Interview: Jonathan Steuer

The Iconoculture VP and consumer strategist for technology and consumer research examines consumer trends across various demographics and psychographics.

The Iconoculture VP and consumer strategist for technology and consumer research examines consumer trends across various demographics and psychographics.

He talked to about how online tools make that process richer, how companies are ceding some control over their messaging, and how people are identifying themselves based on the products they buy.

Q: How would you describe what Iconoculture does?
A: We provide an advisory service focused on consumer behavior and motivations across categories, demographics, and ethnic groups. We're focused around consumer values and motivators, as key to identifying not only what is motivating current consumer actions, but [showing] what trends are popping up in various spaces and what macro trends are affecting the entire culture.

How has consumer-generated content and the technologies introduced since the nascent days of the internet helped firms and companies understand about consumer behavior?
A: The Internet is a fantastic "up" channel. It's not designed for only one-to-many broadcast content; it's designed for peer-to-peer interaction of various kinds. That enabling technology drove the open-source culture and gave it a place to grow. The technology opens up the door, but it doesn't do the job for you. It opened up an entire generation, as well as turning other generations, on to the idea that they're in control – that they have a voice and there is a way for them to express themselves, whether that's comments on someone's blog, sending customer service e-mails to someone, or creating a feature-length machima film [a movie created using video games] with 27 other people online.

We've identified a microtrend about this called mash creativity. It begins with the Internet as an enabling technology; then it extends to this consumer fascination with self-expression, collaboration, and this whole "rise of interactivity" that the Internet has fostered. That obviously has huge repercussions for both media product developments and marketing for any kind of product.

Q: There's a lot of talk, especially among tech and consumer companies, about enlisting consumers in their marketing endeavors. Is that a trend – that consumers want to have a say what a brand stands for?
A: Consumers don't necessarily need to be involved in creating the marketing messages. But if they don't feel directly involved with the brand that marketers want them to be loyal to, they'll go somewhere else. Another macro trend we've been tracking is called fingerprinting. It's about defining your identity in a consumer society by the things you buy, the things you do, and the music you listen to. It's the whole sort of "What's on your Powerbook" campaign. Consumers that have grown up in this open-space world are not going to let brands into their personal portfolio unless [brands] have created space for them. These communication tools have opened [opportunities] up for you to participate in all the things you used to watch as a spectator. Whether people feel that way about super-commodity products like toilet paper or gasoline, I'm not sure. I don't think people naturally feel that need. But if you, as a marketer, can build that in a participatory way, it buys you into this connection with the user-generated world.

Q: So it's more about making the brand part of their lives more than working with them to create ads?
Personalized marketing messages? I don't know if that works. [But you can] put out pieces of your brand and let consumers play with it as part of the product itself. Whether it's creating your own custom package because we sent you a bunch of stickers and a white-labeled can of soda… You can make your own version of it. There's a Web site called Zazzle [that's] for creating custom products. They have built into their customized product architecture that lets you create T-shirts or mugs with either your own creative content or [corporate]-branded content. For instance, you can make your T-shirt with a Disney character on it. You can let people create a custom T-shirt with your company's brand on it. It's a different level of participation with company schwag than just sending them a keychain in the mail.

Q: On the opposite side of communications, how important is it for companies to track what's being said online in chat rooms and comments?
There's a tremendous opportunity for companies to learn by listening to consumers, who will be drawn to the brands who pay attention to their customer service and [take] the proactive stance – to go out to ePinions to listen to what the people have to say, There's a ton of free information out there that I think that, frighteningly, brands are taking zero advantage of. Just having an ear to the ground and knowing what people are saying about the stuff you actually make [is a huge opportunity]. Having this megaphone to trumpet failures of a company's marketing or failures of a product is a power that consumers are taking back through the Internet. It's always surprising to me, the number of companies that stick their fingers in their ears and don't listen. On the other hand, if your 30-second ad is the third-most viewed video on, it means you're doing something right and you should keep doing what you're doing.

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