Yes, the new age of extreme participation is a challenge for brand managers. No, you haven't lost control.
The notion that you can manage your brand by making and distributing messages and materials that you want "out there" is becoming quaint.
Rather, now, monologues need to be replaced by dialogues; formal market research needs to be paired with attentive listening; "advice" is offered round the clock; participation in social media is now table stakes; and customers and prospects who have always trusted friends to help them make decisions often have a huge network they can carry around with them to consult.
What you plan and execute from headquarters can be either reinforced or undermined by what you don't plan and execute. Transparency is no longer an elective. And anyone can create a brouhaha (some 6.6 million people viewed the YouTube video of United Airlines' mishandling of Dave Carroll's guitar, and many more people know the story); or, conversely, anyone can give you a "brand gift"—the same incident viewed from Carroll's brand-view.
Your brand is now clearly owned by your constituents (though that has always been true)—and you're the brand steward. What's in their heads and hearts—what they've internalized and what they expect and express—is your brand.
Being the brand steward, with some but not all the levers within reach, has many brand "managers" wringing their hands: "We've lost control; we're at the mercy of—well, everyone!"
Not quite. While certainly some control is ceded in our new participatory environment, it is given in exchange for (potentially) much more engaged constituencies; for the possibility of having a huge (unpaid) corps of advocates; for data and learning that can advance your enterprise.
And you—brand manager—can control more than you think of this new, shared enterprise. Furthermore, you can influence what you can't control.
Roger Sametz is president and CEO of Sametz Blackstone Associates, a Boston-based brand consultancy that integrates brand, editorial, and digital strategy with design and digital media. Sametz Blackstone collaborates with a wide range of academic, cultural, community-focused, and corporate clients.
LinkedIn: Roger Sametz