I'm at the BlogOn conference today in NYC and there was one panel this morning that got me thinking. Jeff Jarvis was on it with a guy from AOL and another guy from another company.
Jarvis' position is that companies should go out and find all the communities that exist around their product and let the influencers in that community service your customers, design your products, and so on. I'm not making this up by the way, that's what he said.
This got me thinking about brands, companies, and what is the nature of business as a business. Certain companies are in the business of selling pleasure, an example of this is luxury goods. There is nobody that can honestly say that a $10,000 Hermes handbag is in any meaningful way better than a $300 handbag, but try telling that to a woman who has one. Simply put, Hermes is in the business of selling pleasure, not handbags.
Other companies are in the business of selling utility, and for the purposes of this post I am not going to deal with them. I suppose the reason I am avoiding the utility segment is that I don't get emotional about utility. It's hard to build community around purely utilitarian products.
Apple is likewise in the business of selling fashion/pleasure, it just happens that fashion is in the form of laptops and iPods. But you will recall back when the iPod was first released that the reaction was not overwhelmingly positive, either from the predicted "early adopter" community or from the media/analysts. Therefore, following Jarvis' logic, if Apple had let their users design the iPod, well we probably would have had a very different iPod.
Ultimately, companies that are selling fashion and pleasure are obligated to be the tip of the spear because that's what their customers expect. If Apple were to not push the envelope in leading it's own design, in other words let their customers do it for them, they would surely crash. If Hermes were to listen to their customers and produce to meet demand, their handbags would not be so coveted. These companies thrive because they don't listen to their customers.
As a means of supporting their customers every consumer and b2b company should embrace their customer and stakeholder communities. However, doing that does not relieve them of the obligation of hosting their own support forums, call centers, and so on. As I have written before, companies should have processes for integrating blog feedback and so on, blah, blah, blah. If blogs are an early warning system, then great.
The one thing that I'm really getting tired of is all this kumbiyah crap about "markets are conversations" and "companies have to be honest" and "everything needs to be transparent". Why would I disagree with any of this? I wouldn't but none of these things are actionable strategies for improving a brands value in the marketplace.
The guy from AOL on the panel is right that companies don't control the conversation but he's mistaken to suggest that controlling the conversation is analogous to controlling your brand. If he really did believe that the market defines brands, then why the hell is AOL running advertisements every 3 minutes talking about how the internet isn't safe unless you are on AOL.
UPDATE: before anyone jumps on me for misinterpreting what Jarvis said, let me say that my argument is that companies need to take responsibility for things like product design, customer serivce, and so on, and if they do things like bring more users into that process then that's great. But having communities of users in no way relieves a company of doing the fundamental things that we expect of companies. Furthermore, just because you have communities of users it doesn't mean that all the voices are either right or equal. Customers can be wrong and it's up to the company to make the decision about what voices to listen to with the end game being that of increasing the value of their brand.