Rachael Sansom, Brand Mandate: Rise of the citizen consumer

The internet is a great leveller, where Joe Bloggs' opinion has become as influential as any expert's

Rachael Sansom, Brand Mandate
Rachael Sansom, Brand Mandate

To quote Bob Dylan: ‘The times they are achangin'. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the growth of the internet. Radio took 50 years to reach an audience of 50 million; the web took only five. In 2006, there were an estimated 2.7 billion searches a month on Google; today
there are more than 30 billion.

No surprise then that client businesses are feeling incredibly uncertain
about what the future holds. One of the most challenging consumer trends emerging from this changing landscape is the rise of the citizen consumer. How brands react to, manage, engage and ultimately capitalise on this phenomenon will fundamentally dictate their future success or failure.

The citizen consumer represents the kind of group activism historically
seen from NGO or pressure groups. However, this time it is the person on the street (or, perhaps more accurately, the person on the web) who is driving the activism. And that activism is not just being used to influence the sociopolitical agenda, but brands' agendas and the success or failure of the products they sell.

The power of citizen consumers in action was seen during the launch of
the BlackBerry Storm in October last year. Stephen Fry, a self-confessed gadget geek, used Twitter to express his views on the new device. In a particularly candid post, he wrote ‘Been playing with the BB Storm. Shockingly bad. I mean embarrassingly awful. Such a disappointment. Rushed out unfinished. What a pity.'

David Pogue, of The New York Times, also joined the debate, giving a damning review of the smartphone. Very quickly, through the power of Twitter, Facebook and blogs, the internet was awash with negative comments, far outpacing the speed with which the BlackBerry PR machine could respond. As Fry said in an interview with the BBC about the episode: ‘The net makes
us all equal in our influence.'

In the same month, Mars abandoned plans to use animal ingredients in its products after more than 6,000 people bombarded the company with phone calls and emails in protest.

Consumers have always been able to influence brand or product performance by voting with their feet. But the rise of the citizen consumer is characterised by the instant power consumers now have to change a strategy, kill a product or, as in the Mars case, reverse a policy decision. As Mars' managing director said: ‘The consumer is our boss.'

As we move through the recession, the citizen consumer will become a key pillar in the overall management of brands and the products they sell.

So what does this mean? Brand PR must be as concerned with the protection of reputations as it is with sales. Unless managing and protecting brand reputation off- and online is carefully
orchestrated, the best of marketing campaigns can - and will - be undone in a wave of tweets and web chatter.

Brand PR must also be fully integrated with other disciplines. Marketing, customer services, consumer and corporate PR all contribute to the overall impression that consumers comment on, make judgements by and reflect to others. Unless a campaign is fully integrated, brand PR will become an island, isolated and weak as other powerful forces sweep around it.

‘Joe Bloggs' is now as much a key influencer as journalists, analysts and stakeholders. In the world of the citizen consumer, Mr Normal has as much power to set the agenda for a brand or
product as traditional key influencers.

Ultimately, the brands that harness the power of this advocate to their advantage
will be most likely to succeed in whatever brave new world awaits after this recession.

Views in brief

If your agency was a food or drink brand, which would it be?
Gü - because Brand Mandate is new to the market, but offers a wide range
of disciplines and high-quality, innovative products that are challenging and
extending the category.

Which brand has best caught the public mood in its communications
over the past six months?
Sainsbury's ‘Feed your family for a fiver' campaign
has most captured the zeitgeist, while delivering business performance.

Rachael Sansom is managing director of
Brand Mandate

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