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Consumption assumptions

Richard Millar, Hill & Knowlton
Richard Millar, Hill & Knowlton

The term may have fallen out of vogue, but we are all consumers in some form. This fact, coupled with the crucial importance of social media, means brands must develop their conversational skills. By Richard Millar

When did 'consumer' and 'consumption' become such dirty words?

Some people have always vilified conspicuous consumption for its perceived vulgarity, but that's simply a matter of personal taste. It was when 'conspicuous' morphed into 'irresponsible' that the witch-hunt began.

All around them, critics saw the 'fruits' of this irresponsibility: increases in taxes, reduction in public-sector spending, falling house prices, climate change - it seemed that almost all the world's ills could be blamed on consumers and their dirty habits.

Well, I'm a consumer and proud of it. And I have to tell you the freak show's over, folks. Consumer is a word that we all need to get comfortable with again in 2011.

I am a consumer when I harvest my home-grown fruit and vegetables.

I am a consumer when I participate in my agency's Freecycle event.

I am a consumer when I choose to eat at 'a lunch club' rather than McDonald's.

I am also a consumer when I spoil my kids with the newest electronic gadgetry at Christmas.

It's so much more than a matter of taste. When I consume, I am living my personal values - and I am not living alone.

Never before have I been able to identify and engage so easily with those who share my values. This unprecedented access to more knowledge to help make my choices, coupled with a keener awareness of what I am consuming, gives me huge power.

It's good to be a consumer in a world of social media. But what does this mean for the marketer?

It starts with your values. You have to communicate your organisation's social purpose, or big ideal, to all your stakeholders, not just your business purpose.

So, for Marks & Spencer, that's Plan A; for our client Adidas, it's about re-engaging youth in sport and driving levels of participation for Generation Y.

For your values to be seen as credible, you need to communicate them from the inside out. That means not just engaging your employees, but persuading them to act as your community advocates.

Take Scott Monty, head of social media for Ford Motor Company. At the same time as being a great advocate for the Ford story and the role of social media, he is 100% his own man. His individual voice and personality gives credibility to what he says, whether it's on his own or Ford's behalf.

So, you're saying what you want to say. Now you have to start listening. I mean really listening. Using conversational and reputational monitoring programmes is not just about boosting your Facebook page following. It's how you use the information to influence content.

A lot of brands still don't seem to get this, but one that does is Old Spice. This year's outstanding social media campaign, with actor Isaiah Mustafa, delivered personalised video responses to influencers, media channels and individual consumers, creating mass talkability and an overwhelmingly positive response. It's a great example of what can happen when a brand gets it right.

I deliberately haven't spoken from a public relations point of view. In social media, the lines of ownership have always seemed blurred - though not in my mind. I agree with Jim Farley, vice-president of global marketing at Ford, that 'PR's function holds the keys to authentic media, content that people really trust'.

One of the most interesting developments, in PR terms, is the evolution of social news. This is where news is derived from social networks - formed around shared values, not just the established news sources - and where users can influence the prominence (or lack of it) given to certain stories.

This underlines the fact that you have to keep the conversation much more dynamic. Where is the value in two annual campaigns these days? As the authors of Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead wrote, treat marketing planning as a series of month-long sprints... or, as my grandmother used to say: little and often.

This is what consumers expect today. Talk to us - as people. Listen to us. Act on what we say, and be seen to act on it. Then repeat.

Richard Millar is chief executive of Hill & Knowlton UK

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