Thursday, May 26, 2011

Do-gooder brands or what counts as consumer advocacy today

It seems like every brand manager I talk to these days is claiming that their brand is a consumer advocate. Whether they are selling cars or mortgages or checking accounts or shoes or health insurance or ice cream or travel packages or just about anything else, they want to align their product or service proposition with the notion of consumer advocacy. And they seem to mean it. Whenever I push the broader management team on their commitment to this principle they almost all say they are true believers. (There are notable exceptions but pesky contracts preclude me from revealing names) Most managers now claim that consumer advocacy is in their company DNA.

On the one hand, this isn’t so surprising. You only have to type some variation of “good” into The Google these days to see many people—or at least young people—believe that business can and should be an agent of positive social change. You could even say that finding or starting a career that enables them to both do good and get rich is the trick kid’s most want to pull off these days. (An evolution from my own Gen X’s equally tricky ambition to somehow get rich by being creative.)

But the very ubiquity of this claim raises some interesting question. Can every brand justifiably claim they are a consumer advocate? Technically I suppose so. But then what does consumer advocacy really mean? One thing or more than one thing?

Consumer advocacy has been around almost as long as lawyers, but didn’t really start to mainstream traction in America until the 60’s, supported by fiercely uncompromising advocates like Ralph Nader. As represented by his breakthrough book Unsafe at Any Speed--attacking GM's safety recrod--Nader was and is primarily fighting to protect consumers, workers and the environment from unsafe products and practices. Nader and others are still hard at work, but thanks to the democratization of everything, the role of consumer watch dog has been extended to everyone, with blogs like The Consumerist eager to post your complaints and help fight the power.

But most brands claiming to be advocates aren’t in the business of consumer protection. Beyond government agencies and blogs, consumer protection is mostly performed by non-profits.

Consumer advocacy for brands is more about positioning than protection, either against a competitor or category. And in my very cursory overview, it seems to me that these brands generally rest their claim of advocacy on 1 of 3 potential actions:

1) Introduce competition to a category with very limited or no competition

2) Offer—or seem to offer—the consumer more information about a product or service that has traditionally kept the consumer in the dark about important information.


3) Offer the consumer new service (often self-service or customization) for a product or service that lacked this offering in the past.

LendingTree, a brand I used to work on, is a good example for the first kind of advocacy. LendingTree isn’t a bank. It’s an aggregator of banks offering mortgages and other loans to consumers. But the brand’s original tagline, “When banks compete you win,” and early advertising both called attention to how anti-competitive the current practice of getting a mortgage was. They claimed—with considerable justification—to be one of the first brands to give the power to say no back to the consumer where it belonged.

Progressive insurance also introduces new competition to a category, but their function as advocates depends more on offering more information, placing their quote within the context of the competitors.

Their site has come under attack for not being quite as fair as they claim (MA investigation report here), but I’ll save my comments on the role of comparison engines for my next post with the hope that others will point out other versions of consumer advocacy they've encountered in the rapidly expanding world of do-gooder brands.