Gini Dietrich

Your Customers Control Your Brand

By: Gini Dietrich | June 23, 2014 | 

Your Customers Control Your BrandBy Gini Dietrich

Steve McKee, the founder of McKee Wallwork Cleveland, BusinessWeek columnist, and author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding,” says your customers—not you—control your company’s brand.

Think about that for a second.

In the past, companies spent millions of dollars and multiple years on fancy advertising and huge global PR campaigns to tell their customers and prospective customers what they want them to think about the brand.

If someone was happy, they wouldn’t tell anyone.

If they were unhappy, they’d tell five to 10 people, and maybe  write a nasty letter to the CEO – a letter that almost always went unanswered.

In fact, Content, Trust, and the Power of Influence, the blog post Andy Crestodina wrote last week, talks about negative word-of-mouth…or the phenomenon that if an influencer is unhappy with you, he or she may buy again from you, but their followers never will.

Now, with the speed of the web and the immediacy of social media, customers tell not just a handful of people, but thousands if they’re happy or unhappy about doing business with you.

That’s good and bad.

Let’s Start with the Good

Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Foursquare are changing the way business happens, whether you’re a company leader or a consumer.

Let’s say you have a retail location and one of your brand loyalists, “checks in” on Facebook Places or Foursquare (both location-based tools that link to a person’s online network of family and friends). That person’s 500 friends see them check in and, having never heard of you, wonder why their friend is there, and probably ask about your store.

Suddenly you have new customers because one loyal customer checked in – they told their friends…and their friends told their friends who told their friends who told their friends.

No Brick and Mortar?

But what if your your organization doesn’t have a retail location? What if you build your business through word-of-mouth and referrals, and not from foot traffic or in-store sales?

It’s a little more difficult to use the social networks to build awareness in this case, because people can’t ‘check in’ when they visit.

Customers can, however, tell their friends and family about you through the same social networks…and you can encourage it.

Perhaps you’re at a trade show and you want people to tweet about the new product they just saw in your booth. Encourage them to tweet about it, using your Twitter handle or a hashtag that defines your business.

It’s very valuable when customers or clients tell your story for you.

They sing your praises, they become your advocates, and they even stick up for you when you make a mistake. 

Now, the Bad

In early 2009, Skittles took a risk and prominently displayed its social networks on the home page.

Instead of the usual “me, me, me” copy on the brand’s home page, it featured their corporate Twitter stream, their YouTube and Flickr channels, and their Facebook fan page.

Today that seems like no big deal, but at the time it was very innovative and interesting. After all, they were pretty much handing the keys to their home page over to customers, allowing them to say whatever they wanted.

The first day they had so many hits to their home page it took down Twitter and its servers. And then, just two days after its launch, the marketing team had to rethink its strategy when users deluged the site with inane and profanity-riddled tweets. It became a game, in fact, to see how ridiculous a user could be with their social posts, and still end up on the Skittles home page.

It was risky and it failed, succeeding only in educating the world the importance of controlling brand images.

Today, the Skittles site still prominently displays their social networks and provides updates on what is being said about the brand online, but it does so in a way that supports the brand positioning.

Your Customers Control Your Brand

While you can help motivate your customers to talk about you in a good way, ultimately they are the ones who control the message.

Your canned messages are no longer enough.

Yes, the things you, your executive team, your sales team, and your employees are saying about the brand should be consistent.

But you also have to be open to listening to how your customers describe your organization, your products, or your services.

If they perceive it differently than you do, it’s time to rethink your messaging and your brand positioning.

A highly modified version of this first ran in my bi-weekly Inc. column.

Image credit: Mars Dorian

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Yep, this is very true. I have been fascinated while watching my daughter prepare for her freshman year in college, creating a great deal of her schedule around instructors who rated highly on “Rate My Professor” (and making pre-decisions about sororities based on similar online sites). I know universities are not necessarily the kind of “brand” you refer to directly in this post, but the same thing applies. These institutions can have the glossiest fanciest promo materials in the world but at the student to student level, information is being disseminated based on specific in-class experiences, and savvy (or at least connected…) students are making their decisions based on that.

  • I think customers have always controlled brands in the long term. But short term the fad effect can give a brand a false sense of power and complacency. Brands can control the media message with money spent. But they can’t control the feeling customers have of their products, services, and experiences. And people are very quick to pipe up and say ‘it sucks’ if it does and they feel their money wasn’t well spent.

    But now brands can hear what is said in private since social is a small sample batch. My guess is for every 1 mention publicly on social a brand is mentioned 50 times in private. At least.

  • Howie Goldfarb One of the things we usually talk about when I do my three hour workshops is you never really had control…you just had the perception of control. Now, to your point, you can hear what people have always said about you in private.

  • biggreenpen Whoa. That’s a great case study about how you should be thinking about your reputation online. In fact, that’s a great guest blog post topic…

  • ginidietrich biggreenpen True! Let me put my thinking cap on about that. Honestly, I find myself being the naysayer as in “you can’t always trust what you read online” but my nieces who have already been in college (specifically the same one my daughter is going to) tend to back up what is said online in many of the cases. Maybe there’s something to it after all.

  • biggreenpen Think about it from your own perspective. Do you read reviews before you buy books or go to a restaurant?

  • ginidietrich biggreenpen good point – definitely!

  • Oh Skittles! I love their social and web experience. They’ve definitely figured out a way to keep the experience social, but without daring people to get risque.

  • It is obvious customers control the brand with their dollars and how they choose to spend them. 

    However, I think the rise of digital, especially social media, gives them control in other ways. Social is used to force customer service, and has even been used to force logo changes (or change the logo back), such as in the case of Gap.

    It is interesting (and sometimes infuriating or perplexing) to watch.

  • I had an interesting thought about this the other day, Gini. The conversation was about charismatic business leaders – people like Zuckerberg, Jobs, Branson and Benioff. I noted that each of them worked on creating news so that the people created the image for the company, rather than spending millions letting their ad department do it.

    Perhaps it is the old adage “Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department”. Or it is PR which creates the most powerful brands, not marketing. What do you think?

  • PeterJ42 I’m drawing a blank on some of the specifics (and I listened on audio so I can’t go back and cross reference) but there was a good deal of discussion in Walter Isaacson’s (sp?) book about Steve Jobs and his involvement in the brand’s images and advertising (case in point: “Think Different”) so I am not sure I would completely agree that Jobs left the image work to others — he seemed to micromanage some things that weren’t in his expertise. But in general I think you ask an interesting question!

  • biggreenpen PeterJ42 Jobs was intimately, passionately involved in creating every message for his company – that’s my point. He made everything news himself rather than letting his marketing people spend fortunes on media. If you look at the ad spend on Think Different v Microsoft Ad spend that year you’ll see exactly what I mean – he made the ad to get the news coverage, not to repeat ad infinitum to bore us into purchase.

  • Howie Goldfarb Really nicely said Howie. It’s one of the reasons I place a high value on understanding and learning from designers / UX, because they have a clear line to what it’s like when someone actually interacts with the web. Ideally you want those experiences/interactions to be elegant and inspirational, but at the very least they have to be useful / easy to have.

  • “…each of them worked on creating news so that the people created the image for the company, rather than spending millions letting their ad department do it.” – I LOVE that quote, PeterJ42!! And so true. Easier when you have huge amounts of $$ behind you, but still. RedBull is a fantastic example of this. I mean, what are they? A drink that makes people energetic. Who needs energy? Presumably old, tired people. LOL Or, young tired people – students studying, or going to work on a Saturday morning after a night out. In NO WAY SHAPE OR FORM does RedBull reflect any of those personas. In fact,  the personas I think about when I think “RedBull” are people who you would THINK, wouldn’t even need the product! High energy, fit, sporty, risk taking types. But, it works for them, because their consumers made it so.

  • That last paragraph is really so key and so ignored, especially this:  “If they perceive it differently than you do, it’s time to rethink your messaging and your brand positioning”

    Finding that balancing point might be one of the most difficult challenges businesses today face.

  • PeterJ42 biggreenpen gotcha! thx for the clarification!

  • GosiaAntkowski

    Gini – great post! I’m currently reading Groundswell by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff for a course I’m taking, and one of the key messages in the book is exactly what you have shared here. The consumer own the brand. While I think many brands are realizing this and changing their mindset on how they do marketing/PR, others seem to still think they are in the driver’s seat. One of the key things that has also arisen from this is a deeper need to focus on customer service. Smart companies are training even the lowliest of employees, who may see his/her job as menial. Even a small mistake on their part can have big repercussions via social media.

  • Of course, once brands realize this – they need to start monitoring social channels to find the who/what/where/when/why of consumers that ARE impacting the brand reputation. The brands can’t control it, but they can at least help guide the message on a peer-to-peer basis or demonstrate timely and contextually relevant customer service.

    Find the advocates – applaud them. Find the detractors – appease them and try to turn them into advocates.

  • GosiaBourne Such a good book! I’d forgotten they talk about this idea in there. My favorite part of that book was the ladder they show that accounts for how people behave online. It’s really interesting to consider only a very small fraction of us create…most everyone else consumes.

  • dbvickery Amen. I couldn’t have said it any better.

  • ginidietrich GosiaBourne Speaking of which…I am SOOO far behind in my Yelp and TripAdvisor reviews (and Amazon…and Best Buy…). I rely on them so much that I keep saying I need to do my part, but it takes time to come up with a thoughtful, detailed review!

  • dbvickery I’m the same on Goodreads. I want to leave reviews there … and yet.

  • LauraPetrolino It’s really hard for business leaders to hear their baby is ugly (trust me, I know). But we have to set our emotions aside and really listen to what our customers are telling us.

  • PeterJ42 As a communications professional, I’d love to say it’s PR that creates the most powerful brands. From experience, I can tell you that once I took a more active role in promoting my own company, we saw the dividends. I imagine it’s the same for these other organizations. But, with the exception of only one you’ve mentioned, they’re all entrepreneurs. It’s a lot easier for someone who owns the company to build the image for the company. If you’re a hired gun, not so much.

  • ClayMorgan The Gap logo fiasco makes me laugh. Less then one percent of their customers were involved in that – less than one percent. That means 99 percent had no idea the logo changed and then changed back…and 99 percent didn’t care. So I would add a postscript to this blog post and that is, if you have a strategic reason for making a change (the logo, for instance), stay the course, even if there is a very vocal minority.

  • Eleanor Pierce It was a fun train wreck to watch, back in the day!

  • belllindsay Didn’t I respond to your comment!? I swore I did. Clearly I don’t like you. You’re fired.

  • ginidietrich some authors are just so GOOD about reminding you to review their books on Goodreads, you know? 😉

  • These are interesting times for brands, some rise to the challenge, some don´t. Maybe we will see a switch (for the better) in the customer care services. The “caring” is not happening as it should and maybe, with social media in line, C-suite understand how important “The Customer” is. Yes, it means brands would have to make investments in training people, in buying monitoring tools, in monitoring and measuring, but hey, nobody said is going to be easy.

  • ginidietrich Rude.

  • ginidietrich PeterJ42 So would you say the most important thing is to get the boss behind it? Or is it easier to build a personal brand round an entrepreneurial personality than a corporate one?

  • corinamanea And now we have the big decision out of Europe to allow people to remove things from the web. How does that affect customer service and the way people see organizations?

  • ginidietrich These days people do not have much trust in institutions, governments or organizations. Now, adding this to what is already going on, I think it will generate more distrust (if that´s possible). As for customer service, they will have to make a greater effort to offer a genuine service/assistance, to keep or gain customers´ trust. And it´s not going to be easy.

  • corinamanea ginidietrich You both might find this an interesting read:
    I got a chance to talk with him the other day (he’s an ex-agency guy turned VC) and part of his point in that post and in general is that a brand’s DNA matter…I think there’s an argument to be made that customers control not just the way a brand is talked about, but the actual core products and services. This is not something the Skittles and Applebees of the world are necessarily ready to acknowledge or act on, although large brands have always had gimmicks like “vote on these 3 pre-selected products we want you to buy.”
    In a way, that’s the heart of the collaborative economy: why should we tell people what they want when we can democratize the process and learn from them? (And it’s not democratized in most verticals right now, no matter what any of the large brands claim).

  • ginidietrich dbvickery Worth saying – completely agree w/you Brian but this takes guts, vision, and humility…and the willingness to forego short term dollars for medium and long term sustainability. Of course you either take the hit now or you take it later… the bigger they are the harder they fall.

  • JoeCardillo ginidietrich Great article Joe, thank you.

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  • Ambercarl

    I have to do a
    report for our school magazine on this topic, and your blog has been
    beneficial. Can you please add more reference to this point, thanks

    . Please keep sharing