In last week’s column, we began to explore the question of what it actually takes in today’s viral world for a brand to survive and thrive.

I’ve just finished reading the book “Absolute Value: What Really Influences Customers in the Age of (Nearly) Perfect Information” by Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen, and it digs into this issue. The book offers many examples of how consumers have viewed and evaluated brands in the past and how they are coming to interact with and judge them today. 

The authors assert that most brands are losing their role as a definer of quality and that a consumer’s past satisfaction is not as anchoring as it used to be. They also contend that because of the abundance of rational information that is so readily available to all of us, our methods of evaluating products and services have changed dramatically.  

Let’s say you have to go to a city you’ve never visited before for a meeting. Before the Internet, you might have called on a travel agent, but most likely you would have thought about your past hotel experiences and identified a brand of hotel that you had enjoyed in the past.   

Now the truth is, our prior preferences can get pretty vague, especially for less frequently purchased items. You might have had a wonderful family vacation in the Ozarks, and really what made it so remarkable was that your entire family was able to be together for the first time in three years. But, because the trip itself was so special, some of that warm fuzzy love is reflected back to the hotel, which in reality was fine but nothing special.

So our memories of brand encounters are often skewed by tangential information or circumstances. But, back when that was all you had to go on, you’d have most likely looked in the Yellow Pages, found the toll-free number for that hotel’s brand and made a reservation to attend the meeting.

But today, what would you do? You would look online and book the hotel based on your criteria at that moment (could be location, proximity to your meeting, price, reviews, etc.). Suddenly, you have access to all kinds of data that wasn’t readily available a decade ago, and much of that data is ranking, grading and critiquing the item in question.  

Given those two choices – a vague memory or hundreds of reviews from other people – which do you think will influence you more today?

If you’re like most other people, you’ll trust the masses more than your own perception or previous experiences, unless you’re already a brand zealot.

That’s where the problem comes in for marketers. In this new marketplace, there’s a voice that is overshadowing theirs. And it’s not just word of mouth. It’s word of mouth, amplified. Many voices, and they’re so much easier to find and listen to.

So where does that leave brands? 

I know it should go without saying, but brands really need to walk their talk. The marketing messages have to match the consumers’ experiences or else they’ll call the brand out and do it loudly. Brands will also have to stay connected to their customers in a more meaningful way. Now that the other voices are so prevalent and persistent, they can’t be left to chance. Brands need to go beyond tracking what other people are saying and actually jump into the conversations and interact. Even more than that, they need to truly serve their customers so that’s reflected in the chorus.

How does this align with your marketing efforts and budget? What are you doing to discover the underlying needs?