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Participation: A power shift and reckoning for all brands 

Jackie Hopkins

Jackie Hopkins

Advancements in technology, the rise of social media, and the empowerment that comes with more open global communication structures have greatly influenced how young consumers participate with brands. This means brands need to completely redefine how they look at the people buying their products—many of them no longer fit into any of the previous segments, personas, etc. that have previously been relied on to connect and convert.

The democratization of brand voice

The brand-consumer relationship used to be top-down. The brand had something to tell you—there was a new product launch, a new color, a new flavor, and there were tactics the brand leveraged to amplify those messages. But the shift with social media, influencers, and the democratization of brand voice has turned all of that on its head. And many brands still don’t get it.

Here’s the real headline: Dear [fill in the blank with the biggest consumer brand name you can think of], you don’t really own your brand. It doesn’t matter how big you are, how much name recognition you have, or how deep your pockets are—the collective voice of today’s consumers is bigger than you and is driving change you cannot ignore. The evolution of your brand has become a co-creation with your consumer base.

Your brand is now a shared belief, and your job is to present it as accurately and truthfully as you can. If you want your brand or product to be edgy and energetic, you better put that out there right away before people create their own perceptions. If they do, then you’ve lost it—and you can’t get it back. It’s important to get your brand identity right the first time, and to stay consistent. And if your brand does want to make a shift, large or small, you need to bring those trusted fans and consumers along on that journey.

The power of community and the new value exchange

Who you are as a brand and the messages you’re communicating can’t just make sense to you. There’s a reciprocity equation now that never existed before. Older generations never had the power to demand that brands give them something of value in exchange for buying a product, wearing a logo on their shoes, purse, or car, or telling friends about a great experience at a store or restaurant.

Now that brands are collecting so much data on consumers, and relying on it to deliver personalized experiences, consumers have the power to push back and ask, Is the experience I’m getting for what I’m giving truly valuable to me? Does it speak to who I am as a person?

Younger generations know they have that power—to ask for, fight for, rebel against, or take the change they want. Twenty years ago, consumers didn’t have the ability to amplify their voices or rally support around shared beliefs. They couldn’t simply post on social media—Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, etc.—and immediately connect to others who felt the same way they did.

Consumers are creating their own communities around shared beliefs, made up of motley crews of incredibly diverse people who all align around a single thing. They don’t necessarily look alike, talk alike, think alike, or live in the same places—they might be extremely different from each other in nearly every way except a shared common belief with your brand. And these communities are extremely powerful because they intersect so many different groups that would otherwise rarely come together.

Rethinking how you connect and who you connect with

This is why your brand needs to think differently about the ways you’ve traditionally built audiences. If you paint a broad stroke of who you think your consumer is—what they look like, what gender they are, how old they are, or where they live, for example—and you try to go out and buy media, communicate, or market to that audience, you might not cross paths with the people who could be your most passionate, loyal brand fans.

So here are some tips for brands to connect through shared beliefs:

  • Let people show up to that belief—whoever they are. Let them come together around a singular common thread.
  • Be more courageous. Don’t just authentically be who you are—recognize who you aren’t.
  • Make sure your message is authentic to your brand and you will capture many people who would never normally cross paths in traditional market segmentation.
  • Be intentional—focus on your consumer and uncover the beliefs that really connect people to your brand.

Think about all the conversations that can happen around who your brand is and the value it provides in consumers’ lives—how you make things better, how you make life easier, how you show up for consumers and meet them where they are. All of that happens around those shared beliefs, and that’s where deep, resilient connections take hold.