Brand management is, and always has been, a complex task involving a wide number of people. While the primary responsibility usually sits with marketing, public or corporate relations, the most forward-thinking companies understand that a brand is created and maintained by a far wider range of people, from sales and customer service to the back office and senior management team. The strongest, most authentic brands are those where every member of staff understands what the business stands for and is happy, willing and able to represent those values on a daily basis.

So far so good, but if your role involves any degree of brand management then I’m sure you’re acutely aware that it’s not just internal stakeholders who play a role in influencing your external image. Over the past decade or so, customers, clients and other interested parties have stepped firmly into the limelight when it comes to brand creation. This shift has been driven by increased broadband access, the rise of social media and ever more affordable technology that allows people to interact with and comment on brands in an unprecedented manner.

Say hello to Generation C

Where once brand managers and marketers were in the privileged position of being able to push out brand messages and content to an often receptive, and largely unresponsive, audience, the modern brand guardian must face up to the fact that those days have passed. Today’s consumers are vocal, active participants in brand conversations, lending their support or criticism as they see fit. These interactions can range from a simple social media post to a highly sophisticated and shareable amateur advertisement or spoof, all of which fall broadly under the umbrella of user generated content (UGC).

UGC is material created by consumers outside of their normal professional practice to share information or opinions online with other users, and includes things like reviews on Amazon or TripAdvisor alongside more creative contributions. More often than not that content is published on sites that are publicly accessible, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, giving it a potential audience of thousands if not millions. And boy, do people love creating that content. Over 400 hours of video are uploaded each minute to YouTube alone, and that figure is continually rising.

You might find yourself asking why people are so inspired to create all of this content. There’s no simple answer, and motivations obviously differ from person to person, but they can include the desire to be part of a community, to enhance their self-concept or simply because they want to educate others on the benefits and risks of certain brands, products and services. This growing group of active consumers is so influential that they have been collectively identified and named as Generation C(onent). Unlike traditional generations, this group isn’t defined by when they were born, but by their interest in “creation, curation, connection and community”.

UGC is word-of-mouth for the modern age and it’s powerful stuff. A much quoted study by Neilsen showed that 92% of consumers trust word-of-mouth and recommendations from friends and family above other forms of marketing. Not only that, but multiple studies have revealed that word of mouth and UGC has a significant impact on brand awareness, brand image, purchase behaviour and customer loyalty. As a personal aside, I find this topic so interesting and important that I’ve decided to make it the topic of my MSc dissertation, and I plan to share the results of that research in future blogs.

Making the most of co-creation

All of this means that, instead of being a carefully crafted construct, today’s brands are continually co-created by a range of internal and external stakeholders. To be successful in their roles, marketers and brand managers must understand this dynamic, and where and how they can add value.

Some organisations choose to hand over complete, or near complete, control to their fans, in a move known as open-source branding. Skittles is one example of a company that famously turned the redesign of its corporate website over to fans a few years back, albeit with questionable results from an SEO perspective. And when Facebook introduced changes to the management of brand pages Coca-Cola took the decision to hand ownership to the fans rather than close it down, with rather more success.

While it may deliver results (at times), taking an open-source approach is a fairly extreme response to the challenge of co-creation, and not for the faint-hearted. There are more moderate ways to encourage consumer interaction with your brand. Brompton is an admirable example of a company that attracts a significant amount of UGC by using warm, open, friendly language in its social media activity and inviting users to submit photos and videos of their Brompton-based adventures with appropriate hashtags.

If your brand is slightly less iconic and desirable than Brompton, but is still enjoyed and appreciated by consumers, then you could try running a UGC competition, with prizes awarded for the best submissions. If you’re feeling brave then that could be managed through YouTube, but there are also ways to moderate the process more closely, such as by asking people to submit their entries through a company-controlled platform.

Think carefully before jumping in

While UGC can be a powerful tool for good, it would be foolish to imagine that it’s always an exercise in positivity and joy. It’s important to recognise that any reputation issues or brand-related skeletons are likely to be highlighted during a UGC programme. If you’re planning to invite your customers or the general public to comment on your company, products or services then you need to make sure your house is in order before doing so. In this respect, brand managers need to become competent risk assessors.

It’s recommended to conduct a thorough evaluation of the potential pitfalls before embarking on any activity that might open doors that shouldn’t be opened and have a clear, realistic plan in place to deal with any unwelcome outcomes. That could be as simple as retaining as sense of humour and being prepared to take things on the chin with good grace. However, it’s sensible to have an understanding of the basic principles of crisis management, and ensure that relevant spokespeople are fully briefed on how to respond to any negativity.

Of course, not all criticism is deserved and the internet can be a virulent breeding ground for unjustified negativity, so it’s important to remember that you don’t have to take groundless attacks lying down. P&G is an example of a company that went on the offensive in the US when consumers started complaining about a new Pampers product that allegedly caused severe nappy rash among a number of babies. The rumours quickly grabbed hold within social and traditional media, leading to calls for a boycott. Confident in the safety of the product, and suspecting foul play at the hands of competitors and a small number of disgruntled users, the company worked with well-known paediatricians to prove that the claims were unfounded. Supported by professional evidence, the company publicly called out the complainants and demonstrated that the product was not at fault, all of which led to over 40% of US mothers reporting that they had tried the new nappies.

Why listening is the foundation of effective co-creation

As marketers, it’s our job to present our brand, or clients’ brands, in the most positive light possible, but to a great extent, it’s also our job to understand and take note of how people think and feel about that brand, warts and all. It’s essential that companies take the time to hunt out the conversations and listen to what’s being said with a humble ear.

While positive emotions can be harnessed to the brand’s advantage, it’s essential to do so in an appropriate, unobtrusive way. Today’s consumers are savvy and unlikely to be bamboozled by clever marketing tactics, so you should approach any UGC or co-creation project from a position of transparency and authenticity. And if the act of listening throws up any negative issues then that should be seen as an opportunity for improvement that can only enhance the brand’s image, rather than something to brush under the carpet and ignore.

Consumer involvement with brands is here to stay, so it’s important to understand how this relationship works and how to adapt successfully to this new dynamic. Make co-creation your friend and your brand will flourish in this new world order.