Monday, June 6, 2011

Do-gooder brands pt. II or 6 kinds of advocacy and counting

In my last post, I suggested that contemporary consumer advocacy brands are less about consumer protection (like Ralph Nader) and more about positioning. Generally positioning themselves against a category leader who they view as unfair, anti-competitive and/or obfuscating.

Right after I made this claim, I realized I was at least part wrong, as the exploding category of green brands is precisely about consumer and environmental protection. A brand like Method is one of the most successful examples of a brand that was invented (by an ex-planner no less) who saw an opportunity to deliver a benefit without all the toxic chemicals used by traditional package goods companies. Seventh Generation in another that offers a wide range of household products that limit environmental impact. These brands charge a premium, not for maximum efficacy, but for combining adequate efficacy with lower risk to health, home and the environment.

The power of this claim has not gone unnoticed by the mainstream CPG companies who have made copy-cat products with dubious claims, to the point that we now need old-fashioned consumer advocates to protect us from new-fashioned bogus consumer advocate brands.

But the majority of brands claiming consumer advocacy are motivated by taking on some unfair industry or industry practice. Used car dealers probably stand—fairly or not—as the most iconic example of dishonesty in American business, so it’s not surprising that a number of service brands have sprung up to advocate for consumers as they shop for used cares. CarMax has created a retail model which attempts to take all the unpleasant haggling and doubt out of the process, while CarFax claims to provide the hidden history of the used car so the consumer can make a more informed decision.

And there is whole category of brands that became consumer advocates through technology alone, serving the consumer faster, cheaper, better than traditional retail devices. Virtually every industry that’s been impacted by the internet has brands that occupy this space, whether it’s tax preparation, travel, retail or banking. This is how all those aggregation sites work. They streamline the shopping so you have a better chance of buying what you want for the price you want.

In fact, so many brands recognize the consumer in control era that it’s maybe more interesting to note those categories where we still can’t quite get the control or information we want. The financial services industry might be a prime example but when even the pro's don’t seem to know what they are selling, it’s hard to imagine anyone can offer us much help. And then there are industries that we keep thinking will get democratized, like Real Estate, but for reasons from a strong lobby to the complexity to the sale, never quite get there..

All this suggests that consumer advocacy is almost cost of entry these days. The question becomes what kind of advocate are you.

Supplementing my previous list, with a still provisional set of categories, I’ve now get 6 versions, but I’m sure there are more. (And I'm not counting brands or brand confederations that are pure non-profits.)

1) Information/transparency advocate: like Carfax, providing the consumer with important and previously hidden info

2) Competition advocate: like LendingTree, bringing competition to a category that lacked it

3) Green advocate: Like Method, bringing a safer, less toxic version of a product to a category filled with environmentally damaging products

4) Service advocate: Like Zappos, bringing a new level service and conditions to a category that previously offered restricted terms

5) Self-service advocate: Like Etrade or the other online trading services that allow consumers the chance to do what only the pro’s could do before.

6) Social Mission advocates: Brands like Ben & Jerry's which build their social mission right into their product and confederations like RED which enlist a set of brands to raise funds for social causes

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