brand message?

Not exactly. The brands control the brand. The consumers can (somewhat) influence the brand message. Brands still choose their products and services, they decide on the pricing, placement and promotion of the brand. They work (either internally or with an advertising agency) to set the tone, feeling and emotions that they want the brand to capture in the zeitgeist of the world. I’d even argue that they’re getting increasingly smarter when it comes to Social Media and are doing a fairly good job of connecting and engaging in many of the online and mobile channels to give their brands a more human voice and offer consumers an opportunity to have some kind of real interaction between real human beings. When everything goes the way it was planned, it is poetry in motion. When it goes awry, it can get pretty ugly. Either way, the company still decides the brand’s path. The are firmly in control.

What doesn’t kill us, only makes us stronger.

Look at the many Social Media mishaps that have happened in the past decade. We can all rattle off instances like United breaks guitars, Dell hell, the BP oil spill (and yes, the list goes on and on). Were consumers really, ever in control of the brand at any point or were they merely able to communicate how they feel? In looking back, did any of those instances make us – as a general mass community – feel like we had any true control over a brand? What consumers did have is the platform to express their feelings – in text, images, audio and video… and in real time. Consumers now have a very vocal voice. Did the brands listen? Yes. They’re listening like they never have before, because the world is watching to see if they are listening. Did it fundamentally change the brand and what it stands for? Hardly. It changed the way the brand communicates. It may have changed the way the brand deals and interacts with consumers, but the brands of United, Dell and BP are still – at their core – the same. They may be better at communicating and may have changed a lot of their internal processes, but they have not ceded control of the brand over to consumers.

Brick by brick.

Lego is known for saying that, “we own the logo, but our consumer’s own the brand.” Without being cynical, I’d like to know the last time Lego (or any other company) told their Chief Marketing Officer that they no longer report into the CEO, but that they now report into the consumers? In a world where consumers truly own the brand, we would see a lot more than customer service replies delivered via Twitter or the use of a Blog to crowdsource new and innovative ideas (which – when done – never offers ownership or partnership of those ideas over to the consumer… so much for control).

Welcome to the brand illusion.

Is consumer control simply an illusion? It may well be. Yes, brands are listening like never before (just ask the folks at Gap or Netflix about this). Yes, brands are interacting with consumers like never before (just ask the folks at Dell or United about this). Yes, consumers can now hear what the products and services are actually like by either asking their peers or looking for consumer reviews online. But, all of this has been sprung on brands. For the most part, the majority of brands have been dragged into the realities of social media kicking and screaming. Most of them aren’t scaled for it properly and even fewer have shifted Social Media from a vertical within their marketing and communications department to a horizontal strategy that drives through the organization. Until that happens, the true control of the brand lies in the same place it always has… with the brand.

Let’s stop confusing listening and interacting with control.

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for The Huffington Post called, Media Hacker. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:


  1. I think the consumer has alot more control than you are giving credit here. Why do brands fail? It isn’t just because of poor marketing- could’ve been a poor product, a poor service, poor internal communication… there are many factors. The more the consumer psychographics are considered in the marketing process the better off the marketing strategy. And the psychographics come from studying many aspects of this consumer, including their conversations.

  2. Maybe the consumer isn’t always right, but he/she is always giving ideas that the big marketing boys might overlook.

  3. I think it all depends how you define a Brand.
    I for one like the way Seth Godin define a Brand: ”A Brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”.
    If you look at BP, I really don’t think that BP was in control of the Brand during the BP oil spill and if you look at the value that consumers place on the opinions of friends, family and even total strangers I think that consumers play an ever increasing part in defining the Brand.
    Back in 1995 before the Internet, Shell had an old oil platform “Brent Spar” that they planed to decommission and lower into the Atlantic. Greenpeace organized a worldwide consumer boycott that proved so successful that Shell decided to decommission the old oil platform in a more environmentally friendly fashion. I think that this consumer boycott changed Shell fundamentally and also changed how Shell acted. After this consumer boycott Shell really went green and tried to Brand them self as a green company working to secure sustainable energy like e.g. solar power.

  4. No doubt that they provide insights like those, but they do not control the brand. Consumers do control two aspects: 1. Whether they buy the brand. 2. Whether they tell people about it. All of that comes after the brand has been created, etc…

  5. Mitch:
    I agree with Thomas that it depends on how you define a brand. I also agree with you that it’s tough to say that the customer “controls” the brand (even though I’ve been one of those people saying that companies don’t have as much control over their brands as they used to).
    That said, I think that consumers do have more control to influence a brand, the perception of that brand and the brand’s actions. Sure, they may not be able to set the direction and goals of a brand, but they can sure sway the success of those goals.
    I look at a company like JetBlue that was a great brand before stranding people on the tarmac for hours. Since then, they’ve been fighting to build back that positive postition that they had in the heads of many. Is that the customer controlling the brand? Maybe not, but if they effect the perception of that brand, isn’t that one element of control?
    You raise and interesting point though and it’s a refreshing change of focus in comparision to the people who have been saying, “branding doesn’t matter because the consumer controls your brand.”

  6. This is a fascinating conversation, and I think a good example of why absolute statements are so often unhelpful. (Note I didn’t say always unhelpful :->.)
    So no, consumers don’t control the brand. (It’s not like we’re going to have a mass Hangout and at the end of it declare that Safeway’s brand is now “door-to-door taxi service with a smile”.) But we now talk about our experiences with products and services in a very public, searchable, networked way. And those conversations can now offer a counterweight to the power of marketing communications to shape our perceptions.
    That boils down to a shift in the balance, not absolute dominance for one side or another. Customers (disgruntled, satisfied, fanatical or underwhelmed) have a stronger voice than before; marketing efforts perhaps a weaker but still crucial one. And in a happy, ideal world, the loudest voice of all would go to the actual experience of using the damn thing.
    So maybe a helpful way to look at the brand today is as a collaboration between the brand’s originator (e.g. a company, a government, a non-profit, an individual) and the folks we used to call the audience. And “brand” is actually the degree to which your customers (current and potential) believe you keep the promise your brand makes.

  7. “Don’t confuse listening and interacting with control” – really important distinction and well said. I think the phrase “consumers control the brand” became a catch phrase and in the process, it became easy to make decisions (or not make decisions) by pretending/hoping that consumers held all the cards. Personally, I’d argue that consumers hold strong influence (a more active state than merely listening or contributing) but the smart brands know when and how to action this influence when needed. Great article….will follow the comments for the rest of the day 🙂

  8. I think these are all great examples of how consumers have interacted with brands. Some of them have worked to shift communications or enhance product offerings, but in none of these instances are consumers actually in control of the brand… are they?

  9. I agree with you 100% that consumers now have more channels to create enough volume that their feelings could (but not always) influence a brand. My challenge is that influence is not control. Control is the one who ultimately decides on what goes to market (at least by my definition).

  10. I agree with this, Rob. My only challenge is on the collaboration… I still think it’s very one-sided. I’ve sene countless great and innovative ideas for a brand that are consumer driven (and yes, in the social spaces as well) that the brand never implements and nothing changes (sometimes… they even have growth without those ideas being implemented). That, really, was my core message. Let’s not confuse “control” with “volume of voice.”

  11. They are very influential. They always have been. They decide if they buy brand and talk about the brand. The only difference now is that voice has both a volume and a publishing platform behind it.

  12. Great distinction and examples. Imagine the social media potential of the (1980s) “New Coke” stunt…

  13. If control is (by your definition) the one who ultimately decides on what goes to market, then yes Shell were in control. However I would argue that the control in this instance was heavily influenced by the – not so subtle wake up call that the consumers send Shell.
    At least in Europe this lead to a whole new line of communication and product offering, suddenly Shell was gunning at being a green company heavily involved in research into sustainable energy and cleaner fuels.
    What the consumer said to Shell was something like: It’s my way or the highway. Yes Shell made the decision, but it really was a non-decision, as they had no real choice.

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