There is an ongoing debate in the marketing industry about who “controls” the brand. On one side are those who say the growing power of social media has put the consumer in control. Shrill voices from the other side say no, the marketer remains firmly at the helm.
Here’s the flaw in both sides of the argument: brand marketing is not about control. It’s about authenticity, integrity, and staying true to the brand’s values.
A recent opinion piece by MacLaren McCann’s Doug Turney in Strategy has renewed this hand-wringing over the continuing “pronouncements that consumers are taking control of brands.” It counters that concern with the story of the long-dormant, but now resurgent Bugatti brand, suggesting that “consumers can drive you out of business, but they can’t kill your brand.” However, the Bugatti story boils down to a case of its new proprietors (VW) following through on the values the brand originally stood for, and now reaping the rewards of that authenticity.
This is the way brands have always worked; and it speaks much more about brand truth, than control. On the other side of the coin, there are plenty of stories about car brands that have died because their marketers failed to “walk the talk,” leading consumers to simply walk away. A classic example is the demise of the once-powerful Oldsmobile brand—which, by the way, had nothing to do with Facebook, the social media darling that was born the year Oldsmobile died.
Oldsmobile: Death of a Branding Icon
Founded by Ransom E. Olds in 1897, Oldsmobile grew to become one of the most admired American car brands. In 1940, it was the first automobile to offer an automatic transmission, the fabled Hydra-Matic, “Motoring’s Magic Carpet.” Everyone knew what the Oldsmobile brand stood for, because it was the central rung in GM magnate Alfred P. Sloan’s vision of the “ladder of success.” Considered one of the earliest examples of product differentiation through branding, Sloan’s “ladder” positioned Oldsmobile between the mass-market Chevrolet and Pontiac brands, and the higher-end Buicks and Cadillacs. The strategy resonated well with the upwardly-mobile aspirations of the American middle class. And they bought into it: by the 1980s, the Oldsmobile Cutlass was the most popular U.S. car model. Through most of that decade Oldsmobile sold over a million cars a year worldwide.
Then Olds hit a slippery slope. GM’s marketing brass decided the brand needed to be re-invented for a younger, cooler, hipper audience. In 1988 they unleashed a massive—and disastrous—international multimedia ad campaign under the banner, “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” A British TV spot had Ringo Starr spouting the campaign’s theme line to his daughter, Lee Starkey—while U.S. Audiences were treated to Melanie Shatner comparing her new Oldsmobile to the “starship” her father used to drive (yes, really!)
Most of the recognized Oldsmobile model names were phased out over the next few years and replaced with models that didn’t cut it, either with the brand’s loyalists, or with the hoped-for “new generation” of Oldsmobile buyers. Combined with the “not your father’s” campaign line, this re-invention of the brand inspired more than one observer to agree—“Dad’s was better!” The brand community took up roots and moved to other brands, and by 2000 annual sales were less than 25% of what they had been a decade earlier.
A Classic Example of Marketing Arrogance
When it was phased out in 2004, Oldsmobile was the oldest surviving American automobile marque. In its 107-year history, it had sold 35.2 million cars. Its death stands as a classic example of marketing arrogance; based on the notion that the marketer “controls” the brand. What gets forgotten in that view of marketing is that consumers expect a brand to stand for something, and to be consistent about it.
The truth is, most consumers don’t want to control the brands they love, they just want them to be themselves. They want a brand to consistently deliver on its promise and values. At the end of the day, those who think the advent of social media has changed these fundamentals of what makes a brand a brand, are on just as shaky ground as the marketers who think their “control” of the brand allows them to arbitrarily change the values the brand stands for.
What has changed is how quickly and vociferously consumers can register their feedback. Which is all to the good… for marketers who know how to listen.