ANALYSIS: Web fuels consumer activism - Superempowered consumers are now using the web, their mobile phones, and some considerable PR savvy to take on big business and the government

For several days last week a small group of disgruntled consumers effectively brought the country to a halt. The petrol protests and blockades emptied roads, closed schools, caused panic-buying in supermarkets and posed the biggest challenge to the Labour government since Tony Blair took office more than three years ago.

For several days last week a small group of disgruntled consumers effectively brought the country to a halt. The petrol protests and blockades emptied roads, closed schools, caused panic-buying in supermarkets and posed the biggest challenge to the Labour government since Tony Blair took office more than three years ago.

Inspired by French fishermen, who successfully protested against the price of their fuel, UK groups of farmers, truck drivers and cabbies decided to take direct action. They blockaded the exits to key oil plants, ensuring the country was deprived of an essential resource.

Petrol stations were swamped with people desperate to fill up before a shortage, and three-hour queues were rapidly reduced by 'empty' signs taped to pumps. By Thursday, press reports claimed that the economy would grind to a halt if fuel supplies were not mobilised, and estimated that the blockades were costing British businesses pounds 250m a day.

This was a political protest. The target was Labour's tax on petrol, rather than the pricing policies of the petrol companies. But it could so easily have been the corporate oil giants in the firing line - and at one stage it almost was. Just as the protesters last week were preparing to abandon the picket lines, Esso fanned the fires by making a shock announcement that it was raising its petrol prices by 2p a litre, and those of diesel by 4p.

Esso's price gaffe

What appears to be an amazing public relations gaffe was followed by a precipitate U-turn: Esso said it had changed its mind, and the prices would be brought down again. But the incident showed how quickly the wrath of the super-empowered consumer could be turned on business brands, as well as political parties. Sainsbury's has taken the wise step of lowering its petrol prices.

But does the chaos of last week, and the ability of a relatively small number of protestors to cause such disruption and damage, have relevance for corporate brands?

According to Kevin Thompson, managing director of brand consultancy Brandsmiths, it certainly has. He believes that consumers are now more vocal, more media-literate, and more able to organise, than ever before.

'We as consumers have the power to influence companies,' he says. 'This protest was also people spontaneously telling the government that they are going to react to things they don't like.'

But this demonstration also differed in the nature of the protestors themselves. Television pictures showed many of the leaders - well-spoken, middle-class farmers - talking to young police officers on the picket lines, who sometimes looked uncertain whether to arrest them or take orders from them.

This was middle England venting its spleen. But now instead of a letter to The Daily Mail, unhappy farmers and small businessmen get on the internet, organise protests across the country co-ordinated by mobile phone, and use appointed press officers to give briefings to the TV news.

In its campaign against what it sees as a sentimental townie opposition to fox hunting, the Countryside Alliance has already shown how rural pressure groups can take on the government.

Some industry observers say the protests of last week are another indication of a significant shift in the way people view themselves as consumers and citizens, and how they see their relationship with businesses and institutions. Sean Pillot de Chenecey, trend forecaster for youth markets, said: 'People are tired, and sick of being ripped-off, but can't get away from brands and branding. As a result they are becoming 'prosumers' - they are demanding their voice be heard.'

Mistrusting business

The Future Foundation recently conducted qualitative research on behalf of Brann, called Turning the Tables, which explores how consumers want to buy.

Future Foundation co-founder Melanie Howard says: 'Most marketers look at ad campaigns to control consumer behaviour. Part of people's mistrust of business comes from the way companies aren't open with them, and the way they try to impose this control.'

And it's not just youth protestors attacking McDonald's, or farmers blockading petrol terminals. Even that free-market bastion the US is seeing significant shifts in public attitudes to corporate power.

A survey published by Business Week in the US this month found that 72% of Americans believe business has too much power over their lives, and 74% say big companies have too much political influence. The magazine says that being 'anti-corporate' is becoming increasingly fashionable.

Many of the issues that have prompted concern in the US have already registered in the UK. Fat-cat salaries, genetically modified foods, globalisation of marketing messages, exploitation of Third-World labour, and too much 'in-your-face' marketing, are all cited as reasons for the consumer backlash in the US.

Today, we also live in an age where complaining has been elevated to a citizen's right. The media has been in no small way responsible for this outburst of assertiveness. The BBC's Watchdog show has been stretched into health and holiday spin-offs; ITV has followed suit with We Can Work It Out, and the Consumer's Association's magazine Which? bombards consumers with reports on anything from car-pricing to dental treatment.

Paul Edwards, chief executive of The Henley Centre, says: 'The media fuels consumer power. Newspapers write stories about it, it's seen on the TV on programmes like Watchdog, and consequently is seen as something that's OK.'

Technological advancements are heavily responsible for the rise of the riled consumer. Thanks to the internet and communications tools like mobile phones, we have become a global society with a heightened awareness of issues outside our own experience.

As a consequence, global companies find themselves under the watchful eye of their customers.

If they fail to behave impeccably at all times, they risk finding their misdemeanours broadcast on a high-speed information network. Nike, which was accused of mistreating its workers in Indonesia and suffered terrible global publicity as a result, will testify to the power of concerned consumers.

As well as informing the consumer of companies' actions, the internet can be instrumental in mobilising direct action groups. From British truckers and farmers communicating on mobile phones during last week's petrol protests, to the organisation of the WTO riots in Seattle over the internet, technology is an important vehicle for consumer dissatisfaction.

Getting connected

Matt le Bretun, business development director of Head New Media, says: 'As more people become connected, the internet becomes a more efficient means to publicise a message. And, as technology increases, the nature of the message will become more complex and increase in persuasiveness.'

The Henley Centre's Edwards says: 'People have seen that consumer power works, and that it is one realm of power left to them. We have learned from little things, and transferred them to big issues and policies like petrol prices.'

But the main lesson for government or business is that they had better listen; if they don't a complaint can escalate into a crisis. Jonathan Hemus, director of PR agency Countrywide Porter Novelli and responsible for crisis management, believes communication is crucial. He says: 'Companies need to consult rather than confront. Ask irate consumers for their views, then decide whether to heed them, or tell them that, yes, you've listened to them, but you can't change course because of whatever reason.'

It remains to be seen what the government will do next in the petrol price wars, but one thing is certain, the super-empowered consumer isn't going away.


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