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Guest Post by Michael R. Solomon: What You Need to Know About Brand Disruption

by Michael R. Solomon, Ph.D.
Speaker on Brands and Disruption

When people discovered that dropping Mentos candies into a bottle of Diet Coke creates a geyser that shoots 20 feet into the air, more than 800 videos flooded the Internet to document the volcanic possibilities. The firm that manufactures Mentos gleefully welcomed a gusher of free publicity out of the deal. In contrast, Coca-Cola’s attorneys initially tried to shut down the video posts. As you might predict, their efforts were fruitless. Today a Google search for “Diet Coke and Mentos” yields over 2.8 million hits.

These divergent responses illustrate how organizations need to adapt to the important brand disruptions we see today. And, managers no longer are as likely to create demand for a product—they are more likely to pivot quickly to meet demand for something that consumers have already created. The changing consumer landscape reflects two important disruptions:

Disruption #1: Consumers Proactively Define Brand Meaning

Even after decades of brand equity research, most measurement schemes capture only a small set of fairly objective brand characteristics (such as favorability, top-of-mind salience, and uniqueness) to describe the market value of a brand. These qualities are important, but they fall a bit short when they try to explain why thousands of people have their favorite brand logos burned into their skin as permanent tattoos.

A brand makes an impact for reasons well beyond its ownership of desirable product attributes. It can align with cultural tensions and against prevailing ideologies. It can embed itself in the fabric of popular culture and hitch itself to evocative celebrities. It can become entrenched in household habits and rituals.

Most important, successful brands acknowledge the fundamental process of cocreation with their customers. Put differently, strong brands “matter” to their users and the worlds in which they reside; they provide meanings that people need to make sense of their lives. The raw material for these stories often emanates from events in mass culture that are well beyond the brand’s control. Harley-Davidson, for example, benefited tremendously from the famed riots in Hollister, California, in 1957, that were later codified in Marlon Brando’s rebel role in The Wild Ones.

Disruption #2: The End of (Mass) Market Segmentation

Conventional approaches to market segmentation originated with corporate pioneers (most notably General Motors) that recognized the value of developing separate business units to cater to the needs of relatively large, homogeneous targets. Today that approach is more problematic. Contemporary culture splinters into a constantly evolving myriad of microcultures, where consumers find common ground in finely defined lifestyle or aesthetic preferences. These groups form tightly knit communities. Fandoms typically coalesce around an activity (e.g., “Tuners” in Los Angeles who are Latino or Asian car hobbyists), a media event (e.g., the television show Lost), or a cult brand (e.g., the now-defunct Apple Newton).

The dual movements toward open source models and accelerated market fragmentation disrupt many of our time-honored assumptions about consumer behavior:

  • Consumers no longer merely accept or reject a marketer’s value proposition, but rather propose their own version that may or may not align with organizational values.
  • Producers can ramp up the involvement of jaded consumers by encouraging them to co-create a market offering. 
  • The value of traditional market segmentation techniques and demographic/psychographic measures is questionable when consumers ricochet from identification with one microculture to another in rapid succession.
  • The value of established brands and brand personalities is murky when customers can literally create their own customized versions of their favorite products.
  • The impact of credible sources diminishes as the locus of power shifts from easily identifiable corporate messengers to crowd-sourced communications.
  • The strategic value of IMC and traditional public relations strategies when organizations relinquish their ability to execute messaging campaigns in a coherent and systematic manner.

The tidal wave of user-generated content that now engulfs the media landscape takes us beyond the traditional corporate identity focus on “We are what we are seen to be,” and toward “We are what our customers tell us we are.” In this new world, newly empowered users now advocate for and against brands on a plethora of social media platforms. Organizations need to accept the reality that they no longer “own” their brands: The inmates run the asylum now.

A Professor of Marketing at the Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and an industry consultant, Michael R. Solomon combines cutting-edge academic theory with actionable real-world strategies. He helps managers get inside the heads of their customers so they can anticipate and satisfy their deepest and most pressing needs – today and tomorrow. An executive at Subaru said it best: “The man is a scholar who is current and street-wise.” He is the author of the best-selling book "Consumer Behavior: Buying, Having and Being."

For more information on Michael, or to inquire about his speaking fees and availability, please fill out the form below.

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