Brands have lost control of their identity and they will never regain it. Considering the amount of time and money that is spent on creating and developing a brand’s identity, such a statement, particularly from an activation agency that claims to communicate this very brand identity, might appear ill-advised, even nonsensical.
And yet this shift is happening everywhere we look, and the rise of new media is its catalyst. While the label â€˜mass media’ is traditionally applied to media consumed by the general population, we would like to challenge this and assert that in the current climate, mass media is media created by the masses. And if consumers are opting for user generated content, they are making this choice within an increasingly fragmented media landscape. Individuals are customising how they consume and create media, and in doing so they are ensuring that they interact with brands on their own terms. This movement from consumption to interaction is shifting the balance of power; placing a brand’s identity in the hands of its consumers.
The democratisation of media signifies that this communication space is no longer the province of large corporations. Individuals can have a media voice through Twitter and Facebook updates, comments posted on articles and personal blogs to name but a few. Ordinary people are even taking on what is traditionally seen as the communication agency’s role of promoting the brand through fan pages on networking sites or rave reviews on price comparison / consumer review sites. A powerful example of this democratisation is the millions of people who turned to Twitter rather than established news sites to find out the latest updates on Michael Jackson’s death. With 100,000,000 videos being viewed on YouTube every day, the power of user generated content, the new mass media is hard to deny.
And yet if consumers can improve brand identity through rave reviews and fan sites, they can just as easily have a negative impact on their peers’ perception of the brand. Just think of the spoof brand ads on YouTube or mocking fake celebrity profiles on Facebook and Twitter. Not only are individuals actively creating media, they are also actively consuming it. While a consumer may passively watch a TV ad for a particular brand simply because it is scheduled just before X Factor, those wanting to find out more about a brand will enter it into a YouTube or Google search.
Thus those individuals most actively interested in your brand are the ones most likely to interact with it through social rather than corporate media, and seeing as 2/3 of the global internet population visit social networking sites it is unsurprising that the content communicated here is quickly absorbed by society at large. Media may be becoming more and more disparate but social media (admittedly a conglomeration itself) still accounts for 38% of all online media and this figure is set to rise. If this is where the target audience is, brands need to have a presence here too. Brands can no longer rely on emails to consumers when, apart from the former being a fairly passive form of communication, these consumers are spending more time on social networking sites than using their email.
Another major consideration when contemplating the explosion of media is the speed with which it is created, altered and destroyed. The rise of the internet has opened up a world of online possibility. This has been compounded by the development of mobile technology with functionality enabling the updating of news articles and uploading of video footage on the go. If devices such as camera phones and webcams allow for the immediate capture of a message or story, it is new technology such as mobile internet and live streaming which ensures that the dissemination of this media is instantaneous. Whether this is live coverage of the G20 protests (where there seemed to be more cameras than banners at times), or real-time Tweets, media communicates the action as it happens, meaning it is not only everywhere but always.
In a world where media speed is crucial, it is mobile that is in ascendancy. Its popularity is for a variety of reasons. While many consumers (particularly in developing countries) bypass PCs and laptops to connect directly to the mobile internet as it is often a more reliable connection than the PC based web infrastructure, 18-30 year olds are more likely to go online outside of the home or office (for example in the library, coffee shop or outdoors) simply because they expect to be able to access information and stay in touch on the move. In a society where it is possible to get anything from a latte to a car (think Streetcar) â€˜to go’, why not media?
The findings from Opera Mini’s study on mobile internet usage support this recognition of the coming of age of the 4th screen, recording a 311% rise in monthly users over a period of one year. Not only were more people using their phones to go online, they were also doing more once they had accessed this space. With mobile owners outnumbering PC owners by 3 to 1 globally the mobile screen is proclaiming itself a powerful media channel through which to communicate. Mobile’s primary function as a communication tool is reinforced by the fact that mobile internet users have a higher propensity to visit social networking sites than PC users with 35% of mobile internet time spent on social networks.
Whether they are using their PC, laptop or BlackBerry to access media, rather than audiences consuming media, individuals could be referred to as part of â€˜networked publics'; active participants in a distributed social network. In this age of mass intelligence with ordinary people contributing to shared knowledge pools rather than bowing to expert opinion, knowledge doesn’t have to come in bound documents anymore; an insight can be shared in 140 characters. At the same time this trend results in information being constantly in flux, being challenged, edited and updated. Beta sites and open source CMSs reflect the collaborative culture of new media where individuals are encouraged to contribute to the creation of sites, while web users gain knowledge of the possibilities of new technology and hence new media through peer networks. In this climate of collaboration, brands need to not only engage in dialogue with consumers but enlist their help to create better products or services, for example by creating products in beta first in order to gain immediate consumer feedback and pre-dispose consumers towards their brand by valuing their opinion and input.
So what are the key implications of these trends for brands? First of all brands need to communicate with consumers in their own space, secondly they need to ensure that this communication is interactive and collaborative, and finally they need to consider the impact that mobile technology has on media usage. Ultimately brands need to recognise that in today’s world of interactive media it is not what the brand says about itself that is important but rather what consumers feel and communicate about the brand. Engaging with consumers in their space using their language and technology and asking for their participation presents the brand as one with which the target audience can identify, thereby increasing the likelihood of brand advocacy. Brands may have handed over control of their identity to the masses, but this might just be their salvation.