Control… That Old Thing

Posted by

Can brands be in control of their message?

About a week after everyone got their hands on the seminal new media book, The Cluetrain Manifesto by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger in 1999 (yes, that’s almost twelve years ago), a new meme starting bursting out of the Intertubes and into the boardrooms of companies (small, medium and large) across the globe. These companies were being put on notice: they were no longer in control of their brands. The war to control the message had been lost. Because of connectivity, the Internet and online publishing, anyone, anywhere could say whatever they wanted about a brand in text, images, audio and video and there wasn’t much a brand could do about it except listen, and – if they were really good – engage and connect.

Was it ever really about control?

In my first business book, Six Pixels of Separation, I made the argument that brands still do control the message. The shift in this world was less about control and more about the volume/loudness of the message in the marketplace. Brands simply could not scream louder than their consumers because the Internet and it’s ability to instantly publish to the world equalized this volume. Brand still controlled their vision, mission and the marketing materials that go along with it, while consumers could now say whatever they wanted to about the brand and mash-up those materials as they saw fit.

What happened to control?

You rarely hear Marketing theorists talk about the brands inability to have control over their message anymore. It seems like even discussing who has control is a topic that is dead on arrival. You see, it doesn’t really matter if a brand opens up anymore. They don’t need customer reviews on their websites, they don’t have to Blog and they certainly don’t have to be active on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. Why? Because consumers don’t need the brand’s platform to publish what they think about them. They don’t even need a third-party platform (like Yelp!) to post their accolades or dissent. Publishing has gone from expensive to cheap to free to ridiculously free in the blink of an eye. Nobody just consumes content anymore online and most people have multiple publishing platforms to post their thoughts in multiple media formats. Not only can brands not control that, if they choose to ignore it what are they really saying about their ability to be customer-centric? We’re at this strange new intersection where the expectation is that every brand has relinquished the control over their messaging and that they’re listening (and hopefully reacting) to this ever-growing chorus of feedback.

Control may well be dead on arrival.

Isn’t that at all interesting to you? It is to me. Control goes away and we don’t even talk about it anymore. Like it never mattered. Like it never happened. Like no one really cares. This is a big deal. This is a game changer. This is changing business (and it continues to do so daily). It amazes me that companies are now forced to answer to their public… in public. That these online channels have become the court of public opinion and that individuals are changing the rules of business each and every day. Let’s not kid ourselves either, the majority of businesses are being forced (kicking and screaming) into this new world (which in and of itself tells us something about the true nature of business).

If we’re this laissez-faire about control disappearing, I’m left wondering what’s next?


  1. Perhaps the non-started began when we decided to call it – control?
    Does Jimmy Buffet control his brand? How about The Green Bay Packers? But Dell can guide every stakeholder through proper digital training. The la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you approach doesn’t work and perhaps never did.
    20 years ago I could complain about your brand to my neighbor. Now I can publish it anywhere I want. And your reputation is what others say when you’re not in the room. The difference, you now have a chance to be in the room. If you want.

  2. Enjoyed reading this Mitch, thanks.
    Brands can still control the message per se, but it’s what happens to that message once it’s put out there that is now more than ever outwith the control of a brand.

  3. I might argue that companies can still control their brands in the same way that I can control my car.
    I can ignore all the rules of the road and drive with reckless abandon, if I so choose. But if I do, the chances of staying in control of my vehicle are pretty slim.
    Similarly, companies can behave recklessly, ignore all the rules — many of them new or still evolving — of consumer engagement and run the risk that their brand will run off the road on them.
    Or they can consistently behave in a manner that better ensures the safeguarding of their brand. If they do, they stand a much better chance of keeping their brand safely between the white lines and their customers on board for the ride.
    But nothing’s a sure thing in this world; even the most responsible and experienced drivers still have accidents.

  4. If this is true, then why do so many (most!) brands still talk internally about controlling the message and still look to traditional marketing vehicles (the brochure, the Web site, the advertisement) as places to focus on, crafting messages with little regard to that other discussion, publication or content you talk about in your post?
    This should be true, but most brands still act as if it isn’t. I think very few pay a high price, in the short term, for ignoring this.
    It makes me feel like the argument for global warming…

  5. As a Cluetrain guy, and it seems that you (Mitch) are now one as well? Who knew?
    It was stated eloquently in the book and in the manifesto. As times change, we must also change. Change scares people. They are afraid. Always. It is human nature.
    Control has always been the sign of bad management. Good management is “Responsible Management.” Good brands come out of good management. Old saying … Fish rot from the head down. Look in the corner office – that will provide the “Clue” to what a company’s brand is all about.
    As a “Responsible Manager,” I have had the privilege of working with some outstanding, creative and dynamic people. I found that the greatest pleasure was to work with people in a collaborative and team effort. Never control. Ever!
    A “Responsible Manager” is effective without the excessive stress experienced by managers who are “Achievement Managers.” They provide feedback to employees by praising their positive performance and providing constructive feedback for negative performance. The basic management philosophy is that people are productive and creative individuals who do not need manipulation or over protection. It is important to resist the idea that people are incompetent or lazy (Identified by self-protected management styles.) Or powerless and trapped (Identified by unconscious management styles.). The Responsible Manager has equal concern for both the staff’s productivity and their needs. The mission of Responsible Management is to operate through employee involvement through delegation, participation and team building. If you achieve that your Brand will thrive and not need to be controlled.
    Control, and what the brand is, and what impact the Internet has on all this is a moot point. People are, and have been, where the brands reside – inside and outside the company, through the channels and all the touch points.

  6. I believe, corporations do have (could if only they knew how to) better control their message in a more efficient way now than before.
    Why, because before the existence of Social Networks, the reactions of the public (anger, frustration, satisfaction or aphaty) were spread the analogue 1 to 1 word-of-mouth communications way. By the time corporations could react to the negative or positive public reaction, it was either too late to reap the benefits of positive feelings, and/or to difficult to readdress the negative ones, since they had by then become part of the social folklore.
    On the other hand, now, corporations can (could if only they knew how to) react, develop an instantly dialogue with their audience, both collectively as well as directly 1 to 1, to benefit from the positive or to tame/clarify the negative.
    Thus, Corporations do have now (could if only they knew how to) more “control” of their message than before. But, that premise is only valid, or applies to corporations that are aware that “The most important business of any business is communication.”

  7. This sounds like brands reputation now depends on the Word of Mouth via Internet. It’s scary to think how vulnerable they are now since customers can say anything they like about any brand in anyway online.

  8. Marketing is still about controlling the message. But the loudest voices are not the only voices. The way you control the message is much different.
    Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best: “Who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you‘re saying.”
    Interesting that he lived before the age of mass media dominance.

  9. The lack of control is what is driving practices like black hat SEO. Gaming the system is a desperate attempt to force a message on people.
    I love this very honest and practical post Mitch.

  10. Kneale, I love your statement: “your reputation is what others say when you’re not in the room. The difference, you now have a chance to be in the room. If you want.”
    I’m constantly amazed when I find people who don’t want to be “in the room”. Whether it’s ignorance, arrogance or (I think in many cases), analysis-paralysis, there are still those who don’t want to join in the game.
    I recently had a potential (underscore potential) client who said: “You’ll never convince me that I can make money by getting on social media. Besides, I’m just a local company. Why would I want to be broadcasting to the world?”
    Once I clarified that I had no interest in convincing anyone of anything, I smiled…nodded…and left that room. On to the next!
    Great post Mitch, and great comments. Kaarina

  11. Hi Mitch
    another great subject!
    I simply believe that the meaning of control has changed.
    I mean, before, in the era of Broadcasting, control was easy and static: it was all about what you were broadcasting through different media.
    Today, in the midst of the Fourth Revolution, control has become dynamic. Interactivity means that broadcasting does not suffice (quite a few people have not understood that still!). Control is dynamic, by continuous, consistent and high quality content generation and dynamic response to the web-sphere. Just we don’t have yet the manual of how to control brand consistently in this new environment. That’ll come eventually.

Comments are closed.