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“Collaboration” is one of those business buzzwords that’s been used and abused so much it’s gone out of style. And yet in today’s ever-changing, increasingly interactive media world it may now be taking on a whole new meaning. That’s because the marketing world is now captivated by a new business buzzword: “consumer-generated content.

Some say it will be the death of marketing, as we know it. They say just get out of the way and let the consumer tell your brand’s story. Yes, the consumer will be telling brand stories more and more in the future, but the last thing marketers should do is get out of the way. Word of mouth has always been powerful. With the aid of consumer-accessible technology (the Internet, pod casting, video production, etc.) it’s now on steroids.

In fact, to succeed in the coming years when consumers have more influence with other consumers than marketers have, marketers will need to develop a new perspective and a new skill set. Those who do will be hailed as tomorrow’s innovators. Those who don’t will be labeled with the dreaded T-word: “Traditional.”

The Age of Co-Creation For those who can loosen their grip on their brands and openly and honestly enter into a true partnership with their consumers, amazing things will happen. But this is about a lot more than just listening to consumers. In the future, our job will be, dare I say, to collaborate with our consumers to co-create content and co-design the brand experience in all its forms.

This will not be without perils and pitfalls. Marketers’ tendencies to manipulate consumers will be met with disdain and distrust. But those who are willing to hear the bad with the good and empower consumers to express themselves will be met with a kind of customer relationship the likes of which marketers have only dreamed of. And if it’s done right, marketers just might bridge the divide of distrust between skeptical consumers and the corporation that has so marginalized marketers’ efforts for so many years.

The Rise of Consumer Catalysts Marketers, their agencies and particularly planners will need to retool, repurpose and reinvent their skills, transforming their efforts to understand consumer needs into an uncommon alliance. They must now not only engage, they must enable.

I don’t know if there will be a job title in the future called “Catalyst for Co-Creation,” but there most certainly should be a job function that takes the brand/consumer relationship to a whole new level of equality and mutual respect. This is a game-changing time that requires a new job description: A consumer ally and advocate who can be in constant contact, searching for ways to extend consumers’ creativity directly into the marketing process in real-time, all the time. At The Martin Agency, we’ve developed a technique to do just that called “The Brand Exchange”, where consumers, the agency and our clients are equal participants in “Blue Sky” ideation sessions.

Today, examples of co-creations include: Doritos’ consumer-created spots and Chevy’s student-created spot for the Super Bowl; Dove’s real women campaign, now running commercials conceived by and starring real women; UPS’ blog for their “Race the Truck” NASCAR sponsorship and GEICO’s Cavemen Crib website. And, now there’s even a Cannes competition for consumer-generated ads sponsored by Yahoo.

How such partnerships come to life in the future will be as different as consumers and their relationships with brands. Relationships that are sure to have a unique and profound impact on our clients’ businesses.

By Earl Cox
Adjunct Professor at VCU’s Adcenter
Partner, Chief Strategy Officer
The Martin Agency