Best of 2011: Britt Bulla on Crowdsourcing a Brand: Feed, Don't Fear, the Crowd

November 11, 2011, 8:45 AM EST

Illustration: Hal Lee for BizBash

There has been a lot of talk about companies losing control of their brands—of being unable to control as they once did what their brand stands for, of how their brand is perceived, of the press and the conversation about the brand in the world. We’ve heard that the ubiquity of information, the power and authority of social networks, and their potential for fact-finding and disseminating information has tipped control over brand perception to the consumer.

Yes, consumers have more information than ever at their fingertips. Search engines and personal networks often filter out what’s relevant and trusted. Chances are a search engine like Google or your own personal network on Facebook is probably your first stop when searching for information on a brand, company, or product—not the Web site of the brand itself. But it’s the quality, content, and nature of the conversation that’s going on about a brand in those networks that drives what a brand is perceived as and stands for.

Great examples are out there of content that helps other consumers shape perceptions of a brand one way or another. Content like this travels so quickly, is shared so widely, and has the power to form perception like it does because it’s all based on true experience.

Netflix found out the hard way. It grew grassroots brand ambassadors that adored the company for its ease of use, democratic approach to entertainment, efficiency, and low-cost model. When the company abruptly changed course and not only raised prices but also proposed spinning off the DVD portion of its business, customers revolted. The moment Netflix started to behave in a way that ran counter to what it stood for—to what consumers found special about it—it was called out for its actions.

Netflix listened to their loyal base and reverted to the old model, albeit with the price increase. This example demonstrates the power of experience in driving what customers are saying about you.

Put another way, it’s what you do, not what you say. Consumers are simply holding brands accountable. They’re amplifying the experience brands are giving them.

Companies still have control of the experience they deliver. And investments in advertising and PR are going to be effective only when they don’t run counter to that amplified experience.

Is your brand set up to succeed? Here are three things to examine:

1. Are you leading with experiences? Unless you’re already going to market with a superior and consistent experience and are confident in your ability to deliver, measure, and manage it, you’re wasting your money.

2. Are you amplifying your experiences? If you’re like most, your organization is not set up to manage the brand in a world where actual experience is amplified faster than paid media. Harnessing the moments created by brands is as important as creating the experience itself. Using social media to tell the world about what you are doing is great, but don’t stop at Facebook and Twitter. Design a platform for thought leadership pieces that delivers your message in an authentic way. And don’t forget about the internal stakeholders; developing resources to let employees know what’s going on externally and why it’s important will strengthen your brand from the inside out.

3. Are the experiences you’re creating true to what you stand for? Here’s the acid test: If you remove your brand name from an event plan and insert your competitor or any other brand, does the experience work for them? If so, you’re not translating what is special and different about your brand. Experiences aren’t skin deep. Doing them right is about more than just following brand and communications guidelines or giving a list of attributes cursory environmental and tonal references. Bringing brand to customers through real interaction means weaving your brand’s story throughout the experience in such a way that it can’t be divorced from the story a customer will take away and amplify.

Brands that will thrive in this new environment will hold their experiential efforts to the same level of scrutiny and precision as they do for advertising, PR, media, or any other critical investment or activity.

It’s easy to assume that because consumers have access to social networks that brands will be crowdsourced. The truth is, brands have unlimited possibilities to live up to their brand promise, thereby creating a community in which consumers evangelize the brand.

—Britt Bulla, vice president and director of strategy, Jack Morton Worldwide, New York, @brittbulla / @jackmorton

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