The Problem with Consumer-Generated Media: The Consumer Generates It

(Warning: Long, Passionate Post Ahead)

I adore and deeply respect Nigel Hollis, chief research guru at market-research firm Millward Brown – for he’s smarter than me, and has a lot more experience and gray hair. But I disagree with his view on consumer-generated media, especially in context of the recent Chevy Tahoe viral marketing campaign, which provided Internet users with add-water-and-stir templates to create their own television commercials. (Disclosure: GM is a client of the research company where I work, and I don’t work on GM business.) He says:

The problem with consumer-generated media is just that, the consumer generates the media. They are in control, not you. The example of Chevy Tahoe should give all marketers a pause for thought. If you are not a brand that is universally loved, can you afford to give control to people that may not have your best interests at heart?

(Sound of me sighing….) When have customers and the people ever not been in control of brands? It would seem to me that they always have, at least to a terrific extent. People go around every day passionately communicating to others about which brands are awesome and which ones suck. For example, these very references and links to JetBlue and Delta were not spawned by any blatant attempt by those companies to engage in so-called consumer-generated media; they didn’t consciously afford me control of their brands. Rather, these creations of consumer-generated media are expressions of my deep, personal experiences with the respective brands. It just happened organically – without the brand’s active or conscious participation.

While some marketers think they’re in charge, the reality is:

  1. we all have encounters with brands
  2. our brains process and reflect on those brand encounters
  3. if those brand encounters ignite passions, we often express those experiences in the form of consumer-generated media – sometimes in the form of face to face conversations, telephone discussions, online diaries, letters-to-editors and friends, and elsewhere.

People now have more control to speak out, and more control over brand dispersion, integrity and mutation. There now is a digital trail of raw consumer discussion – expression and evidence of experience – that forever lives on Internet servers, and, most importantly, in the indexes of Google and the like, where active influencers and others stakeholders will discover it. Now – like never before – there is unavoidable evidence that consumers do talk about and control the brand once it’s in their hands. It is increasingly impossible for brand managers to deny this. Or, as Doc Searls says, in the context of consumer-versus-marketer control:

“‘Consumer’ is an industrial-age word, a broadcast-age word. It implies that we are all tied to our chairs, head back, eating ‘content’ and crapping cash”. Now consumers don’t just consume. We spit back. We have our own printing presses.”

So, the issue is not whether to afford control. I think the real issue is: if you’re going to engage in VIRAL MARKETING, where you proactively spark passions and amplify response, marketers would be wise to understand WHAT ignites the passion in the first place. THEN, marketers would be prudent to review Nigel’s otherwise great checklist:

  1. How many people love your brand?
  2. Are they vocal supporters who will come to your defense if things go wrong?
  3. Who are the vocal minority that might seek to undermine your initiative?
  4. How sympathetic is the wider population to their cause/message?
  5. What end-result are you really aiming for?

In GM’s defense, I have no doubt the Chevy brand team reviewed the checklist above – and probably an even more comprehensive one at that. Unlike many paranoid marketers, GM stepped up to the plate and took a risk, fully acknowledging that all experiences with the brand are not rosy, and that there would be some participation from brand detractors. Said Ed Peper, Chevrolet General Manager, on the GM Fastlane Blog:

As we expected, people who are opposed to SUVs for a variety of reasons quickly discovered that they were also welcome to participate. Early on we made the decision that if we were to hold this contest, in which we invite anyone to create an ad, in an open forum, that we would be summarily destroyed in the blogosphere if we censored the ads based on their viewpoint. So, we adopted a position of openness and transparency, and decided that we would welcome the debate. (As an aside, we have been truly disappointed by the number of submissions we had to filter out because of their vulgar content.) I won’t bore you with the details, but the overwhelming majority of the 22,000 submissions thus far have been earnest attempts at creating positive advertisements.

So was this a great idea paired with the wrong brand? To me, the answer is complex. In the end, GM’s ultimate problem was not underestimating the brand detractors who would participate in its marketing program, rather it underestimated the desperate sensationalism of the mass news media AND conservative armchair marketing commentators who just couldn’t fathom GM’s empowering the people to engage, express and amplify their experience.  

And even if the campaign was lame, GM’s acknowledgment of negativity – versus hiding and denying it – scored itself major points on the authenticity and credibility scales, and moved the brand far, far away from the red zone on the critically important BBM (or, so-called Brand Bullshit Meter). It accepted the good with the bad. Consider the brand as a person; would you want a meaningful, long-term relationship with someone who blindly proclaims himself as superior, loved by everyone and capable only of perfection? That’s called arrogance and it prohibits engagement. A brand is not a person, so this not a perfect analogy. But a brand doesn’t need to be human to be arrogant.

To conclude, thank you, Nigel, for your smart reflection and furthering of this debate. As you can see – via my own so-called consumer-generated media – I agree with some of your points, but not all. And I hope and suspect you’ll offer feedback on my feedback. You always offer healthy criticism.

Finally, Nigel, I invite you to collaborate with me, to pick an unsuspecting brand we both adore, and make our own video commercial. Why? To better understand what this is really all about, not just by observation, but by doing. I’ve got a video camera, some decent movie-editing software, some crappy animation software, and an extensive music and sound library. I also have accounts on Revver and YouTube, ready to receive our video uploads. I also have a network of friends throughout the world – as you do – who’d be willing to give it a view, a critique and a pass-along. What do you think?

Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.

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