The year is 2007. The era is the Age of Conversation. Having survived several decades of mass media-channelled monologues, brands are at last engaging in two-way dialogue with consumers.

Whether brands like it or not, new media has empowered consumers to share their opinions and influence behaviour unlike ever before.

In this country, freedom of information refers to an individual’s right to access information about their personal affairs, and to request that incorrect or misleading information be amended or removed. Contrast this with the concept of freedom to share information. This is the right that the modern age has bestowed upon consumers the world over. Word of mouth has been amplified to a deafening degree, such that it can be broadcast in real time to everyone who is listening. It is estimated that more than 24 million blogs were launched in 2004.

“Companies used to be able to control the messages fairly easily,” says Chris Perks of AnthemPerks. “Unless the press decided to write an article, the majority of information was controlled by the corporates. That’s not the case any more – it’s much harder to control your image.”

The worst case scenario, but not altogether unrealistic fear, is that consumers may be poised to seize control of brand messages. This anxiety has prompted brands to fight back by themselves, exploiting new communication techniques, and to work much harder to control how they are perceived.

Brands that relinquish control to consumers, or that are overly concerned with what people (think they) want, risk losing their identity and purpose and quickly becoming bland. “People don’t necessarily know what they might want if it doesn’t exist already. You have to be cautious about responding to what people want because if you try to please everyone you could become a brand that stands for nothing. Its better to have a strong proposition that doesn’t appeal to everyone than be an everyday brand that no-one holds in high esteem,” cautions Perks.

Bottoms up

The Open Source Movement is the tag that has been given to communities of like-minded and collaborative consumers – individuals who share a passion for a certain element of modern culture, such as a particular brand.

The web browser Firefox, created by a community called Mozilla, and the renegade music file-sharing site Napster, are two well-known examples of the Open Source Movement. Wikipedia is another. Its 1.3 million articles are written and maintained in eight languages by individuals who are dispersed around the world.

These influential Open Source communities present an exciting opportunity for marketers, though they do require an appreciation of the Open Source values of transparency, immediacy, involvement, conversation and authenticity.

A steadily growing list of brands are harnessing Open Source values by giving consumers access to elements of their brand – such as by inviting them to involve themselves in the product, packaging and promotion.

For example, customised M&Ms (in a choice of 22 colours) can be ordered online in the United States, complete with a personalised message. NikeiD enables consumers in Europe and America to design their own shoes and apparel, either by starting with a blank canvass or with a layer of Nike inspiration.

LEGO established LEGO Factory in the belief that its community wanted to design, share and buy customised LEGO models. It was right: LEGO received 140,000 designs in its first year. BrickJournal goes one step further. It is a quarterly magazine that was created by a LEGO aficionado as the ‘unofficial LEGO builder’s guide’ for the ‘AFOL’ (Adult Fans of LEGO) community. It provides content about personalities within the community, models and creations that have been built from LEGO, places and events where community members meet, and articles about aspects of the LEGO hobby.

The veteran tobacco brand Camel is experimenting with Open Source campaigns. One such campaign is designed to allow Camel’s current consumers to create a cultural sub-brand through product trials, and to ultimately produce tobacco blends that are distinct from the everyday Camel brand. Another, invited artists from all over the United States to create free artistic interpretations of the Camel brand. The best designs are being used on limited edition ‘art packs’.

“Participation, is what Open Source marketing is about. Getting consumers involved in developing the product, naming the product, and even designing the packs,” explains Tara Power of brand agency Passport DSN.

“As we move away from mass marketing and even emotional-based marketing, brands like Camel, Coke and Nike are allowing consumers to customise their experience through participation. Consumers are demanding this – they simply won’t look at brands that aren’t relevant to their cultural landscape.”

According to Power, brands that are considering Open Source campaigns need to understand that their consumer group will be strongly divided into those that will participate and those that wont. “However, it still represents the same thing – the voice of the people – and consumers are happy to invest in brands that are evolving with them.”

The truth is out there

While the value of a brand has always been in the promise that it makes, a brand’s values are fast becoming an indicator of its continuing relevance. Contemporary consumers are yearning to for something slightly altruistic – to have a different, and better, relationship with the brands they regard positively and to feel a sense of community.

“I remember as a kid brands making outrageous claims because no one took them to task or held them responsible,” reflects Chris Perks. “What is now important is that you are particularly singular in terms of the way you deal with your brand – that you are clear about what you stand for.”

Branding is supposed to be synonymous with differentiation, yet a common mistake companies fall into is trying to mimic their competitors. “If they become what someone else is, they are living a lie and not being true to themselves. But also, they’ll be sharing the amount of market that’s already attracted to that other competitor, rather than appealing to new potential customers altogether,” argues Lewis Jenkins from Percept Creative Group.

Bonding a brand with consumers requires commitment, flexibility, responsiveness and, importantly, commonalities. It is this quest to find common ground on which to engage with consumers that is driving contemporary brands to develop points of view, as well as personalities. However, brands will need to express themselves spontaneously as impatient consumers will not wait for corporate bureaucrats to censor every message before it is communicated.

“I really agree with the importance of having a point of view if we’re going down the route of creating a dialogue with a consumer. It’s very hard to create culture – but you have to participate in it, and to do that you have to have an opinion. That means you cannot be afraid of being wrong because sometimes being wrong can get you to an exciting place. And that’s how you start to create an exciting future for your brand,” states Tara Power.

This sentiment is echoed by Martin Lindstrom on Branding Strategy Insider ( “Tomorrow’s brands will need to be able to transgress current inhibitions. In many ways, this could be the ultimate test for brands, reflecting organisations’ confidence and coherence, demonstrating brand self-esteem and ownership that unhesitatingly speaks for itself, promotes opinions and shares them in hours, rather than in weeks or months,” he blogs.

Emotional rescue

Having a point of view is important as today’s consumers are both marketing savvy and design literate, which subsequently makes them harder to impress. That, coupled with the seemingly insatiable interest in corporate social responsibility, is also prompting the biggest brands in the world – and many others – to invest in building CSR credibility.

Health is high on the agenda and it is readily clear that many supermarket categories have wellbeing first and foremost in their minds. Campbell’s, for example, which recently engaged Energi Design to update its Sensations soup range, places a strong emphasis on wellbeing, both by highlighting the freshness of the ingredients and also by making health and nutritional information available on its website.

Other brands such as Nestle are actively pursuing corporate social responsibility glory because they know that to survive in this marketplace they have to. The latest innovation for the classic Australian Butter Menthol brand contains Echinacea.

According to Tara Power, RJ Reynolds, which owns the Camel brand, “funds a serious amount of anti-smoking lobbying and cancer research and is also addressing sustainability”.

“The whole idea of Open Source marketing is about listening to what people want. As the consumer sits up and takes more notice of the world he or she lives in, so do the brands that enter their worlds. In order to survive they have to enter into a meaningful dialogue with their consumer,” states Power.