While most PR folk struggle with monthly time sheets, monitoring clippings and - god forbid - AVE measurements, your target audiences, potential customers and zealously identified stakeholders are appropriating, modifying and personalizing your corporate messages and carefully structured identities. Andrew Zolli has touched on the fundamental challenges facing marketers, brand managers and even PR teams as logos, brand attributes and corporate identity programs become commonplace in our life.
This blossoming of branding in every sphere of life has not reduced us to mindless consumers in many quarters, it's had just the opposite effect. From Skater Kids to Soccer Moms, a new ethos of brand participation is emerging. People now increasingly see brands as shared cultural property, rather than privately owned intellectual property. Familiarity breeds ownership: brands are ours, not the companies that supposedly own them.
People do funny things with brands when they believe that they own them. They tattoo logos on their forearm. ... They add, subtract and remix the meanings supposedly dictated by the brand's corporate parent. And they do all of this without asking for permission.
Expanded monitoring programs, focus groups and ongoing tracking polling can help a corporate communications program keep tabs on how their work is being interpreted among many different demographic groups, but Zolli rightly points out that more sophisticated work is needed, on a practical and academic level, to really understand how far consumer culture has evolved.
... Market researchers have a vital role to play here, but traditional measures such as unaided recall simply won't cut it. What we need to do is help corporations dig deep into the culture, and unearth the complex web of meanings and social participation that surrounds their brands. We need robust ethnographic and qualitative research to help them find new ways of connecting in a peer-to-peer, open way with their constituencies. And we need to help companies understand and take their new role as stewards of human meaning, not just economic value seriously.
(November American Demographics, not online)