Direct Approach: Brand freedom

Consumers have taken charge of the relationships they have with brands, so marketers need to learn to relinquish control in this new environment.

Quiz time. What do Diet Coke, Microsoft and the British Army have in common? They have all embraced a concept that we call Brand Freedom. Before I explain what that is, let's go on a journey to see how they got there.

Not so long ago, marketing departments maintained an iron-like grip on the quality of their brands' appeal. They employed the services of brand controllers, brand managers, brand guardians - their very titles suggesting the core of their role.

Nowadays, brand controllers still exist, but the landscape in which they operate has been radically altered. Today, millions of consumers with anecdotes, opinions, time and oodles of persuasion are talking about brands in almost epidemic fashion. One could even argue the nature of the relationship between brands and consumers has been changed irreversibly.

This is why Brand Freedom is becoming an utter necessity for companies to embrace. It isn't a planning tool or a trademark, Brand Freedom is a state of mind. It's the realisation that consumer support, collective wisdom and social media are rapidly becoming the most effective tools to shape and build brand advocacy.

Just look at the popularity of Wikipedia and the social networking sites, and their effect on everything from the music industry to journalism. In a world that is moving towards conversations between individuals, Brand Freedom empowers brands to be ready to act. It ensures they have the tools to invite, engage, manage and react.

Ever heard of Steven Voltz and Fritz Grobe? Possibly. But I bet you know about their Mentos/Diet Coke experiments. Quite a simple formula: Mentos dropped in bottles of Diet Coke and the resultant chemical reaction (it has something to do with the gelatine, gum arabic, aspartame and CO2).

The people at Coca-Cola didn't take too kindly to this unauthorised use of their brand. They decided to distance themselves from the incident. "We'd hope that people would prefer to drink Diet Coke, rather than try experimenting with it," a spokesman said. When the experiments (and resultant hoo-hah) continued to rise, they thought if they left it alone, it might go away. But it didn't. In fact, Voltz and Grobe created an additional 137 videoed experiments - becoming overnight geeky celebrities - before Coke decided to embrace this phenomenon and created a section of its corporate website to invite user-generated video challenges.

This experience appears to have changed Coke's way of thinking - accepting that one-directional communication is in the past, and more collaborative methods are the future. As Tim Kopp, the vice-president of marketing for Diet Coke, said: "It will happen with or without you ... and we are absolutely committed to reinventing marketing."

The British Army has also accepted a new level of transparency in the way that it provides information. Put simply, potential recruits use the internet to get unofficial information about the Army. There are a bunch of tough questions waiting to be asked, and in this Web 2.0 world, they will be answered somewhere by someone. If the official Army site is perceived to be unreliable, misinformed or biased, it will be ignored. So it has pursued a belief of openness, honesty and transparency across all of its recruitment communications - resulting in a radically different and honest user experience. "Tough questions" are being asked and answered. Soldiers are sharing their experiences - from the training field to the battlefield. Thus far, the result has been pretty dramatic, both inside the Army and out.

What about Robert Scoble? He's the chap who, over two years, wrote about his time at Microsoft via his no-holds-barred "Scoblerizer" blog. What made this different from the corporate spin machine was the honest and frank account Scoble gave about his employers. He would also praise competitors and scrutinise their decisions. Initially, Microsoft was very nervous but, to its credit, began to back Scoble and his writings, supporting them with very little control. As The Economist puts it: "Impressively, he has succeeded where small armies of conventional PR companies had failed ... he has made Microsoft appear marginally but noticeably less evil to the outside world." Scoble inspired a new generation, and Microsoft now actively promotes the 3,000 or so bloggers throughout the company.

By deciding to adopt the philosophy of Brand Freedom, companies can empower themselves to begin a true dialogue with their customers, to let people into the heart of the organisation, to become brand evangelists and enable conversations (both positive and negative).

Brand Freedom also provides a framework for all communications agencies to work together under a common goal, be it PR, direct marketing, advertising or digital. It puts the consumer completely at the heart of the organisation, and ensures the communications work around them.

To pursue Brand Freedom, there are four concepts that brands must embrace. First, any customer communication (inbound or outbound) needs to provide something greater than information. It must warrant involvement and deliver a strong entertainment value that is deeply rewarding for consumer and participant.

Second, a brand must identify its role in life. Arguably, it is easier to dismiss than to embrace communications. To create relevance, brands need to clarify how and where they make a difference.

Third, multiple messages in multiple channels from multiple directions are leading us to a place where there is no longer just one idea, executed in different ways. Consider ten ideas, each one relating to a specific medium.

Finally, brands should change their outlook on information and become facilitators rather than dictators. The concept of managing, and not controlling, allows for a strong sense of control, but with the flexibility for change.

Releasing some control is a scary prospect for most brands to face. But once you accept that the world has changed and acknowledge the improvements conversations can bring, Brand Freedom becomes liberating.