Andrew Walmsley on Digital: the consumer manages the brand

Andrew Walmsley
Andrew Walmsley

Making the most of a brand means avoiding being overly literal about notions of ownership

In a web 2.0 world, it's time to 'let go' and 'cede control to consumers'. We've all heard it before, and digital pundits love to repeat it.

Yet, it wasn't a blogger who said this. Nor was it a digital guru or a futurist. It was AG Lafley, then chairman, president and chief executive of Procter & Gamble.

In a game of word association on the topic of P&G, the phrases 'laissez-faire' and 'laid back' are unlikely to score highly. So the words 'cede control' aren't what you expect to hear.

However, it's four years since Lafley gave prominence to this meme, and the issue is still hotly debated; attracting attention from evangelists and reactionaries alike. It seems we're no closer to agreement on whether he was right, so I'm going to look at the arguments, and try to construe what he meant.
Often, people who support this view talk about consumers 'owning' the brand, which has caused a great deal of concern among literalists.

The latter point out that the brand is a set of intellectual properties owned ultimately by share-holders of the company that controls that IP. This literal interpretation is unhelpful and misses the point.

The 'ownership' referred to is the existence in consumers' minds of a set of, principally emotional, constructs - beliefs, impressions and associations involving a brand. These constructs give a brand what is often described as 'personality'. Importantly, this is what differentiates a brand from being a commodity - and it's this differentiation that allows it to charge a premium.

The rationalists would argue that there are tangible distinctions that differentiate brands from commodities. This is true but, again, unhelpful; it's what's in peoples' heads that counts.

A brand can have no practical difference to commodities in a market, but its consumers believe it has; while a brand can have real differences, but consumers don't believe they exist.

So the 'ownership' being referred to here is the consumer's possession of a set of beliefs - beliefs that are the essence of 'the brand'. In this sense, the consumer 'owns' the brand.

This has always been the case, but, until recently, consumers couldn't do anything about it. They lacked any means through which to make their thoughts public - on any appreciable scale, at least. As we all know, that's changed now.

Consumers talk incessantly about brands, via forums, blogs and social networks, discussing their experiences, good and bad. They're shaping public perceptions in powerful ways that distort, support and destroy the efforts of marketers to package brands as they'd like them to be seen.

If you take the literalist position, this doesn't matter. 'It's our brand,' you'd say. 'We'll do the brand management.'

However, today, effective brand management means recognising the consumer's point of view and including it. As such, it's no different from what good brand stewardship has always been.

When Lafley suggested we 'cede control to consumers' he didn't mean we literally make them the brand manager, or get them to do the advertising. What he meant was consistent with the true principles of effective brand-building. As he put it earlier this year: 'Of all stakeholders, both outside and inside, the most important is the consumer... but if there's a conflict, I make sure we resolve it in favour of consumers.'

If your consumer doesn't dictate the nature of your products and the shape of your communications, then what you're doing isn't marketing, and you're missing out on the biggest benefit web 2.0 brings - the ability to listen to consumers, and put them in the driving seat. Because as Lafley puts it 'the consumer is boss'.
Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level

30 seconds on AG Lafley

  • Alan George Lafley was born in New Hampshire in 1947.

  • During the Vietnam War, he served as a commissioned US Navy supply officer for five years.

  • Lafley earned an MBA from Harvard Business School.

  • He joined Procter & Gamble on graduating in 1977 as brand manager for Joy dishwashing liquid. He has stayed with the company since then.

  • Lafley is also on the General Electric board of directors.

  • He has been director of computer brand Dell's Singapore division since 2006.

  • Forbes estimated Lafley's total remuneration for 2009 at $23.6m (£14.3m)

  • In 2000 he became chief executive of P&G, which was then in a slump, and delivered a powerful turnaround. 'In the 18 years that I've followed Procter & Gamble, I have never seen the company this good,' wrote one commentator in Fortune magazine.

  • Last month, Lafley was given the Edison Achievement Award for 'innovation, marketing, and human-centred design'.


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