a case against user-generated ad contests

Last week Ad Age announced that Anheuser-Busch InBev is holding an online contest in China in which consumers can pitch ideas for a Budweiser TV spot which will run during next year’s Chinese New Year.  The only brief to the aspiring ad-makers:  the commercial must include ants (a recurring theme for the brand’s Chinese New Year ads.)  I’m liking this idea as much as I did when these so-called “user-“generated content first emerged as an advertising approach a few years ago – which is to say, not much. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against engaging consumers in conversations about brands as a way of stimulating word of mouth.  And surely content that brand fans create can be powerful expressions of the brand.

What concerns me is established brands actively soliciting “user-“generated commercials in widely publicized contests.  A few years ago I wrote a couple of pieces explaining my concerns about and words of caution for such an approach (one published by brandchannel.com; the other by imediaconnection).  Here is a recap of my main points:

•    lack of brand consistency. Branding 101 says brand strength is developed by expressing and delivering the brand promise consistently across all touchpoints and over time. A clear, specific strategic brief is the tool that delivers such consistency.  When a marketer invites different people to create ads without such a brief, isn’t brand inconsistency sure to result?  And just so we’re clear, I don’t think requiring the use of ants counts as ensuring brand consistency.

•    not demonstrating brand leadership.  The TV ads everyone points to as having been the most disruptive, and therefore the most successful, are ones that represent the thought leadership of the brand. Think Apple’s 1984 commercial and Nike’s original Just Do It campaign (p.s., if you know where i can find this online, please let me know). No consumer, no matter how talented or cool or brand fanatical, would have ever come up with those ads.

This is because consumers only know what they know at the moment—e.g., they know why they like a product—but they don’t know the vision of the brand. They don’t know the company’s dreams and aspirations for the brand, and so they lack the insight and foresight to realize an ad’s full potential. Their ads may be entertaining, but they won’t further brand leadership

•    missed opportunity to foster internal brand integration and alignment through the creative development process.  I fear ad contests cheat the companies that run them. Part of the benefit of the creative development process is the internal discipline it requires and the unity it creates. A team that takes the time to develop a campaign (to do the hard work of distilling down everything that could possibly be said about a brand into a simple, single message) and to search for a way of expressing the message that is worthy of the brand is all the better for it.

The debates and trade-offs inherent in the creative process result in a clarity on and commitment to the brand. This clear, consistent, common understanding of the brand serves the company well in everything else it does. Companies that side step this valuable process and simply screen consumers’ ads like judges of a beauty contest are cheating themselves (and all their stakeholders, including customers) out of the critical benefits of internal brand integration and alignment.

•    not real consumer engagement.  The ads that win these contests and get exposure are rarely created by regular users of the product. They’re made by aspiring filmmakers and “pro-sumers” looking for their lucky break. Case in point: the Doritos contest winner whose spot aired during the 2007 Super Bowl is not a consumer. He is a partner at a firm that specializes in creative video production.  According to Doritos’ website, his firm was “looking for any opportunity to launch the company into the public eye.”

This last point actually leads to my overarching point of view about “user”-generated ad contests.  I believe consumer-generated content is most effective when it happens organically – that is, when real brand users feel so strongly about a brand that they take the initiative to create something which expresses their feelings and then share it with their friends and, sometimes, the world.  The authenticity of such content makes it a much more effective promotion for the brand.

Do you disagree?  Please share your point of view.

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