Does use of UGC ads risk loss of brand control?

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Consumers today are demanding more control and many brands are obliging. But some agencies are concerned that a user-generated media space will cause a brand to lose control of its image.

As marketers bend over backwards to give consumers the tools for content creation that they demand, they also are working to make communications a two-way street.

"You don't want to go overboard and give the consumers too much control, but you don't want to have the brand be too controlled and alienate users," said Drew Ianni, chairman of programming at ad:tech Expositions. "It is about creating a dialog and having a conversation with your customers."

But sometimes too much freedom lets consumers change the marketer's message about the brand. In an online contest to promote Chevy trucks and TV show "The Apprentice," environmentalists condemned General Motors for building vehicles the environmentalists believed contribute to global warming. Visitors to Chevy's promotional site could build their own commercials with video clips of the Tahoe traveling through different terrains and add music and text.

Chevy encouraged users to spread their homemade videos virally and some users created ads depicting the SUV as a gas-guzzling machine. One such video featured the Tahoe driving through various natural terrains while the words, "Global warming isn't a pretty SUV ad. It's a frightening reality," appeared over the image.

"Brands are not in control and this is something that they have to accept," said Kathy Sharpe, founder/CEO at Sharpe Partners, New York, and former director of interactive marketing at DDB. "I think that brands have to recognize that they are fair game if they want to be in this space. They have always wanted to be the entertainment and they have to accept that sometimes this is not always in their control. Consumers now have the ability to spoof them and put them on YouTube."

Users may spoof, but still they still demand engaging content and marketers are not about to alienate this consumer interest in such a competitive space. One way that brands are engaging consumers while pulling in the reins is by running contests that allow the brand to have the final control over which user-generated ads get play.

Doritos engaged consumers with a campaign that let consumers make their own commercials and the winning version was aired on television during the Superbowl, advertising's most expensive slot.

Brands can also depend on the loyalty of constituents to keep the messaging working in their favor.

"Anytime you let the brand out of your hands there is a risk, but interestingly the community does police itself," said Neil Perry, CEO at XLNTads. "The majority of people are going to side with the brand as long as you have a good quality product to offer."

What does this mean for ad agencies if the users are making engaging content?

"I think that ad agencies will lose out to the consumers who can produce funny content in much less time and for much less money," Ms. Sharpe said. "But agencies won't go away, they'll just have to change their modes of operation and accept that users are in control today."

While there are both positives and negatives involved in giving over the messaging control, brands and agencies that are looking to attract an audience under 30 are certainly not ruling the user generated component out.

"If you want to talk to them as they age, you have to communicate with them now," Ms. Sharpe said.

Expect more varieties of user-generated content to come.

"The make your own commercial is getting a little overdone and I'm not sure that's what consumers want to talk about," Ms. Sharpe said. "Sometimes they just want to show what is going on in their life and can involve a product or not. Coke is good at having themes like this on its site where users can engage and show a moment in their life that does not always have to involve Coke."

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