What's your brand's story?

In an era of full disclosure, maybe a bit of back-story is in order for brands to connect with a distrustful and disenfranchised consumer class.

In an era of full disclosure, maybe a bit of back-story is in order for brands to connect with a distrustful and disenfranchised consumer class. But keeping in mind that we're deep into a post-passive era, brands may need to consider how to tell their stories collaboratively—with their audience actively engaged in the unfolding narrative.

Clever companies are encouraging consumers to actively engage with brands by letting them help create products. Take Threadless, which asks users to submit T-shirt designs, then lets its community vote; favorite designs get produced. It knows users will be more engaged with the brand if they are allowed to directly contribute. Mountain Dew, successfully positioned as the soda for the young and active, gets it: It has invited fans to create a new flavor. Even Chiquita is getting in on the trend: It recently ran a contest for fans to create a new sticker for its bananas.

Smart brands know to look to prosumers to rewrite their stories, leaving an activist imprint each time. In fact, a recent survey reported that about eight in 10 consumers in emerging markets (a little more than six in 10 in the U.S.) expect brands to support causes. So when, for example, Kenneth Cole presents forward-thinking messages in its ad campaigns, it is playing to the crowd, so to speak.

Though iconic clothing retailer the Gap has been successful in conveying that it supports an important cause, with its (PRODUCT)RED line, it learned the hard way that even public goodwill won't protect it from the dangers of neglecting consumer input. The company's first mistake was to push out a new visual to replace its iconic logo with little fanfare (and apparently even less consumer collaboration). To add insult to injury, only then, in the face of overwhelming online criticism and disdain for the new logo, did it make an attempt at crowdsourcing—a pretty weak attempt, at that. Gap bigwigs must've ignored all the online case studies of failed rebrandings inspired by the 2009 Tropicana fiasco. The company did, however, admit it should have reached out to its online community in advance of such a drastic change. (As any PR pro would know.)

Hip-hop great and entrepreneurial mastermind Jay-Z knows a thing or two about connecting with consumers, whether it's via Twitter or, as he demonstrated recently, with methods to reach fans in the real world. When he set about marketing “Decoded,” his long-awaited autobiography, Jay chose to put excerpts of his book in referenced places—say there's a passage of the book where Jay is chillin' at the Chateau Marmont in L.A.; that particular passage will be projected at the bottom of the hotel's pool, thus taking viewers to the literal scene of the crime and offering context and an instant cool factor where each of us can share a little piece of his story for ourselves. Jay-Z is a master storyteller and marketer in whatever medium he chooses.

As we look for ways to trust brands again in the wake of BP and Merrill Lynch, perhaps it's time for brands to have a chat with their innermost voices—or their closest consumers—and proudly exclaim who they are, and more importantly, what they stand for.

Marian Salzman is president, North America, Euro RSCG Worldwide PR

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