What marketers can learn from Barbie

What Barbie boasts in beauty, she lacks in social responsibility. If the campaign for a bald version of the doll tells us anything, writes Nicola Clark, it is that marketers cannot hide from consumer feedback.

She's been a doctor, a vet, a UN ambassador, an air-hostess, a firefighter, a cashier and a film star. So far, however, toy company Mattel has resisted calls to create a bald Barbie to serve as a role model for young girls dealing with hair loss through illness.

Jane Bingham and Beckie Supin, both of whom have daughters who have lost their hair as a result of cancer treatments, are behind a Facebook page called 'Beautiful and Bald Barbie! Let's see if we can get it made'. When it launched, they received a standard response from Mattel stating that it 'does not take unsolicited ideas from outside sources'.

The statement was seemingly little more than the 'computer says no' of the consumer feedback world; a blunt response to a heartfelt request from two individuals seeking to do something positive through a brand they admire.

A subsequent social-media campaign, boosted by national press coverage, has helped the page build up more than 137,000 likes, forcing the corporation to show a more human face.

Mattel said it was 'honoured' that Bingham and Sypin 'believe that Barbie could be the face of such an important cause. Mattel appreciates and respects the passion that has built up for the request for a bald Barbie doll'.

It remains to be seen whether Mattel will finally see the campaign for what it is: a fantastic opportunity to connect with its consumers and raise money for charity. However, what is abundantly clear is that in the context of social media, brands cannot afford to ignore their consumers.

Where once they could hide behind hierarchy and automated systems, the immediacy, transparency and amplification provided by platforms such as Facebook is forcing brands to turn their businesses inside-out to better respond to consumer feedback. Those that fail to adapt will end up left in the cold.

THE UPSHOT

What the new relationship between brands and consumers means for marketers

Consumer says no: the end of automated responses

With the growth of social media, consumers have come to expect brands to both consult them on how they develop their products and services, and act like a human being. Monolithic companies can no longer hide behind corporate language and structures. As Mattel has learned, not accepting 'unsolicited ideas' is no longer a viable option.

Micro-democracy in action

McCann London's 'Britain 2012' research identifies the growth of more direct and small-scale forms of micro-democracy over the past year as a key trend. Institutions required to make unpalatable choices will turn to people for consent to soften the blow and shift some of the blame. In practice, this means that brands will not only have to respond quickly and openly to feedback, but also openly consult consumers on any changes to their products or services.

The hierarchy as you knew it is dead

There has been a shift in the balance of power in the relationship between brands and consumers over the past decade. Consumers do not make any distinction between a company and its brands. In the words of Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg: 'Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.'

Conversational brands

Consumers don't want more branded Facebook pages, they want better dialogue from companies and brands. According to global PR firm Edelman's annual Trust Barometer, consumers are seeking more openness and better dialogue from businesses - and, crucially, for companies to actually listen to their customers.

Nicola Clark is Marketing's head of features. Follow her on Twitter: @nickykc.

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