Who Drives Brand Meaning: The Marketer or the Consumer?

Blog Post
June 16, 2017

A conversation between Professor John Deighton of Harvard Business School and Frank Grillo, CMO of Harte Hanks.

Frank Grillo

In your the recent article (and our recent discussion), you said that your prediction from ten years ago has come true: Power in determining the meaning of brands has shifted from marketers to consumers.  You also observed that video is the marketer’s most powerful meaning-making tool today because it can tap into deeply held consumer values, and guide social media conversations so they work for the marketer. 

What you are saying, John, resonates with me very much, especially about video. But something bothers me in all of this, and I would like to ask your thoughts on a follow-up question: should marketers anticipate a continued minor role in the process of defining meaning?

John Deighton

I would not describe the marketer’s role in defining meaning as minor. Managing what their products and services mean to consumers is the still the most important thing marketers do—it’s just harder.

Back in the day when Geritol sponsored the quiz show Twenty One, and Procter and Gamble sponsored entire soap operas, the job was relatively easy. Now it’s a lot more difficult—though no less important—to convey what a brand stands for.

Here are some of the modern issues:

First there’s clutter. A typical brand must choose among 20 or so media choices, not just two or three, and the brand is just one of many using each medium. The brand is passive in the success or otherwise of each medium.  

Second, and more important, the audience talks back. Particularly if a product has a high profile, consumers want to talk about the product. They can dispute ad claims, create parody ads, use social media to build their own social standing on the back of a brand’s standing, and, most powerfully, write reviews of products and services on websites designed for just that purpose. How does a marketer enter a conversation or offer a corrective to a hostile review, without looking as if it protests too much?

In fact, the marketer needs to decide on whether to choose a brand’s meaning as the most important claim, or choose a meaning that is the least likely to be parodied or pilloried. When Dove launched its Real Beauty campaign, within a year it had evolved its meaning from ‘beauty comes in all sizes,” illustrated by adult women and vulnerable to parody, to one that highlighted the challenges to the self-esteem of young girls, who were off-limits to parody.

Some would say that meaning-making is actually easier if the consumer uses today’s more participatory media climate to co-create meaning. Perhaps, but the subtleties of co-creation present a whole new set of skills to the consultants formerly known as ad agencies. Not all can do it.

When Ford proposed to let potential consumers of the Ford Fiesta create the meaning of the brand by giving cars for six months to 100 young active social media users with large followings, Ford’s legal department came close to shutting the program down. What if there was a serious accident? What if the cars were involved in criminal activities? What if the drivers failed to return them? The marketing skillset had to be expanded to include careful recruitment and monitoring of the Fiesta agents.

Frank Grillo

Harte Hanks is working on the role of technology in sensing where a customer is on his or her buyer’s journey so that the marketer can respond appropriately. Which companies are doing a good job of digitally sensing where a customer is? Perhaps, classifying the customer into a persona, or identifying a place or stage in the buyer’s journey?

John Deighton

CVS has been using a persona approach for about a decade to manage the buying profiles revealed in their frequent shopper programs. There is the well-known story of Facebook having 240 profiles that drove advertising. They used Datalogix’s tracking of supermarket purchases and identified purchase patterns for each customer profile. It was not a buyer journey in any detail, however. Amazon may be the best instance of digital journey tracking. They don’t talk about it much since it certainly is a core competency that gives them a business advantage. 

Frank Grillo

Has digital marketing competence advanced to a degree where the pendulum might swing back toward the middle where the marketer shares control of the brand’s meaning with the customer?

John Deighton

If the pendulum stands for the marketer regaining control of the brand’s meaning, I don’t think so. As far back as the New Coke disaster, Coke’s CEO Roberto Goizueta offered, as the moral of the story, the claim that it wasn’t Coke that owned the Coca Cola brand, it was the consumer. We now have the media to make good on that insight.