At a time when more companies, brands and products are competing for consumers' attention and money than ever before, people have become remarkably willing to give new things a chance.
The rates of adoption of new products and services are strong and enthusiastic, and everybody from app makers to digital start-ups to the most traditional companies has been scrambling to stake out new value propositions to capitalize on consumers' born-again openness.
But brands should watch out. Consumers may be more willing to give something new a try, but their standards are incredibly high and their criteria for long-term adoption are very strict.
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Based on and driven by online reviews and digital platforms, consumers are more willing to jump in, but they are also more picky (and prickly) than ever before—willing to drop products for the smallest reasons, quickly and almost gleefully. From there, it can rapidly turn into a fatal attraction, with consumers taking to everything from blogs to forums to Twitter to Amazon to Facebook to boil a brand's bunny with scathing product reviews and write-ups.
And what begins as one person's momentary, public flash of dissatisfaction can quickly galvanize a digital shellacking that—thanks to Google searches—can be disconcertingly permanent.
Brands must understand that they are working in careful concert with "Brand Me," and as such a delicate balance must be maintained. Far from the days where they could view themselves as icons to be reverently and enthusiastically approached, brands function now primarily as building blocks in the shifting structure that forms ones own personal brand.
This presents a central paradox for brands today—they must remain consistent to the role for which they have been adopted, or else risk falling out of sync with Brand Me. But they must also consistently build on their foundations to stay fresh enough to attract new users and keep current users from getting bored—and the evolution must be seamless enough to maintain consistency.
So how can brands walk this tightrope?
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First, they must achieve and maintain utility through small, consistent and pleasant surprises. Add value in incremental steps—enough to convince users that the brand is being proactive and attentive, but not so disruptive as to be jarring. Organizations that let their brands or products stagnate for too long, through everything from inconsistent messaging to irritatingly unfamiliar new user experiences - and then come out with a huge revamp - often lead to users dropping them altogether.
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One way to ensure constant relevance is to remain in a constant state of listening and researching. As a recent New York Times story points out, Samsung is gaining ground on Apple by taking an entirely opposite approach: Instead of doing what Steve Jobs famously called giving consumers what they didn't know they wanted, Samsung spends three times more than Apple on research and development—$10.5 billion to $3.4 billion—and takes advantage of extensive consumer polling and third-party research.
In order to correctly assess and gauge consumer preferences, Samsung informs decisions on product offerings and features using trends from everything from fashion to cars to interior design. At a time when consumers are more powerful, more vocal and more capricious than ever, it is a decidedly more humble strategy for a brand to take: listening to consumers and giving them what they want, when they want it, dazzling with the delivery.
The result? Samsung's Galaxy S III smartphone is running neck and neck with the iPhone, and recently surpassed sales of the older iPhone 4S.
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Time will tell if this will continue to work for Samsung, but it could be they have found a strategy that is perfectly in keeping with the times. The more brands listen, and the more they make a commitment to providing consistent and reliable user experience, the less likely they are to inspire consumers to angrily take to digital platforms to tell them, essentially, "I am not going to be ignored, Dan."
Michael Ramah is senior partner, chief client officer at global public relations agency Porter Novelli. He works closely with agency- and client-side teams to drive innovation, best practices and growth.