Magazine article Marketing

Andrew Walmsley on Digital: What's Mine Is Yours

Magazine article Marketing

Andrew Walmsley on Digital: What's Mine Is Yours

Article excerpt

Making the most of a brand means avoiding being overly literal about notions of ownership.

In a web 2.0 world, it's time to 'let go' and 'cede control to consumers'. We've all heard it before, and digital pundits love to repeat it.

Yet, it wasn't a blogger who said this. Nor was it a digital guru or a futurist. It was AG Lafley, then chairman, president and chief executive of Procter & Gamble.

In a game of word association on the topic of P&G, the phrases 'laissez-faire' and 'laid back' are unlikely to score highly. So the words 'cede control' aren't what you expect to hear.

However, it's four years since Lafley gave prominence to this meme, and the issue is still hotly debated; attracting attention from evangelists and reactionaries alike. It seems we're no closer to agreement on whether he was right, so I'm going to look at the arguments, and try to construe what he meant.

Often, people who support this view talk about consumers 'owning' the brand, which has caused a great deal of concern among literalists.

The latter point out that the brand is a set of intellectual properties owned ultimately by shareholders of the company that controls that IP This literal interpretation is unhelpful and misses the point.

The 'ownership' referred to is the existence in consumers' minds of a set of, principally emotional, constructs - beliefs, impressions and associations involving a brand. These constructs give a brand what is often described as 'personality'. Importantly, this is what differentiates a brand from being a commodity - and it's this differentiation that allows it to charge a premium.

The rationalists would argue that there are tangible distinctions that differentiate brands from commodities. This is true but, again, unhelpful; it's what's in peoples' heads that counts.

A brand can have no practical difference to commodities in a market, but its consumers believe it has; while a brand can have real differences, but consumers don't believe they exist.

So the 'ownership' being referred to here is the consumer's possession of a set of beliefs - beliefs that are the essence of 'the brand'. In this sense, the consumer 'owns' the brand.

This has always been the case, but, until recently, consumers couldn't do anything about it. They lacked any means through which to make their thoughts public - on any appreciable scale, at least. As we all know, that's changed now.

Consumers talk incessantly about brands, via forums, blogs and social networks, discussing their experiences, good and bad. …

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