Flashback warning: How many of you remember the Faberge Organics shampoo commercial that was all over the place in the late 70s? The one where a woman tells two friends about the shampoo, and they tell two friends, and so on, and so on…?

Decades later, this commercial still demonstrates cleanly and quickly the power of word-of-mouth marketing.

Flash forward: What if brands could figure out how to proactively harness the power of word-of-mouth marketing? What if—instead of badmouthing by consumers—we could harness the power of the consumer's word in brandmouthing?

Think about it. Brands such as Apple, Harley-Davidson, Starbucks, Krispy Kreme, and Prкt A Manger were built on the power of word-of-mouth referrals. No large advertising budgets there!

The brands relied on the consumers who experienced the brand to go forth and preach and convert the masses. And based on the track record of those companies, I would say they did so quite successfully.

Starbucks spent only $10 million on brand recognition, according to Chuck Donofrio of Carton-Donofrio. The UK Internet bank First Direct is said to have had more than 80% of its customers come from referrals.

In this place in time, where consumers are overwhelmed with ad messages and life in general, the advice from family and friends probably holds great sway over the choices others make when it comes to cars, computers, oil-change shops and many other product choices.

Legendary business guru Peter Drucker says that a company has only two basic purposes in the marketplace: innovation and marketing. And Mr. Drucker holds that real marketing is actually very rare.

“When managers speak of marketing, they usually mean the organized performance of selling functions,” Drucker says. “This is still selling…. Selling and marketing are antithetical rather than synonymous, or even complimentary…the aim of marketing is to make selling superfluous.”

Read that last phrase again: the aim of marketing is to make selling superfluous. Not to make sales superfluous, but rather to make the need for costly sales teams so. Word-of-mouth marketing may be the answer to how to apply Mr. Drucker's theory.

How did companies like Starbucks and Prкt A Manger harness the power of word-of-mouth marketing to make sales forces unnecessary to their success? By having a brand that is rooted in the customers, and in their wants and needs, and by offering something that is of value again and again.

It is more than just the product; it is the product plus the experience. People will tout a product they like, but they will shout from the rooftops about a product that also is an experience. Experience sells.

People are overwhelmed with information. Frankly, opening the mail has at times become overwhelming for me. There is a huge amount of stuff out there, coming at people from various channels—email, direct mail, the Internet, TV, radio, billboards.

These messages, images and offers fly at the consumer constantly and usually without the benefit of a filter through which to look at them and sort them through. Therefore, consumers use friends, family and even colleagues to act as that filter, or editor, for them in their selection process. These communities of marketplace, of people who have experienced the brand positively, are an untapped resource for brands.

The hard part, though, is how to harness this power for good and not evil. As marketers, we all know that people are much more likely to gripe about bad service than to sing about good service. However, that said, customer service is, I think, the key to getting a brand touted and referred again and again and again.

It is amazing how remarkably easy it is to surprise me—and other consumers—with good customer service. It is almost as if we expect surly, unhelpful people as the norm.

Yet ask any group of industry experts, and they too cite that customer service is the one area where brands can make inroads with consumers. Excellent customer service gets talked about.

As Richard Marshall, business development director for Tullo Marshall Warren, one of the UK's biggest marketing agencies, put it, “Word-of-mouth is such a prized asset. It's surprising that brands don't place more emphasis on customer service.”

Or, as Rory Sutherland, executive creative director at OgilvyOne, said, “Not enough brands are asking, What are we doing for this brand that will make it anecdotal?”

Now, this article is too short to become a primer on how to best create brandmouthing. But some things are obvious. Look at some of the successful brands mentioned earlier: what do they do that your brand doesn't? Benchmarking is a highly underrated activity. Take a long hard look at your customer service channels: do they offer superlative service that also reinforces and supports the brand? Are they supporting the brand experience? Are they adding to it?

Make sure word-of-mouth marketing is understood in your organization, and what the true power of it is—the good, the bad, and the ugly of it. And don't let word-of-mouth marketing be swept under the table because it isn't a high-cost activity.

Realize the ripple effect that it has on the marketplace. Educate your company about it.

As Richard Marshall said, “Having the customer or prospect as an ambassador for the brand you're trying to sell is the purest form of direct marketing imaginable.” Indeed.

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Kristine Kirby Webster is Principal of The Canterbury Group, a direct-marketing consultancy specializing in branding and relationship marketing. She is also an Adjunct Professor of Direct Marketing at Mercy College in NY. She can be reached at Kristine@canterburygroup.net.