In the good old days when digitalisation was a distant nightmare, brands had it good and consumer had it bad. You would call up your cell phone company. Vent over a problem. Get a complaint number and visit the closest temple hoping you would get a reply.
Alternatively, if you were in the market for a car, you would check with a few friends and then take a considered call on which brand to finally pick.
If brands had to get a focused research group organised, it would call a research company, brief the blokes and then organise the light snacks for the group.
Digitalisation has altered all of that. Permanently. It has caused what I would like to call the Forest Fires of Consumerism.
If you are pissed about your cell service provider and post it on either Facebook or Twitter, chances are 30 equally pissed consumers will jump on to your timeline and mount a joint offensive against the company.
Want to buy a car? Tweet the specs and budget you have in mind and you will have a flurry of well-informed and helpful opinions within seconds.
Should you wish to test a brand name or a service, once again seek opinions on social media and bingo, you have a research group forming in minutes.
Forest fires have three ways of spreading. One is “crawling” where the fire spreads by means of low-level vegetation. On the internet, this happens through the slow forwarding or retweeting of your message by the general gang on your TL.
The second way they spread is through “crowning”, where it spreads right to the upper branches of the tree. A classical case being a car complaint that also mentions the CEO who happens to be on Twitter. In the earlier days, how on earth would a CEO know if the sales distributor in Meerut had messed up a sale? But know he can. If he is online. Where the bright and best are.
Finally, you have “jumping” or spotting fires where the leaves are carried by the wind. This is typically a function of furious retweeting by your followers who, in turn, have 50,000 followers. Bad news from you to your 1,000 followers can suddenly reach lakhs of people.
This could never have happened before. But this mass venting and mass applause have large ramifications for brands.
Previously, if at all they did, brands had private conversations with consumers. You called your bank. Said you were unhappy. The manager called you back. If you were lucky. Today, there are “naked conversations”. Everyone sees a crib. Everyone sees an aye.
Which means that your brand manager is no longer the IIM grad sitting in your spiffy Bandra Kurla Complex in Mumbai. It is Jyoti at the call center who can spark off a forest fire.
It means an online chief vigilance officer who is monitoring brand mentions and hashtags. It is not some bloke in your digital agency alone.
It means customer service that has to kick in within seconds.
Increasingly, brands of tomorrow have to have fire-fighting equipment at various customer outposts. The days of customer recovery manuals are passé.
New consumerism will require a fleet of fire brigades.
As Billy Joel said, this was coming: “It was always burning. Since the world’s been turning.” And the consumer world’s been turning a lot lately.
The writer is CEO, Equus Red Cell