Opinion piece by Douglas M. Smith

Recently, I sat in a meeting with the Chairman of a well-known entertainment brand, which few would label as being the most advanced company in terms of online marketing.

Being able to present to any major company Chairman is in itself, a clear sign of the shifting corporate priorities towards digital related marketing techniques…

Like everyone else in this industry these days, I talked about prosumers, communities, consumer power and the usual Web 2.0 topics.

I went on to explain how their brand could adopt these principles to create a brave new world for their consumers, one where the consumers are in control, co-creating, dialoguing, engaging in and even directing the marketing process. In essence, practicing the principles of consumer Brand Ownership and Brand Control by using Web 2.0 technologies.

By the time I explained six different ways Web 2.0 can be used to establish trust and loyalty in the brave new world, the Chairman stopped me in mid presentation.

“We get all that. And we buy it all. But what we really want to know is how to do it,” he suddenly stated.

In that short, direct statement, he exposed the problem with the digital industry today; too much talk, not enough action.

It turned out that the client in question already had two consultants prior to us talking about this brave new, consumer-controlled world and how it would revolutionise their business model. But when it was time to explain how to achieve this nirvana, the consultants could only offer up buzzwords; RSS, user generated content, blogs and whatnot.

Sure enough, finding a brand that isn’t experimenting with different Web 2.0 techniques in one way or another is getting to be pretty hard. And yet, how many of these Web 2.0 ‘experimenters’ are consistently allowing their consumers to call the shots?

The real problem is not to implement Web 2.0 style solutions. Anybody can put together a branded community and drive traffic with competitions or set up a blog or two. The trick is to implement Web 2.0 in such a way that it actually has a measurable impact on the bottom-line.

For a start, companies could stop replicating what’s out there, creating their own branded communities on their www.mybrand.com urls, and spend more time engaging the communities that are already out there. All the while, applying the key principles of; transparency and honesty in what you say and do, long-term relationship building (and I mean three years or more, not 18 months), consumer networking and brand referrals (yes, even to your competitors’ brands), and most importantly, facilitating consumers to do what they want to do.

In the past couple of years, Levi’s, to its credit, has been one of the first to undertake this journey, albeit with tentative steps. The Levi’s Antidote programme was essentially a grassroots, pilot marketing initiative designed to reach those “prosumers” which its glossy TV and prints ads were no longer influencing.

Rather than just flog a branded MySpace page, Levi’s Antidote went into 30 different grassroots youth scenes throughout Europe, ranging from alternative music to poetry, photography, street art, urban sports and many others.

The programme then used Levi’s vast retail network and it’s heavily trafficked website to help each of these scenes grow and reach new audiences. Levi’s even funded the better organised scenes to hold small events in their own regions. Outside of the website, branding was kept to a minimum as the programme was about consumers, not Levi’s.

As a result of Antidote, there were some early indications of improving brand consideration scores.  Levi’s Antidote has only run for a year so far, a good two years shy of being able to see any measurable impact on the bottom line.

As the online climate continues to change in favour of increasing consumer power, issues such as consumer brand ownership and consumer brand control, and the integrated Web 2.0 initiatives that enable these, will gain increasing interest and acceptance at the CEO’s table.

The only question remains is whether the marketing departments below them can overcome their addiction to short-term results in favour of long-term gains before the bottom line benefits of giving more control to consumers are seen.

Douglas M. Smith is a Senior Strategic Planner at