This past Thanksgiving weekend, my husband, Jon, and I were driving back from visiting family in Columbia, Missouri, to St. Louis airport, when we got a hankering for barbeque.
Owing to the late hour -- and the thought of airplane food -- we agreed eating on the road was our best option. The problem was, where? On the long stretch of straight highway we were traveling, fast-food places were apparent, but where to find regional barbeque was not.
Enter Yelp. Using the app on my iPhone, I was presented with a real-time, freeway-exit-by-exit, updated list of what types of restaurants were in the immediate area, and their rating from Yelp users. We considered five or six barbeque joints that came up, but either their ratings were too low or too few people had reviewed them to make them credible.
Then Lil' Mickey's Memphis Barbeque appeared on my screen. Tucked away on a frontage road, just minutes from the freeway, it received a whopping 4.5 stars from 28 reviewers. We took a chance, and, once we had tucked in and tasted their smoked turkey, shredded pork and savory beans, we knew we had a winner.
This got me pondering over my pork sandwich about the modern state of branding, and in particular, who really owns our brands today? The deciding factor in our choosing Mickey's was, after all, 28 people we had never met.
Taking my inquiry beyond barbeque, I sought out a conversation with Robert May, a successful serial entrepreneur, to get his perspective. May is currently the CEO of Ringz.TV, a startup that bills itself as "the Future of Television," Ringz is an app that organizes a user's video into personalized playlists that can be surfed, watched and shared.
"The big change that has been brought about by social media," says May, "is that the brand is no longer the property of just its owner. It now belongs to the company's customers and audience, as well."
As May points out, the current challenge for businesses is not to cultivate their brand -- but to shape the conversation about it in such a way that it strengthens the brand and the owner gets insights into opportunities for new products and services.
For example, GoPro is a small manufacturer of simple digital video cameras focused on the extreme sports and active lifestyle consumer. "GoPro has made their product magical by making mounts that come with the camera, which can be attached to everything from snowboard helmets, to scuba diving masks, to the handlebars of a bike," says May. "This allows the users to create videos from their real-world point of view."
As a result, sport enthusiasts have been taking the GoPro camera and making inspirational and extreme videos using the special mounts and syndicating them across the web via YouTube and their own channels on Ringz.TV.
"This all adds up to free advertising -- strengthens the brand and the company does not spend a dime," says May. "It's created a crowdsourcing type of feedback loop between GoPro and their customers that is enabling the company to see what types of products they should be quickly developing."
In short, GoPro has helped shape the conversation about their brand by inserting their customers into the brand ecosystem via sharing video.
So what lessons can the average entrepreneur, small business or even enterprise companies learn from this? Here are a few simple things May says all businesses should consider in bringing their customers on board in shaping the conversation about their brand.
• Take advantage of the visual web. Encourage your customers to make and share their own videos about your products and services. "In today's social media universe, people watch videos first, then make a Facebook comment or Tweet," says May.
• Monitor your Twitter closely. Companies looking to get feedback about their products and services can keep their ear to the ground by paying close attention to the chat on Twitter and responding rapidly.
• Create your own channel. Rémi Gaillard is a French comedian who began making videos of lighthearted public pranks just for fun when he found himself unemployed. Today, he is one of the most-subscribed comedians on YouTube. "Gaillard has really created a brand for himself, by creating a channel where he is the star," says May. "Users like him, so they do the work of globally distributing him via social syndication platforms."
As for May, his next foray into the world of brand building is a trip to New Zealand, where he will be advising companies on creating high-tech partnerships across the ocean. While there he also hopes to encourage the America's Cup organizers to create a channel of customized mix-and-match videos on Ringz.TV around various boats and races. And I'm sure if he needs a solid recommendation for some fine Kiwi cuisine, Yelp can help him out as well.
Karen Leland is the best-selling author of eight business books and president of Sterling Marketing Group , where she works with executives, high-end entrepreneurs, small businesses and Fortune 500 companies to build their personal, team and business brands.