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Experts: Let customers help brand your product

Smart marketers are letting consumers play with their brand message online, say experts at a Las Vegas advertising confab.

LAS VEGAS--In a wild west digital environment where brand messages can be quickly co-opted and subverted, marketers must be able to cede control and have faith that online interaction with customers is a good thing.

That was the message from experts this week here at the American Association of Advertisers' annual media conference and trade show.

Building relationships through brands is the future of marketing, Jim Stengel, global marketing officer at Procter & Gamble, said in a keynote session. The company, whose brands range from Gillette and Crest to Downy and CoverGirl, is sponsoring Web sites for customers as a way to increase brand loyalty and attract new customers, he said. "We're working to co-create rich experiences that tap into the desire for self-expression," Stengel said.

For example, P&G worked with Yahoo to create the Capessa online community site aimed at women. Yahoo also created the Pontiac Underground site for fans of the General Motors brand.

"It may be a little scary for us to 'let go,' but in the end we must realize that what people say about our brands is valued far more than what we say."
--Jim Stengel, global marketing officer, Procter & Gamble

"We're getting much more comfortable with the idea that consumers truly own our brands and our brand messages," Stengel said. "It may be a little scary for us to 'let go,' but in the end we must realize that what people say about our brands is valued far more than what we say...At P&G, we're learning that if we want to engage people with our branding message it has to be on their terms."

Software giant Microsoft is another company figuring out ways to engage its customers using the Internet. The company is even creating ads specifically designed to encourage people to modify them, Mich Mathews, senior vice president of Microsoft's central marketing group, said in a session at the show. "Digital is enabling customers to participate in our brands," she said.

Mathews showed an example of an advertisement for Gears of War, a game created for Microsoft's Xbox, that someone had edited and put to new music--the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive." The new "mashup" ad was then posted by that person on YouTube, where it became very popular. That "made it the No. 1 selling video game during the holiday season," Mathews said.

"We did not build this ad for this kind of customer-generated response," she said. But "it's now a factor in the creative process."

More and more of the company's advertising is being targeted for the Web. Microsoft is allocating 3 percent of its total advertising budget to experiment with emerging media in different areas of the world, such as satellite radio and RSS in the U.S., and mobile and Internet Protocol television in Europe, she said. By 2010, most of Microsoft's advertising will be online, she added.

"Brands want to engender happiness and good feeling," said Hillel Cooperman, founder of Jackson Fish Market, a provider of software and Web services that will enable advertisers to build communities around their brands. Cooperman, formerly with the Windows Vista user experience team, will be working with Microsoft in the future, but he declined to specify further.

"People love brands and the products they use. It's part of their identity," Cooperman said. "When a company produces something for me that I need, I immediately feel a kinship to them."

A good example of a useful site sponsored by a brand is ChangeEverything, a community-powered site by Vancouver, Canada-based credit union Vancity, he said. The site explains that it was designed for people "who want to change themselves, their communities or their world" and it promises not to sell people mortgages and other services.

In a panel session on Friday, an executive for the NFL Network said the company has mixed feelings about allowing consumers to interact online with NFL content.

"We send weekly letters to Google and YouTube asking them to take down our content," said Kim Williams, chief operating officer for the NFL Network. "But we don't want consumers not to interact with our brand. There's a little fear, but there is a conscious effort to bring that in-house."

Beyond the potential for consumers redistributing copyrighted content without permission, companies risk being ridiculed when they put their material on the Web for people to play with. The most egregious example is the General Motors contest launched a year ago that allowed people to use GM video clips of the Chevy Tahoe to create an ad for the sport-utility vehicle. At least one user-created ad wasn't exactly what the company had in mind; it had text that condemned the company for building vehicles that contribute to global warming. Chevy surprised everyone by leaving the negative ads up on the site.

Panelists praised Chevy for doing that. "It showed respect for consumer empowerment," said panel moderator Scott Donaton, publisher of AdvertisingAge magazine.

"You have to let yourself as a brand be criticized because that will only endear you to the community," said Steven Marrs, founder and chief executive of Branded Pictures, an independent entertainment production and distribution company specializing in sponsor-supplied programming.