Sunday, September 20, 2009

The rise of the "Prosumer"

The term “Prosumer” was first mentioned (or created) in 1980 by Alvin Toffler in his book “The Third Wave”, describing the phenomena that consumers are not just merely consumers but becoming producers, too. Tapscott and Williams picked up this concept in their recent book “Wikinomics” and expanded its usage to include a growing numbers of consumers who are enabled to become producers, all driven by technologies that facilitate the cost efficient exchange of information, the mass-production of personalized products and services, and the immediate contribution and improvement in any kind of open source projects.

It seems to me that brands and their underlying business models are falling into three different categories of dealing and interacting with the “Prosumer” concept:

  • Brands like Wikipedia or Firefox that can only exist through Prosumers. Their whole business model relies on the contribution of consumers.
  • Brands like Lego, Haagen-Dazs or Addidas who allow the incorporation of Prosumers behavior in two ways: either as contribution to their own product design and creation process (e.g. Haagen Dazs’ ice cream flavor competition) or as the opportunity to personalize their own version of the brand’s product (e.g. Addidas customized shoes).
  • Brands like Pepsi or Frito-Lay that open up very slightly their brand control to allow consumers to create TV spots or naming rights, all rather on the fringe of their brand experience.

This third group of brands is definitely the vast majority. One could argue that these brands don’t really embrace the concept of “Prosumers” but merely pretend to take them serious by allowing them to influence non-core elements of their brand experience.

My prediction is that the rise of the Prosumer will continue and influence a larger percentage of a company marketing activity. But there will be always a large role for brands which apply strong control and an iron fist in designing its brand experience (e.g. Apple). They might allow the Prosumer to play in a well limited way but the core of its brand experience will be centrally defined and designed.

Any marketer needs to find the right long-term path within these three different strategic options of integrating strongly or lightly the Prosumer, all in alignment of what makes a particular brand successful. But no brand can ignore the Prosumer anymore.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Under- and Over-theorized

Reading a quote from the very likely next prime minister of Canada, Michael Ignatieff, reminds me of a dilemma that most marketing executives are not able to escape: Ignatieff says that his transition from intellectual professor and writer to a politician fighting for majorities included a very important element of moving to a state of being “Under-theorized”. He is expressing the belief that a politician needs less critically reflected and elaborated theories but rather a drive for faster decisive actions that are less theory bound. He says that his current political career is more about “you have got to show fight” than the ability for deep pensive intellectual concepts.

Executive marketers, at least the good ones, are continuously oscillating back and forth between the stages of “Under-theorized” and “Over-theorized”, always mindful of the dangers of both zones. It is extremely difficult to remain in the right space of “right-theorized”.

Unfortunately I believe that the majority of executive marketers are constantly in the zone of “Under-theorized”. There is a profound lack of theoretical foundations that can be the guidepost of marketing decisions, giving marketers and marketing organizations a framework in which it can act and breathe without constant micro-management.

Some of the most recent relevant theories that executive marketers should attempt to dive into are:

  • Behavioral economics: The theory and science of understanding of how human beings are making decisions as not purely rational driven individuals. Human beings never act purely rational, the border zone between rational and emotional decision drivers is much murkier than most theories assume.
  • Brand engagement theories in a Digital world: The purchase and engagement paths of today’s consumer are getting more and more difficult to understand without a clear foundation of how they interact within their individual and fragmented worlds. Every brand needs a theoretical foundation of how consumers are making purchase, usage, and advocacy decisions in its particular category.
  • Integrated Marketing: The understanding of how different media channels, moments, and messages work together to achieve a particular marketing goal is getting more and more critical and complex to understand, shape, and predict.

Maybe the character of being “right-theorized” could become an additional requirement of being a successful senior marketing executive in any organization.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Dictatorship of opinions

Any marketer faces daily the same question over and over: “What is your opinion on X?” My unscientific observational research over the last months leads me to the conclusion that everyone has always an opinion on everything. I rarely experience the moment of silence when the asked marketer pauses for a few seconds and says quietly but confident: “I don’t know, I don’t have an opinion.” I call this phenomenon of constant and never ending opinions “The dictatorship of opinion.”

It has all the symptoms of a dictatorship:

  • There is a clear behavioral norm. When asked for your opinion, you better have one, independent if you have any knowledge, insight, or anything meaningful to utter.
  • There are clear sanctions for refusing to follow the norm: Marketers who don’t have a lot of opinions will be slowly excluded from any meaningful discourse, any important discussion or any executive position. The definition of an executive marketer includes the capability of expressing endless opinions with a emotional mood continuum from presidential to passionate. Most important is the sole utterance of opinions, the quality of the expressed opinion is secondary.
  • Expressing opinions is a self feeding mechanism: Every expressed opinion as part of a marketing discussion will generate up to 10 additional opinions. It is less relevant if these uttered opinions bare any connection to the first mentioned opinion, it is all about feeding the monster that can get reignited with the simple question: “And you, what is your opinion?”

Sometimes we test the abilities of very talkative children to hold silence for five, ten, or fifteen minutes, just to demonstrate that silence can be a refreshing and meaningful space between human beings. What would I give for a group of marketers that would try not to express an opinion for a few hours? Yes, it could be a torturous experience for any marketer, me included.