What would you expect from a customer who has 2,000 followers on Instagram or more than 50,000 views on YouTube? Is she someone you would expect to be a loyal customer? If your answer is yes, think again.

On a macro-level, social media has given rise to the customer as a brand, whereas we are seeing the customer as a consumer quickly disappearing. Customers with a social following are establishing their own brand, and I am not just referring to some of the mega-superstars on YouTube. I am talking about the vast majority of people who live their lives as broadcasters, engaging others in what makes their lives interesting and follow-worthy. These customers are living the life of a brand. They develop their narrative, tone of voice, unique characteristics and overall brand presence. They represent all the typical brand elements that traditionally was the stronghold of companies and products.

By becoming their own brand, customers are diminishing the traditional role of classic brands. They do not see Nike as a super-brand, but rather, as a peer. Customers have equalized the playing field and are now seeking a different relationship altogether with the companies with whom they choose to do business. They no longer cling to a brand because it enhances their self-image. Their self-image is pretty strong all on its own. Customers no longer view Nike as a final product – a sneaker – but more as a tool to express themselves and as a way to show their followers how interesting their lives are. They co-create a new, personal narrative using the brand.

What does this structural change mean for classic brands? The questions they ask and their path forward will fundamentally change. They can no longer ask how to gain customer loyalty. The question now is, “How can they become loyal to their customers? The question of values is being redefined from “a product to be consumed by customers” to “a product that enhances the customer brand!” Customers are now co-collaborators and co-creators with classic brands. They do not see a final product, but a set of tools to create their own narrative. The change is massive, starting with the recognition that classic brands need to cede their prominent position and accept their customers as co-collaborators. And not just one customer, one focus group or one brainstorming session. All customers. All the time.

If we manage to overcome the challenge this poses to our ego, then the rest should be a bit easier. We will now need to craft ways to allow customers to create their own experiences and become a brand platform for them to express themselves. Be the accelerator that will allow them to create their authentic narratives and broadcast them to their followers. This approach, in many ways, requires abandoning the traditional brand development approach where a classic brand is managed by a classic marketer reigned strong over its followers, the customers. It’s time to treat customers as equals. It is a long overdue change. Social media simply accelerated it.
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