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  Denise Lee Yohn Do consumers always know best?
by Denise Lee Yohn
July 3, 2006

Sometimes trends are worth bucking. Take the case of the latest marketing rage: soliciting advertising from customers, also known as, V-CAMs (viewer-created ad messages). In the opinion of this brand enthusiast, danger lurks behind this strategy because it flies in the face of developing, managing, and leveraging a brand as the valuable strategic asset it is.


Last year Current TV announced Sony Electronics was airing the first V-CAM. Sony offered US$ 1,000 for the best spots, as judged by Sony, Current TV (where V-CAMs originated), and a viewer poll. Winners were posted on the Current TV site. Toyota and L’Oréal soon followed suit; these days, it seems you can’t get through an industry trade journal without reading about yet another marketer who has thrown in the creative towel in favor of “civilian” consumer generated spots.

As a short-term promotional tactic or product demonstration (for example, airing spots shot with Sony Handycams to promote the camcorders), this approach may make sense. Smaller companies with barebones marketing budgets might be forced to consider this path if the alternative is to not advertise at all. But if homemade ads are part of a sustained, concerted effort to turn over the reins of brand communication to consumers, then there is certainly cause for concern.

Lack of brand consistency is a basic reason why V-CAMs don’t make sense. Branding 101 says brand strength is developed by expressing and delivering the brand promise consistently across all touchpoints and over time. So why would a marketer want to run a bunch of ads created by different people with different messages using different creative approaches? Isn’t brand inconsistency sure to result?

Much more important, however, is the fact that these ads likely miss the opportunity to demonstrate brand leadership; that is, to express the unique and compelling brand point of view that transcends the product or service being sold. The ads everyone points to as having been the most disruptive, and therefore the most successful, are ones that represent the thought leadership of the brand. Think Apple’s 1984 commercial and Nike’s original Just Do It campaign. No consumer, no matter how talented or cool or brand fanatical, would have ever come up with those ads.

This is because consumers know what they know at the moment—they know why they like a product—but they don’t know the vision of the brand. They don’t know the company’s dreams and aspirations for the brand, and so they lack the insight and foresight to realize an ad’s full potential. Their ads may be cute or clever, but they won’t further brand leadership. Just as product development should be consumer-informed, so should creative development. But innovative, game-changing companies don’t ask consumers to actually develop new products for them; they shouldn’t ask consumers to develop ads for them either.

Resorting to consumer-generated ads also signals a fundamental problem in the company that solicits them. Part of the benefit of the creative development process is the internal discipline it requires and the unity it creates. A team that takes the time to develop a campaign (to do the hard work of distilling down everything that could possibly be said about a brand into a simple, single message) and to search for a way of expressing the message that is worthy of the brand is all the better for it.

The debates and tradeoffs inherent in the creative process result in a clarity on and commitment to the brand. This clear, consistent, common understanding of the brand serves the company well in everything else it does. Companies that side step this valuable process and simply screen consumers’ ads like judges of a beauty contest are cheating themselves (and all their stakeholders, including customers) out of the critical benefits of internal brand integration and alignment.

Now, I’m not questioning the effectiveness of some brands’ consumer-created ads. Converse and MasterCard stand out as companies that have not sacrificed brand consistency, thought leadership, or alignment in their efforts to engage their consumer base in fresh, interactive ways. And before you accuse me of being some old ad agency type pining away for the good ol’ times, let me tell you, I’m not. I’ll be the first to assert that the old advertising model is broken and creative teams need a big wake up call. But that wake up call needs to come from the clients, not consumers, and therein lies the fundamental reason why V-CAMs are a mistake.

Brands are the responsibilities of the companies that produce them. Companies are ultimately responsible for the perceptions of and relationships with consumers that brands develop. Although the consumer now has more information than ever on which to base her brand perceptions, and she is in more control of the brand relationships, it remains the marketer’s role to shape and nurture brand image and equity.

As the late Geoffrey Frost of Nike and Motorola fame urged, “Look at your communications as your most pervasive product.” Inherent in this exhortation is the truth that consumers “consume” advertising. If you craft an amazing message and deliver it brilliantly, the brand-to-consumer relationship is propelled forward. Conversely, failing to nurture and protect your brand communications can derail all efforts.

In the blogosphere, consumer-generated content thrives. So even if companies don’t solicit V-CAMs, they’ll still be created. And that’s okay. But actively pursuing consumer-generated advertising as a marketing strategy is a lazy and irresponsible approach to branding. Furthermore, it’s doomed.

   Denise Lee Yohn has been inspiring and teaching companies how to operationalize their brands to grow their businesses for over 25 years. World-class companies including Sony, Frito-Lay, New Balance, and Jack In the Box have called on Denise, a brand-building expert, speaker, and writer.

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