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The Bold New Consumer

January 4th, 2012
By: Nien Liu

For as long as I’ve been involved in marketing (which isn’t that long) we’ve been wrestling with different ways to involve consumers with our brands. For the longest time this involvement meant getting consumers to generate content to be used to market the brand.

Oh, how we’ve overlooked their potential.

One of my favorite articles about branding was published by the New York Times in 2006 called “Brand Underground.” The article starts with the premise that “savvy millennials see mainstream branding as something that appeals to the lowest common denominator.” And it goes on to profile a few young entrepreneurs who asked themselves “How do I turn my lifestyle into a business?” and launched companies like The Hundreds, aNYthing, Retail Mafia, etc. To me this showed that some people have a sophisticated understanding of business and branding and we often don’t give them credit for it.

I think we’re starting to see the digital equivalent of this type of thinking maturing into something that might draw more participants from the mainstream. People are starting to realize that they possess very valuable assets that brands need, but can’t replicate for themselves.

Unique POV and Voice

For years, people have been making a living through their blogs. Some have even become simple corporate shills. But the better ones are using their blogs to cultivate their own personal brand, which gives them the leeway to get into merchandising, personal appearances, partnerships, etc.

Influence and Personal Networks

While we sometimes make fun of Klout, I think it’s an important first step in allowing people to understand the nature of their influence. Despite some people debating the value of targeting influencers, it’s still the general approach digital, social and PR strategist employ to push through brand messaging and build buzz. If a person were to understand where they are now in terms of influence and what it takes to get to a more desirable state, they could potentially turn networking into a job and monetize their influence. Douglas Rushkoff had an article on CNN about how traditional jobs are becoming obsolete and we need to rethink how we can support ourselves. This would be an instance of that.


An entire industry has been created to collect, analyze, visualize and store data. Some businesses are greedily mining data with no particular plans except that it might be useful someday. The crazy thing is that consumers are just giving it away. A few small companies have popped up to help people better manage their own personal data and control who gets it and who doesn’t. Adage had the best headline to sum up the potential of this space: “Here’s my personal data, marketers. What do I get for it?

I think the sum of these three points show that consumers have an increased understanding of marketing in the digital space. Or at the very least, they are aware of what’s going on. This definitely helps prove the old idea that “marketing to” people is no longer as effective as “marketing with” them. But what’s different is that it’s not exclusively about content anymore. Consumers aren’t content producers, they’re more like business partners because of the value they can potentially add. Here are some examples of brands taking this approach:

1. Converse:

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From the article: “So what if you were to enable people to sell the shoes they design to their mates on Facebook in return for stuff, like free shoes? What if you enabled people to open their own storefront on Converse’s Facebook page? What if you turned the fans of a brand into the retailers?”

2. Trinkhanf:

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From the article: ” Creative customers are being challenged to create tasty new flavors using fruits, herbs, or other natural ingredients. The contest runs through the end of April, after which a panel of judges will pick a winner, and the winning recipe will go into production. Aware that co-creators should share in profits, Frenkenburger will pay the winner one euro-cent per bottle sold.”

3. Vores Ol:

vores html The Bold New Consumer


From the article: “Danish Vores Øl (‘Our Beer’) claims to be the world’s first open-source beer. The recipe and the entire brand is published under a Creative Commons license, meaning that anyone can use Vores Øl’s recipe to brew the beer or to create a derivative.”

I’m pretty excited about these developments for a number of reasons ranging from finding a slightly friendlier version of capitalism to exercising a different creative muscle to take advantage of these opportunities.

But the most exciting thing is seeing the emergence of a tangible role for social media with businesses and individuals. Now there’s a real answer to the annoying question of: “What’s the point of Twitter, Facebook, etc.?”