When people discovered that dropping Mentos candies into a bottle of Diet Coke creates a geyser that shoots 20 feet into the air, more than 800 videos flooded the Internet to document the volcanic possibilities.

The firm that manufactures Mentos gleefully welcomed a gusher of free publicity out of the deal. In contrast, Coca-Cola’s attorneys initially tried to shut down the video posts. As you might predict, their efforts were fruitless. Today a Google search for “Diet Coke and Mentos” yields over 2.8 million hits.

Welcome to the horizontal revolution. Web 2.0 bestows a powerful—and unprecedented—media voice upon consumers. However, the ability to engage in full-on content cocreation with marketers is a mixed blessing for managers.

While consumers are more engaged in the messaging process, we have also handed over the keys for the asylum to the inmates. Today users share the driver’s seat as they dictate what, when, and how they will interact with marketing organizations.

Marketing organizations no longer have the luxury to manage for coherence. This is the traditional objective of an integrated marketing communications (IMC) strategy, where the goal is to maximize consistency of message content across consumer touch points. In fact, marketing organizations no longer get to define their identities in the first place.

Today it is far more realistic to think about managing for anarchy. This acknowledges the new reality: Most companies—whether they acknowledge it or not—no longer own their brands or identities. They make them; they distribute them and communicate them, but at the end of the day consumers decide what they mean.

How do companies leverage new media platforms to communicate what they are and what they stand for—without getting burned in the process? Two fundamental shifts in the marketing landscape contribute to this new reality of crowdsourced corporate identity.

Shift 1: Consumers Proactively Define Brand Meaning

Even after decades of brand equity research, most measurement schemes capture only a small set of fairly objective brand characteristics (such as favorability, top-of-mind salience, and uniqueness) to describe the market value of a brand.

These qualities are important, but they fall a bit short when they try to explain why an Apple devotee will camp out in front of a store for days to await the release of a new iPhone model, or why thousands of people have their favorite brand logos burned into their skin as permanent tattoos (and not just the cool ones; there are plenty of WalMart and Wendy’s tats walking around as well).

Research in the alternate branding paradigm suggests that a brand obtains marketplace significance for reasons well beyond its ownership of desirable product attributes. A brand can align with cultural tensions and against prevailing ideologies. It can embed itself in the fabric of popular culture and hitch itself to evocative celebrities. It can become entrenched in household habits and rituals.

Most important, successful brands acknowledge the fundamental process of co-creation with their customers. Put differently, strong brands “matter” to their users and the worlds in which they reside; they provide meanings that people need to make sense of their lives. The raw material for these stories often emanates from events in mass culture that are well beyond the brand’s control. Harley-Davidson, for example, benefited tremendously from the famed riots in Hollister, California, in 1957, that were later codified in Marlon Brando’s rebel role in The Wild Ones.

Shift 2: Microsegmentation: The Fragmentation of Popular Culture

Conventional approaches to market segmentation originated with corporate pioneers (most notably General Motors) that recognized the value of developing separate business units to cater to the needs of relatively large, homogeneous targets. Today that approach is more problematic.

Contemporary culture splinters into a constantly evolving myriad of microcultures, where consumers find common ground in finely defined lifestyle or aesthetic preferences. These groups form tightly knit communities. Fandoms typically coalesce around an activity (e.g., “Tuners” in Los Angeles who are Latino or Asian car hobbyists), a media event (e.g., the television show Lost), or a cult brand (e.g., the now-defunct Apple Newton).

A Taxonomy of Digital Real Estate

When we combine the two emerging dimensions of open source access and micro-segmentation, we can plot traditional and emerging media platforms into four quadrants of “digital real estate, as the Figure shows. In this scheme the regions labelled “Gated Communities” and “Housing Developments” veer toward the attributes of traditional media, where the corporation provides the information and consumers passively process it.

In contrast, “Artists’ Colonies” and “College Dorms” embrace user-generated content, so that consumers engage with the media in a proactive manner to put their own unique spin on professionally generated content.

As we move beyond the initial “wow factor” of social media and start to realize the nuances that exist among different platforms, marketers need to engage in a more finelytuned audit of what they need to accomplish and what different platforms offer in service of these objectives.

A simple taxonomy like this one is a starting point to position the organization in the “metaverse” of media platforms. More important, it encourages the organization to move beyond a traditional apples-to-apples comparison with direct competitors. Instead it can learn from others in its’ digital neighborhood, i.e. organizations that don’t compete in the same space but that do operate in the same media quadrant. They may provide best practices that the firm or agency can “borrow.”

  • Gated Community: A highly specialized platform where the sponsor tightly controls the content. At Sermo (www.sermo.com), registered physicians (only) can comment on medical issues and/or offer diagnoses for symptoms other colleagues describe.
  • Artists’ Colony: A highly specialized platform where users’ preferences largely determine the content. At Threadless (www.threadless.com), visitors peruse Tshirt designs that artists submit. They vote on their favorites and the company only manufactures and sells the chosen designs; winning designers receive cash and notoriety.
  • Housing Development: A mass-market platform where the sponsor tightly controls the content. On network television channels, the goal is to maximize viewer volume while remaining vigilant about matching programming to the homogenized tastes of the modal viewer.
  • College Dorm: A mass-market platform where users’ preferences largely determine the content. Auction sites such as eBay match buyers with sellers with relatively little policing of items that populate the marketplace.

The dual movements toward open source models and accelerated market fragmentation disrupt many of our time-honored assumptions about consumer behavior:

  • Consumers no longer merely accept or reject a marketer’s value proposition, but rather propose their own version that may or may not align with organizational values.
  • Producers can ramp up the involvement of jaded consumers by encouraging them to co-create a market offering.
  • The value of traditional market segmentation techniques and demographic/psychographic measures is questionable when consumers ricochet from identification with one microculture to another in rapid succession.
  • The value of established brands and brand personalities is murky when customers can literally create their own customized versions of their favorite products.
  • The impact of credible sources diminishes as the locus of power shifts from easily identifiable corporate messengers to crowd-sourced communications.
  • The integrity of established value chains erodes when customers not only “pull” goods through the channel, but also literally design their own customized versions.
  • The strategic value of IMC and traditional public relations strategies when organizations relinquish their ability to execute messaging campaigns in a coherent and systematic manner.

The tidal wave of user-generated content that now engulfs the media landscape takes us beyond the traditional corporate identity focus on We are what we are seen to be,and toward “We are what our customers tell us we are.”

In this new world, corporate identity managers share the driver’s seat with those who used to be passive recipients of their messages. These newly empowered users now advocate for and against brands on a plethora of social media platforms. Messaging professionals need to understand (if not embrace) the new map of digital real estate and the amenities and liabilities that await them in each quadrant.

Learn to love anarchy.

About the Author: As a Professor of Marketing (in the Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia) and an industry consultant, Michael R. Solomon combines cutting-edge academic theory with actionable real-world strategies. He is also the author of several leading textbooks on marketing, consumer behavior, advertising and social media.  Learn more at www.michaelrsolomon.com

Note: This post was excerpted and adapted from Margaret Allison Bruce and Michael R. Solomon, “Managing for Anarchy,” Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, 2013, Volume 21, Number 3: 307-318.