Topic: Book Club

Ries: Involving Customers In Creating Brands

Posted by Anonymous on 500 Points
Last Book Club Segment we discussed the topic of "social media" whereas this segment we're focused on creating brands and brand categories. So this question involves both...

We know that marketing should be involved at the very outset with the New Product Development and R&D teams...but so shouldn't customers--or, perhaps I should say "potential customers"?

I'm not advocating focus groups (I'm not a fan of those); I'm advocating that when we're in the midst of creating new brands and brand categories we involve the customers we're targeting and get their opinions and advice. The term nowadays is "crowdsourcing" in that we draw upon the crowd for their opinions especially in using social media tools (e.g. blogs, wikis) to do so.

Sure, this can open up a company to let its product plans be known but doesn't it help to (1) build the product in the prospects mind (2) give us tangible feedback in shaping the product before we've made a million widgets that go unsold and (3) engage product advocates/evangelists to help spread word-of-mouth since they've been involved in the actual process--rather than at the very end of it?

Al, Laura, Marketers...what say you?

Moderator Note: This discussion refers to the book The Origin of Brands by Al and Laura Ries (topic: branding). Click the title to learn more. Then join the conversation. We'd LOVE for you to participate!
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  • Posted on Accepted
    Yes, to all three reasons you give for inviting consumer input at the early stages. But you run the risk of having consumers tell you all these things they ideally may want in an item -- in a perfect world. And then when you take their advice and bring it to market, they say, by the actions, oh, we didn't mean that exactly, or now that we see it, it's not what we imagined. Haven't you seen that happen iwith input from focus groups?

    Get the input, but weigh it very carefully.
  • Posted by Drew McLellan on Accepted
    I think the vast majority of brand work today is being done with existing organizations that have never truly discovered their brand. They have stayed on the surface, rather than digging deep enough to find the truth.

    In those cases, I think it is imperative to invite the consumers in so you can find out where their heads are at. What they already think and "know" about the brand.

    But, whether it is a new entity or an old one who's finally ready to do the hard work of branding -- I don't believe you let the customers dictate the brand. Instead, I think you let them help you identify language and themes that you use to wrap around the brand.

  • Posted on Author
    Drew: Thanks for coming over! I agree that customers can help to identify themes. To clarify, I'm not advocating customers dictate the brand but are involved in the process--they are who we're building these brands for, after all. It's not handing over the process, more of a collaboration.

    David: Yep, I've seen and heard the war stories from customers who think they want one thing...only to find they want another (oy!)--and it does need to be weighed very carefully. Amazing though, the feedback you can get when you involve them. I'm working towards collaboration more at the front-end between those who engineer the product (R&D), those who market it (us) and those who use it (the market).
  • Posted on Accepted
    I see a picture. For a new company this may be more difficult if they don't have a well established sales network of salaried employees and manufacturer's representatives. But if they do, this is one potential scenario.

    Outdoor furniture company
    makes umbrellas, gazebos, chairs, etc. They would like to create a new category for high class lounges/bars with terraces and patios; picture stylistic ergonomic sofas/chairs made from white plastic injection molding, with rear and bottom cushions. They begin designs and good prototypes.

    Company creates an invite only website (login required) that has a Product Info section, DIY area, and a Discussion Board. Company invites sales reps, select clientèle, pr folks, writers, and some potential buyers to visit. With a flash interface, visitors can create and modify their own products by changing the plastic and fabric colors and cushion shapes. They can also save their picks and display them to others through the discussion board and on their profile. With this feedback on the first line and additional design molds, we have an interesting NPD process.

    I could go on, but I think that's a great concept. Kind of like but private and special. Ideas?
  • Posted on Accepted
    Here's my too bits:

    On or about December 1910, Virginia Woolf wrote nearly 100 years ago that "human character changed".

    No, I have not been walking around with that tid bit of info for the last dozen years. I just read it about 20 minutes ago in the April edition of Harper's Magazine that a friend of mine subscribes to which I swiped!

    It's in an essay about what Woolf meant about modernism in society back then. To her we changed in an overt "self-consciouness that identifies and interrogates its own motions and motives".

    Alright, now cut to last night. I was glued to YouTube for hours traversing this and that link, each of which was fascinating in its own way. I walked away completely buzzed, in part because I was entertained from iwhat I saw. The feeling was also due to the fact that about 80% of the videos were edited before they were were loaded up onto YT. The stuff they didn't like "said" about themselves was edited out.

    I enjoyed their messages, probably because of the edits, since they kept the intended message focused. I also then reviewed the comments people wrote about what they thought about the viewed work. Which one was transparent? I vote neither. It's my belief - having spent too much time at media parties - that people don't listen in real time. ... especially when they've had a drink or two when their "supposed" guard is down (hmmm, a topic for another time).

    Person/Brand A just waits until person B finishes (hopefully) what they had to say before person/Brand A continues to blob on with their thesis. A "One-up-person/brand-ship" in their own way.

    I think people/marketers do listen what they heard, but later on, when they are by themselves, sifting through & digesting what they absorbed. But the editing still takes place. It's at that moment when the person/Brand decides/chooses who/what was true vs. untrue.

    What happens if they are not intuitive? Even #'s lie. I know first-hand. I was in the agency business for quite some time, serving up "research" to clients :--)

    Then there's the unfortunate situation where both a person or a company digests wrong info and acts on it. We are victim to this one time or another.

    Social media or not, life is a crapshoot. That's what makes it both terrible and exciting.

    For me, I've become very skeptical about social media (was it ever really not), which - in and of itself - is my editing what I prefer not to hear/read/say. I write that having "self-consciously identified and interrogated my own motions and motives"!

    Suggestion, find yourself an evening and spend it on YT all night until you can't keep your eyes open.

    Secondly, a question. No doubt you already guessed what it is, "whatever happened to Virginia Woolf"?

  • Posted on Member
    Hi Tim,
    Active listening is a vital skill among effective communicators.
    Being a participant in a controlled conversation is no fun. To answer your question, I don't know where Virginia went. Perhaps sipping tropical drinks with Carmen SanDiego in Tahiti?

    I too am skeptical at times of "social media" and its promises and hooplah. It's just a tool though for some greater objective at hand; whether it's used more for self-serving or community-serving is a question to be addressed at the individual application.

    And that thought is important because when building an environment as I described earlier, for the organizational purpose of designing a new product and arousing appeal, we have to ask: What are we giving the participants that they would want? What are the motivators for their participation in such an environment? We can't just give everyone $100 Starbucks gift cards or other simple incentives for their participation. There's some deep psychological craftsmanship and critical thinking that needs to be addressed before any code and graphics are written.
  • Posted on Accepted
    There are times when products were tested and the results said,"Won't work" but the believer on the inside went ahead ayway, and surprise it worked! And the opposite has also happened.

    With something really new and different aka divergent, its great to test if we can and even greater to have the passion and know-how to decide to push ahead.
  • Posted on Member
    Correction: My question should have been "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"? [Apologies for the mis(label)ed metaphor.]

    I also think I error when I make the assumption that people are referring to the entire blogosphere when they use the term, "Social media" (SM), in this forum.

    Using research and feedback to manage a brand is obviously an excellent tool, even to a nit-wit like me! Its proper use always was and always will be. And yes, SM is a great form of research/feedback. But let's not make the mistake of holding it up as the holy grail just as we did with "Search". SM faces the same problem as search did/does with click fraud. I think that's a key issue.

    For what it's worth, I love the blog and all its passion, though IMO opinion, it is filled with more rancor and ps and vinegar than Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton ever exhumed in Lehman's (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) screenplay. Hence, my reference.

    That said, I do find SM extremely helpful on a personal level. One example of that is this forum. The term "crowdsourcing" is new to me and is a better descriptor than SM itself. In the last week, the MadAve Journal just interviewed a most recognized figure in the field of integrated media and marketing research. I wish I had learned crowdsourcing sooner. My bad. Our interviewee has their fair share of opinions and even announcements of what their company is about to roll out to measure the influence SM has, should have and will have in the next cycle. Its publication will be within the next two weeks, right before ad:tech. Please forgive the plug-like reference.

    Separately, Mario, Threadless is a great example of crowdsourcing. I agree with your reference on controlled conversation, but I think "moderators" are essential as a key driver to further legitimizing SM. Tangentially I would love to know if the importance and influence of "moderators" in SM has been a discussion point as of yet. If so, please direct me. We need more learning on moderator-netiquette. To your point about where Virginia might be, no doubt like yourself, I'm a big fan of Carmen Sandiego. I wish I were in Tahiti with her this weekend to confirm your suspicion. I imagine you are right!
  • Posted on Accepted
    Should you involve consumers when developing new products? It all depends.

    If the new product is something that fits in with the consumer's present life style, sure. The more feedback the better.

    If the new product is truly revolutionary and its use or consumption would necessitate changes in the consumer's life style, be careful. The feedback is probably worthless.

    Before Dietrich Mateschlitz introduced Red Bull, he did extensive consumer testing. The consumers didn't like the name; they didn't like the taste and they didn't like the packaging.

    Mateschlitz introduced the product anyway and today Red Bull does $3.4 billion in worldwide sales.
  • Posted on Member
    Thanks for the great input and ways that companies have taken customer and partner input into the NPD process. I am very interested in this field myself.

    I believe what CK and I are looking into are unique ways we as marketers can use new media with other parties in the development process. Just a bit of playful brainstorming if you will.

    I believe there's a lot of process inefficiency that can be reduced through well designed online tools. Tim brings up an excellent point in maintaining leadership and control over any such efforts. I see control in the sense of direction. Schoolkids in the playground like to play, but they need yard supervisors and a set time to come back inside. Structure is important to subconsciously really appreciating our time in addition naturally, to getting things done. Just like good meetings should be run.
  • Posted on Member
    Hi Gaynelle,

    Yes, that is what we're generally interested in.

    Google labs is an amazing array of various online info tools. Their common use would be by an individual, however there's no reason why we couldn't use them within a group environment.

    With an AJAX interface and the some coding with the Google API, group members could search (on their own time) for pictures, video, links, blog posts, other content. Then, they could drag and drop the item into a personal 'sandbox'. At this point there are some options in sharing this media:

    1) Personal profile page
    2) Message boards / private group blogs
    3) Live meetings
    4) Private Messages

    Just some ideas to throw around. Because the online world is much slower than a real life meeting....a vast amount of control, direction, and guidelines need to be in place to maintain focus.

    If some group members sense disorganization, their spirits will be lowered and active participation will be negatively affected. Not a good thing at all. Organizers can't assess how a presentation/other activity is going from people's faces and posture....because no one is there! LOL

    It is my belief that initial meetings/activities online would need a follow-up telephone call from the organizer to assess effectiveness by soliciting feedback. Simple questions, mostly listening. People love to give their opinions and to be heard.
    This is paramount in reducing the risk of group think.

    Google Co-op is a customized search engine. I suppose if one had a specific plan on how individuals could use it before engaging in the group activities, so they contribute, it could be useful.

    Lastly, Google Alerts is a researcher's dream tool:
  • Posted on Member
    Thanks so much to everyone who participated in the Marketing Profs Book Club review of our book The Origin of Brands which I co-wrote with my daughter/partner Laura Ries.

    And an extra special thanks to CK for all her hard work and dedication to the improvement of marketing minds everywhere.

    For more branding information and debates check out

    Laura's blog at:

    and CK's at:

    - Al Ries

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