The role of consumers and their attitudes are changing the business landscape drastically. 21st century brands must be prepared for the era of high consumer engagement.
In the past, customers wishing to engage with a brand had limited options. They could send an email or place a call to the brand’s customer service department, or perhaps apply for a job there, but beyond that there were few other options to engage or “go behind the scenes”.
Today, the advent of social networks and brands’ enthusiasm to engage with customers through these channels has meant that anyone and everyone can have a platform and contact is free, easy and instantaneous. This has allowed people to interact with brands as never before, providing feedback and sometimes even shaping brands’ directions.
To describe this phenomenon, American futurist Alvin Toffler coined the term ‘prosumer’ in his 1980 book The Third Wave. A prosumer is a person who both consumes and produces a product. In some cases, the word ‘produce’ is literal; on YouTube, for example, the user also produces the content which is the product that people come to see.
However, the word ‘produce’ can be interpreted in a slightly less literal way. While consumers do not physically manufacture a product themselves, their input can still play a key role in its creation and promotion. For example, in the realm of social media, consumers can ‘Like’ or ‘Comment’ in the public sphere and thereby directly interact with the brand. Influencers can create immense value for brands by endorsing their product or service, creating fresh opportunities and an authentic route to market.
But the prosumer can also use these platforms to protest against a brand’s actions. Complaining was once an arduous process involving phone calls and endless forms to fill out, but is now fast and simple with infinitely wider reach. Brands once might have felt they could ignore an individual’s letters without worry; now, an unanswered tweet has the potential to snowball into an avalanche and cause lasting damage to unprepared brands. This effect can also be felt in B2B sectors, as business clients are increasingly displaying the same attitudes; favouring differentiated brands and those that allow for direct interaction.
This is just as true for brands outside of the commercial sphere. In the political and civic fields, new technologies have enabled citizens to engage with governments and institutions to an unprecedented extent. This arguably began with the sharing of information during the Arab Spring and has since evolved to encompass virtual messaging, WikiLeaks and grassroots movements, impacting political situations all over the world, from Donald Trump’s election to the Catalan independence movement. In this sense, the everyday person is no longer voiceless or passive. They have the power to demand, instigate and propagate change.
Brands, therefore, be they companies, institutions or governments, have moved from being “black boxes” to being “glass boxes”. Transparency and honesty are demanded and the reaction to those who fail can be merciless. The most successful brands are able to harness the benefits of the new prosumers and use social channels to make customers an important part of their value creation. Those that are unable to adjust accordingly are in serious danger of being disrupted.
CHECKLIST: BRANDS BUILT FOR PROSUMERS
• Be authentic. Contemporary consumers are very good at unearthing mismatches between promise and delivery.
• Be open-minded to feedback: use prosumers to your advantage to road-test products
• Communicate clearly and honestly with consumers.
• Remember that even if you are not consumer-facing, these forces of change are filtering through supply chains to affect B2B and B2G businesses.
• Consider your brand purpose: Positive social impact and company culture will be rewarded by consumers seeking brands with purpose.
Saffron's book 'Disruptive Branding: How to get ahead in times of change' is released on April 3rd 2019.
Please feel free to get in touch to discuss your brand.