For thousands of years, commerce depended on dialog. The earliest stone tool makers undoubtedly solicited feedback to learn how to better serve the needs of the tribe. And to this day, tailors, furniture makers, jewelers and other artisans still depend on customer engagement. Success for these people means standing for something. Standing alongside the customer as a peer and seeing the need through each customer’s eyes.

But somewhere along the way – with the rise of industrialization and mass communication – producers lost this direct connection with customers. It’s time to reestablish the dialog – and innovative brands are devising brilliant new ways to make the connection.

There’s a fundamental shift in the way brands need to operate. If you go back even just five or ten years in marketing, it was all about brand positioning and how you would broadcast or beam your positioning into the world like a lighthouse, in all directions. A 360° marketing plan. And it was kind of a brand-centric, self-serving model – which, by the way, worked for 100 years.

But now consumers have the ability to share their brand experiences online. And smart brands are listening in on consumer discussions within community forums, social media and even through product feedback bravely solicited on their own websites.

Sportswear brands Patagonia, Nike and Athleta, for example, all encourage users to post feedback directly to the relevant product page. It’s worth doing because shoppers will look for online reviews wherever they can find them, so why not use that fact to drive them to your site?

But there are better reasons, too.

At a minimum, hosting reviews of your own products can help manage customer expectations. For example, if a customer posts her disappointment in having to return an item because the size ran smaller or larger than expected, future customers can take her review into account when placing their own orders. More powerfully, the brand gains feedback it can use to adjust sizing charts or change the specifications it gives to suppliers. But even more important, customers get to have their say – and that fosters an emotional connection.

Coca-Cola is one example of a brand that has always stood for emotional connection as a core belief – from its legendary “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” campaign to the recent Super Bowl ad featuring people of diverse ethnicities singing lines from “America the Beautiful” in their native languages.

While these ads beautifully portray the value of shared experiences, they still only present a one-way message. Recently, Coke partnered with Saatchi & Saatchi Copenhagen to engage with real consumers at a specific time and place over an issue of shared concern – the problem of unwelcome audience noise at the movies.

The team set up an unobtrusive green screen in the lobby of a theater and captured images of moviegoers talking on their cellphones, crunching popcorn and – most prominently – noisily slurping from Coke-branded cups. In a back room, these scenes were digitally edited into the background of a hokey love scene.

Just minutes later, people in the theater were surprised to see themselves onscreen, gawking at the lovers while slurping their Cokes. Their reactions to the stunt were filmed for an ad to be played in theaters before the main attraction. The message: “Please keep quiet during the movie. It’s not the same with you in it.” It fits brilliantly with Coke’s image as a brand that celebrates community and makes shared experiences better.

Airbnb has taken video in an even more interactive direction, turning customers into brand advocates in the process. This open marketplace for listing and booking accommodations recently created a short film assembled from six-second clips taken by Vine users around the world, with individual shots directed via tweets to Airbnb’s 160,000 followers.

More than 100 Vine submissions were edited into the story of a paper airplane (and other incarnations – paper boat, crumpled ball, origami bird, love letter, etc.) journeying through “the best parts where you live.” It’s a film that collaboratively engages Airbnb fans in celebrating Airbnb’s mission: “A story of travel, adventure, and finding your place in the world.”

Wendy’s also took a collaborative approach to video with a series of love songs to its Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger featuring lyrics taken directly from fan tweets. The videos reached 85 million people, most of them on the Facebook mobile platform. It was one of the most successful Wendy’s campaigns ever – second only to the iconic “Where’s the Beef?” ads from 30 years ago.

Other brands are collaborating with customers to improve their products. For example,Marriott is soliciting new ideas to help “shape the future of travel” through its website. Customers who submit the best ideas are rewarded with a VIP trip and the chance to co-create their idea working directly with Marriot’s innovation team.

Another innovative approach is to engage each customer individually, learning their lifestyles and preferences in order to offer a customized product experience. A great example of this is the “Fragrance Bar” at Sephora’s flagship store in Shanghai, China.

Customers can interact with one of two iPad apps at six individual stations, exploring either the idea of “memorable scents” or “key life occasions.”

The apps then suggest scents that evoke powerful memories for that individual – or that are most appropriate for work, dating, going out on the town and so on. Ten perfume diffusers are available at each station to deliver samples of suggested scents, and users can share their results on the Sina Weibo microblogging site.

And listening can do more than create connections between the brand and consumers. It can also help build connections between different people and even different cultures. For example, Coca-Cola installed vending machines in shopping malls located in both Lahore, Pakistan and New Delhi, India – two neighboring countries with a long history of political, economic and even military conflict.

Video screens on both sides allow people to see each other, with the invitation to “Make a friend in India” or “Make a friend in Pakistan.” Interactive features have users waving, touching hands through the screen, tracing a peace sign or heart, dancing together, photographing one another, and so on.

The theme is, “A moment of happiness has the power to bring the world closer together,” and while it may not bring world peace, it powerfully positions Coca-Cola as a brand devoted to bringing people together. And, now that you’ve made a new friend, why not buy him or her a Coke?

Opening a dialog has always been an effective way to improve the brand and gain true believers. For 100 years, big brands largely forgot how to do that. The most important communications media for brands were all one-way. That’s not true anymore. Now, smart brands are learning how to interact with customers again. And they’re opening a new world of possibilities we’ve only begun to explore.

Author / Bruce Levinson


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