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Welcome to the Consumer Revolution

Phone with red nike logo in front of red sweater

Do you remember all those crazy Mentos/Diet Coke videos? At least 800 of them flooded YouTube after people discovered that when you drop the quarter-size candies into bottles of Diet Coke, you get a geyser that shoots 20 feet into the air.

Needless to say, the relatively obscure Mentos brand got a gusher of free publicity out of the deal, too.

These homemade science experiments were an early harbinger of what is probably the biggest marketing phenomenon of the last 10 years: user-generated content (UGC), where everyone can voice their opinions about products, brands and companies on blogs, podcasts and social networks, and even film their own commercials that thousands view on YouTube.

This important trend helps to define the era of Web 2.0. It marks the rebirth of the internet from its original roots as a form of one-way transmission from producers to consumers to a social, interactive, powerful (and largely uncontrollable) medium.

It also marks the beginning of a Consumer Revolution. In “the old days,” customers were the peasants. They had to settle for whatever cold gruel advertisers chose to serve to them, and they had to consume these messages in real-time.

Today, the tables are turned, and the buyers have stormed the castle. They dictate what they will see and hear and when. And, they have taken a seat at the Royal Table when it comes to creating these messages. Today’s consumers increasingly get their information and news via their social interaction with friends and family; they even get a big chunk of their entertainment from one another.

True, buyers have always had the ability to affect producers’ fortunes by “voting with their dollars” or by sharing their evaluations of products (both good and bad) with others. Today, however, this capability is magnified exponentially, as developments such as Web 2.0, the proliferation of print and broadcast options and the glut of new products introduced each year, provide individuals with the power to express their opinions to thousands or even millions of others at a time.

Each of us has the technology at our fingertips to craft unique lifestyle statements by picking and choosing among multitudes of alternatives. For perhaps the first time in history, buyers are in the driver’s seat.

In a world where end users routinely share their ideas for new products with companies without being asked, where advertisers let viewers “vote” on the outcome of a commercial, and where consumers become their own product distributors on eBay or on behalf of direct-selling companies like Mary Kay and Amway, organizations need to understand (if they don’t already) that the marketing roadmap has radically changed.

It is no longer a one-way street, where products and ideas flow from those who control the broadcasting apparatus down to passive recipients. Instead, it is very much a two-way highway, where many customers now play the role of co-creator.

As part of this revolution, consumers participate in just about any aspect of the business we can imagine (perhaps short of building their own factories). They help to create and modify brand identity, and they act as reviewers and even product distributors.

We can think of this as a Horizontal Revolution because the flow of communication across end users is as, or more, impactful than the top-down messages consumers receive from the organizations that make the stuff they buy.

Why is this power shift occurring? Obviously, the power of Google is a big factor. But technology is just part of the explanation for the disruption. More fundamentally, for many consumers (especially younger ones), brands have largely replaced social structures such as neighbourhood, tribe or religion as the building blocks of identity.

People assign meaning to themselves and to others in large part by the constellations of product icons that surround them. They freely and even gleefully borrow imagery and ideas from advertisements, retail environments and other marketing messages to carve out a symbolic niche for themselves.

When consumers name their children after their favourite products, get brand logos permanently tattooed on their bodies or legally change their names to those of characters in videogames, we know that we are living in a new, branded world. I refer to these customers as consumer chameleons, because like the colourful reptile that changes colours as it adapts to new environments, they frequently change their identities as well. 

And these chameleons can afford to be picky: they can choose from literally thousands of options in just about any category, whether it is cable channels, trendy food products or lipsticks (Want a basic red lipstick? There are 100 shades to choose from).

This fluid self-identity demands a new way of understanding, segmenting and connecting with today’s consumer chameleon. As the renowned ‘marketing consultant’ William Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage.” And he wasn’t kidding.

We each play many parts in our lives, and each part has its own script, props and costumes. That’s where opportunities lurk behind the spotlights for marketers. Those props and costumes must come from somewhere!

In the 1980s, a woman in a popular commercial for Enjoli perfume sang, “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan. And never let you forget you’re a man.” That spot is way too politically incorrect today, but the underlying message still resonates: ‘I have to be different people all day (and night) long. Each one of my roles requires a different set of brands to make the magic happen.’

And because our screens provide a window into so many different worlds, we can experience (vicariously, at least) a range of consumption possibilities that would make our grandparents’ heads spin.

Now we are constantly splintering into new microcultures: Beyoncé’s Beyhive, the Red Sox Nation, Shredders, Level 5 Vegans and thousands of others. Those old-school segmentation strategies that assign individuals to large, homogenous blocks like ‘young women’ or ‘Asian-Americans’ no longer do the trick.

Today, we are more likely to encounter fairly small factions of avid consumers who belong to tightly knit digital communities. For example, fandoms (the lifeblood of many TV shows, movies, music groups, and sports teams) typically coalesce around a media event, an activity or a cult brand.

These enthusiasts don’t just hang out to wait for the originator to issue a press release that announces a new development. In fact, the more engaged fandoms may even stalk the showrunners or create their own versions (AKA fanfiction).

As the revolution spreads, we are faced with a daunting reality: marketing organizations no longer get to define their identities. These meanings, to a large extent, are crowdsourced. Consumers share in the process of co-creation, as they put their own spin on company’s messages, and in many cases literally create the messages themselves, regardless of what the company desires.

As the Diet Coke brand discovered in the wake of the Mentos viral phenomenon, once pandora’s box opens online, it’s just about impossible to shut it again.

The reality is that you no longer own your brand. You make it, you distribute it, you promote it, but at the end of the day, your customers decide what it means.