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Out of our minds

Companies used to merely yell at us: buy this! Now they want to know what’s inside our heads (and a hand with their marketing, please). But Jehan Casinader sounds a warning—most brands just aren’t worth the conversation.

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Illustration by Adrian Clapperton

Companies used to merely yell at us: buy this! Now they want to know what’s inside our heads (and a hand with their marketing, please). But Jehan Casinader sounds a warning—most brands just aren’t worth the conversation.

The consumer is king. The customer is always right. They’re trite old adages from a bygone era, but today’s Kiwi consumers wield more power than any other generation. We don’t just buy products and services; we help create and sell them. We don’t just use the media; we’re part of it. We reject brands that don’t give us a degree of control, and gravitate towards those that allow us to choose, create, customise and personalise. We’re living in the golden age of consumer sovereignty.

But let’s be honest: it’s pretty exhausting. Sure, we like to be in control, but decision-making saps time and energy. And worse, while social media has connected us more with the corporate world, we suspect many businesses use it as a lame replacement for thinking up—or paying for—ideas of their own.

“For many people, consumption is the most political thing they’ll do,” says consumer commentator Simon Morton. “It’s how we mark our identity; how we show our tribal allegiances. By getting your customers on board, you’re allowing them to express their identity, and gain a sense of ownership. If a business can bring the consumer into their world and include them in the decision-making, that’s got to be nirvana.”

Yes, we’re having a conversation. There’s a lot of chatter going on. But it feels like we’re at a dinner party full of extroverts: it’s not easy to get a word in, and the most interesting voices are being drowned out.

Co-creation, crowdsourcing, collaboration—call it what you will, for marketers it’s an easy way to find out what consumers want. Last year, TVNZ launched Reservoir Hill, an online drama that asked its viewers to develop the plot, by interacting with the main character through text and online channels. “Normally, you’d shoot the drama, give it to the network, and say, ‘Here it is,’” says co-creator Thomas Robins of KHF Media. “But if your first episode bombs because viewers don’t like a character, you’re a bit stuffed for the rest of the series. With this show, we could change the story depending on how the audience reacted. It would go online on Mondays at 5pm. We’d watch the downloads tick over and read the texts as they came in. The audience was asked to give the main character advice and help.”

Once, we were happy to gobble up whatever the TV networks gave us. But now it’s increasingly difficult for viewers to be passive. Shows like Reservoir Hill, which won a Digital Emmy, invite their audiences to interact.

“When each episode goes to air, the opening graphic says, ‘This is a story you helped create.’ It gives the audience a sense of ownership. I know some producers would say, ‘Since when did we let the public tell us how we’re supposed to write stories?’ It’s not about that. We created a world for this character, but she navigated her way through it with the help of the viewers. The viewers who didn’t want to take part didn’t need to.”

In reality, the audience still has little control over most of the content on TV and in other media. While Reservoir Hill had interactive elements, professional writers crafted the core script. Robins, however, says we’re in the early days of a new era in media. Okay, but was Reservoir Hill stronger with viewer input? Robins isn’t sure about that—he says interactivity doesn’t necessarily lead to a better product, just a different one.

TVNZ’s not the only one trying to tap into their customers’ creativity. Bluebird has invited chiplovers to come up with a new flavour, and design a visual representation of it. The winning flavour will be manufactured and sold across the country, and its creator will win $20,000. This is more than just a novelty campaign—the chip designer will also be paid two percent of net sales, worth as much as $100,000 if the new flavour is hugely popular.

“As much as companies like to think we own our brands, we don’t,” says Bluebird managing director Gerard Smith. “Brands are owned by the people. Our customers are saying, ‘Hold on, this is my brand. I would like a say in what you do with it.’ The ‘Do us a flavour’ campaign is a fun way for our customers to get involved. People love to talk about possible flavours for chips, so we are just capturing what’s happening in the marketplace. Consumers want to have a role in the creation of new products.”

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This kind of consumer labour is not exclusive to the retail market. The mainstream media ask us to contribute news, views, reviews and interviews, and sometimes even more. In May, when the political expenses scandal hit, Fairfax Media called for help from its readers to sort through 16,000 pages of receipts and flag areas of concern. This is a major news organisation, asking its readers to do the legwork journalists are paid to do.

More and more companies are handing over the reins to its customers, apparent demonstrations of their trust in us. But if Joe Bloggs can design a chip flavour as well as Bluebird’s own staff, why not lay off its creative team and put the public in charge on a permanent basis?

Overseas, some companies are doing just that. Last year, in London, consumer giant Unilever fired its ad agency and announced a competition for members of the public to come up with fresh advertising ideas. The winner received a measly $US10,000.

Unilever took a big gamble. Any company that hands over its brand to the public risks losing control of it. A brand can be easily damaged by faddism—just ask Kraft Foods, after its iSnack 2.0 debacle.

In the UK and the US, business leaders are beginning to doubt whether our much-exalted conversation is worth having. Major consumer-engagement campaigns by companies such as Dell and Starbucks have been panned. It’s not obvious that these campaigns are adding value to businesses, or whether the novelty of consumer involvement is wearing off. As advertising commentator Rich Thomaselli sweetly put it: “Dear consumer, your 15 minutes are over. You suck.”

Consumers are starting to feel the same way. If the conversation is novel, but doesn’t add value, is it worth having? Perhaps only to give our egos a boost. The desire for 15 minutes of fame has inspired thousands of us to participate in consumer-driven marketing campaigns. Last year web provider Orcon invited Kiwis to jam with Iggy Pop, using the power of the net. Out of 200 hopefuls, eight were chosen to play with Iggy in a virtual band. The group re-recorded Iggy’s ‘The Passenger’ and the collaboration was used in Orcon’s ad campaign. How much were the performers paid? Nothing—but the chance to jam with Iggy is priceless.

So profitable businesses are going to great lengths to engage us, the public. But at what cost? American writer Jeff Howe, who coined ‘crowdsourcing’ in 2006, recently wrote an article that posed the question, “Is crowdsourcing evil?” Analysts warn consumers are being exploited through social media. They’re happy to work for free, but there is a risk of a backlash against consumer-driven marketing.

Consumers are now trying to block out the noise created by businesses vying for our attention. ‘No junk mail’ signs on our letterboxes discourage pamphlets from being received. ‘Do not call’ registers have left telemarketers in the lurch. Digital video recorders allow us to watch our favourite TV shows without the ads. But on the net, we’re exposed to more business content than ever.

“We put so much energy into making choices, from the minute we wake up,” says Morton. “Yes, it can be exhausting. And to make informed consumption decisions, it takes a hell of a lot of time and energy. I could spend all day trying to work out which breakfast cereal is best. Too many choices can confuse consumers and kill confidence … at the same time we’re asking for even more choices, so businesses are providing them, but customers often lack knowledge about the options they’re being given.”

It’s true today’s consumers are more demanding. Generation C wants to be in control, and the current social media cacophony is a result of companies simply responding to our call. Air New Zealand, for example, recently overhauled its brand. It used sites like Twitter and YouTube to deliver snappy marketing campaigns and sought public feedback about its products. As a result it is creating a four-tier fare system for short-haul flights whereby, depending on how much they’re willing to pay, passengers will be able to personalise their flying experience by adding features such as meals, entertainment, luggage allowances and lounge access. The airline already lets its customers buy add-ons for longer flights, but shorthaul manager Bruce Parton reckons travellers want more.

“We’ve all become more demanding, and we want more choices. Twenty years ago, you got used to accepting whatever was available. But now, we’ve got a competitive marketplace. Businesses that don’t give customers choice are bound to fail. But at the same time, if the customer can’t make head or tail of the choices in front of them, they’ll switch off. We’re removing the complexity.”

Removing the complexity? Passengers now have to make many more decisions when buying their ticket. Do they want a meal? An empty seat next to them? Access to in-flight movies? Premium check-in? And where do they want to sit? Yes, the airline has streamlined the rollout of the new fares to make it easier for travellers to understand but it could be risking option overload.

Businesses seem convinced mass customisation is the way of the future—they must give customers the power to choose. Once, smart businesses worked out what the public wanted, often before we even knew we wanted it, rather than expecting us to do the work. They made our lives easier by providing a smaller range of high-end products, making it easier for us to make choices. Today, that’s rarely the case.

We’re given endless opportunities to customise and personalise our experiences. Banks allow us to design graphics for our credit cards. Game makers let us build new levels. Cellphone providers let us compose ringtones. Lifestyle stores let us design our own furniture. We can choose colours, combinations and configurations. We can put our own stamp on almost anything. Literally—New Zealand Post lets us put our own beaming faces on postage stamps.

“You can go online, upload an image, manipulate it and submit it,” says Simon Allison of New Zealand Post. “You’ll receive your sheet of stamps in the mail within a few days. We’ve been making personalised stamps since 2001, and we were the first postal agency in the world to give our customers this option.”

The novelty of consumer involvement is wearing off. AsMagazine Layout advertising commentator Rich Thomaselli sweetly put it: “Dear consumer, your 15 minutes are over. You suck

A nice touch, but consumers don’t have any input into the product itself. The stamp has the same function. It has the same price. The element of personalisation only us a perceived degree of control, says Morton. For the same reason, banks allow customers to personalise the images on our credit cards. But, unsurprisingly, banks aren’t willing to personalise their interest rates, loan fees or overdraft rules. Consumer participation does not always guarantee that our input will be high-level.

“Key decisions about how products are developed are still made by the businesses,” says Morton. “A lot of the opportunities for customers to customise, personalise and have control are superficial. But even if you give your customers a superficial degree of control, they may be more willing to buy.”

Kiwi energy company Powershop wants to give its customers more choice when they purchase power. Customers can read their own meters and track their usage. There are no estimated bills; instead, customers are told how much power they’re likely to need. Powershop has used web tools to give its customers control over payment. Developers have access to Powershop’s API, and an iPhone app was recently created. It’s useful, but is it just another distraction for consumers?

“There is certainly a perception that it is,” says Powershop CEO Ari Sargent. “The general reaction is, ‘I’m too bloody busy as it is, so why would I want to manage my power?’ But once people have signed up, they quickly see the benefits. Our challenge is to convince people that it doesn’t take a lot of effort, only five minutes a week. But we also have a set-and-forget option for those customers who want to be hands-off.”

In the US, two Coca-Cola lovers created a Facebook fan page for their favourite fizzy drink, and 5.8 million people joined. Naturally, Coke’s reps wanted a slice of the action, so they’ve been added as admin for the page but it’s still maintained by fans. It’s an unlikely relationship, but the Coke fans seem unfazed that their work is creating priceless advertising capital for one of the world’s wealthiest corporates.

It sounds like a love-fest. But just because social media has allowed business to ‘befriend’ consumers, that doesn’t mean either party has the other’s best interests at heart. Our conversation is not about generosity. It’s about money. Businesses that involve consumers are able to build a loyal customer base. Consumers who feel they’re part of a business are happy to contribute to it. And if the value of that contribution were put in dollar terms, some businesses would go broke.

In 2006, Time declared its Person of the Year was “You”. In the years since, consumers have gained more control and more choice. We’re providing free labour and free ideas, in the hope our lives will be richer for it. But it’s not obvious whether we’re really better off. “It seems like we have a lot of control these days,” says Morton. “We certainly have a lot of choice. But do those choices really matter?”

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