Ladies and gentlemen, what we have here is a failure to communicate.
Traditionally, brands have spoken in a "monologue" form to consumers. Print ads. TV commercials. Billboards. They talk at, or to, consumers. They say, "Here I am. This is what I am/do." And for a long time, the only way consumers could engage a brand was with their wallets. If people bought the product, well, then whatever the product was saying was working. And if they didn't, then it wasn't.
This began to evolve when brands started asking people what they thought of products. Emotions. Feelings. Focus groups. Product testing. The stuff that Procter & Gamble is famous for (or notorious for, depending on your pain threshold). And suddenly the consumer could talk back—albeit in small doses. "Talking back," however, is not the same as having a conversation (as anyone who has endured a focus group knows). So, while consumers suddenly had a voice, they used it the only way they could—to deliver monologues right back at the brand.
Another path for the consumer was promotional items. Coca-Cola T-shirts. Tide race cars. McDonald's holiday ornaments. The pursuit and display of items like these by the consumer became another way for them to deliver a monologue on the brand they prefer—announcing to a broader audience than a focus group (that is, everyone who can see it) that they align with this brand.
So what started as a simple financial transaction between two interested parties—I give you money, you give me product or service—evolved into "matched monologues." Brand: This is what I am. Customer: This is what I want.
But look what's happening now. Now, those simple monologues are evolving into a genuine dialogue. The consumer takes the brand message and reconstitutes it (via mashups, sampling, etc.) and feeds back to the brand a variation of itself—which the brand may either embrace, build upon, or ignore at its peril.
When the means of production (to use an ironically archaic expression) are in the hands of the consumer, the matched monologues turn into an actual conversation. Think of how consumers turned Mentos into a pop icon in 2006 when they mixed it with Diet Coke and YouTube. Or consider how Scion has used "tuner" culture to shift their customers purchase cycle from the showroom to the longer aftermarket customization
Nowhere is this more brilliantly illustrated than in the 25th anniversary Web site for the Brian Eno/David Byrne album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. In 1982, they built an entire album around sounds and audio clips they found on other albums, on the radio and on television. Back then it was unheard of. Today, we call it "sampling" and it's the foundation of hip-hop and rap.
So what did they do to mark the album's 25th anniversary? They posted all the mixing tracks to two of the album's songs, allowing—indeed, encouraging—the public to build new songs with them—just as they themselves had, 25 years earlier. And these songs are then reposted on the site, adding another generation to the conversation begun a quarter century ago. Check it out at: www.bush-of-ghosts.com/remix/bush_of_ghosts.htm.
This is what user-generated content really means, and this is what it will look like in the future: A genuine "back and forth" between consumer and brand that regularly evolves and changes. What's holding us back is that brands—trapped in a monologue mentality—are merely using the trappings of the new technology to help consumers create their own monologues.
Ultimately, the successful brands will be the ones who learn how to talk with consumers. The others? They'll be the ones just talking to themselves.
Originally published at Brandweek.com on Nov 5, 2008
Martin Bihl is founder and creative director of 7419llc, which provides creative for agencies and clients around the world. You can reach him there at firstname.lastname@example.org.