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How consumers are forcing big brands to behave better

By Rukmini Gupte
April 05, 2018 08:30 IST
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Is this paradigm shift in brand-consumer power-sharing coming to fruition in India too?

Pepsi Kendall Jenner

IMAGE: Social media outrage over Pepsi's ad with Kendall Jenner made the company pull the ad. The ad was seen as insensitive to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Photograph: Courtesy, Pepsi.


The marketplace has come a long way from the days when the balance of power was squarely tilted on the side of the Big Brand, epitomised by Henry Ford's concession that the buyer could have any model of the Model T as long as it was black!

Not only do consumers have rights protected by regulators for purely functional brand delivery attributes like quality, service efficiency, honest messaging, they are beginning to actually demand changes in brands -- from design to behaviour, in line with their preferences, conveniences and ideologies even.

Consumer rights have long compelled brands to tailor to specific segment preferences -- adhere to quality standards imposed by regulators, follow the rules on brand communication to be held accountable for accuracy and so on. But it is the increasing reach of different media that can lend a multiplier effect to a consumer cause.

And digitisation has helped aggregate consumer voices and that is forcing the brand machinery to listen and change behaviour.

So consumers are forcing brands like Pepsi or Dove to withdraw and apologise for communication that is deemed inappropriate or disrespectful.

They are starting a movement that compels many brands from airlines to hotels to change sponsorship associations.


In the new power equation, big brands are increasingly unable to leverage scale and resources to force their worldview unilaterally onto large markets of shoppers.

They have to raise their antenna many times to listen to not just the loud voices, but also to the whispers that go viral and signal shifts in consumer values and philosophies.

This shift in the power equation is not just impacting the 'softer' dimensions of brand management like values, communication; a more empowered, active consumer also means that s/he is demanding a greater say in shaping what the brand delivery should be like, where s/he wants to procure the brand from and how much she thinks the brand is worth.

This, in turn, means that older models of lab-led design and innovation are becoming  increasingly irrelevant, particularly in the consumer goods sector as true co-creation with the target consumer becomes an imperative for successful new launches.

It is perhaps not accidental then that in the last five years or so, small companies with 'small' brands have grabbed most of the value in the marketplace in the consumer goods sector in USA and Europe, according to a Boston Consulting Group report.

Could this partly be a consequence of small start ups, in many cases started by consumers themselves, being able to listen to and respond to the consumer with greater agility?

Is this paradigm shift in brand-consumer power-sharing coming to fruition in India too?

At first glance, it may be tempting to assume that big brands still hold all the cards, but that is short-sighted. Consumer voices are gaining power and the smart brand of the future will do well to take this assertion not as a threat, but rather as an opportunity to co-create branded solutions that make a difference to the consumer's quality of life.

Connectedness, understanding, empathy -- these have long been indispensable qualities a brand had to nurture.

Now, add respect for the consumer to that mix and we have the crucial ingredient that needs to be included in every successful brand recipe for today and tomorrow.

The author is a London-based brand strategist.

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