We attended the Harvard Business School Marketing Conference last week, where the topic for 2008 was the Consumer Revolution. Each presentation and discussion focused on different marketing plans and methods companies have implemented with the consumer revolution—the realization that brands no longer drive consumers’ habits, but that consumers drive each and every brand, determining their level of success.

The key note speakers were excellent, and both brought many examples of how they involve their consumers in developing brand marketing. Mark Addicks, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer at General Mills, began his presentation by pointing out that General Mills is a terrible brand name (the truth, but not an expected confession from a company executive). Luckily for General Mills, they have become a ‘house of brands’, many of which are strong, recognizable, and have relatable, fun characters. He emphasized that in order to build a strong brand, you need strong leadership, leverage in the market place, and marketing scale. So, what points were most relevant to Metropolis and the work we do? Lately, we have been thinking of bigger and better—what we can do to emphasize to our clients how they can constantly make improvements using our services as well as new technology. First, Mark pointed out that package design is important to a brand. Though we don’t do a large amount of package design for products, we are strong in the business of web design and print materials. These are part of a brand’s “package” when you look at the larger picture, and should be carefully considered. Second, Mark showed multiple examples of how blogs can be a powerful tool when building a brand. Many companies have yet to realize the ability online blogging communities have when influencing consumers and the purchasing choices they make. The most prominent theme that Mark spoke about was that a company should always remember there is a bigger idea—every small thing they do should contribute not only to that single campaign, but to the overall brand and what it stands for.

An example of paying attention to the big picture is this Pillsbury commercial. Pillsbury is a brand that makes baked goods. But what they really want to convey is that the Pillsbury helps keep your family close and hold your household together. In a time of economic uncertainty, when people are pinching pennies, Pillsbury is conveyed as a brand your family can rely on.

Jaya Kumar, Chief Marketing Officer for Frito-Lay North America, shared his company’s marketing practices and successes. Lately, Frito-Lay has been all about having their customers drive their marketing—they have asked for submissions of television commercials from all interested customers. You can go on their web site and vote for your favorite ad, and the best one wins $1,000,000. Aside from the commercial that wins, Frito-Lay can also use any of the other commercials they like that are submitted. Having customers create the content is a true example of the one idea that Jaya pushed throughout his presentation—that a brand will become stronger if the consumer can engage with it and take an active role in forming the brand and what it stands for. An effective way to keep customers engaged, as Jaya pointed out, is to constantly update your web site, and make sure its interactive.

Listening to two panel discussions also provided some interesting insights. The first was on “Marketing Your Socially Responsible Initiative.” Key points included: it is important to keep your cause separate from your brand; when all factors are equal, consumers will be tipped to choose sustainable products, and; consumers are going to begin to hold retailers accountable, so it would be in big industry’s favor to make green decisions. The Dove Real Beauty campaign was discussed as a cause campaign that is run by a brand, but is handled separately. The product marketing shows that by buying Dove, you contribute to their cause, but the cause marketing emphasizes the purpose and progress of the campaign.

The second panel topic was “Inside the Mind of the Consumer: Uncovering Insights through Market Research.” Key points included: everything is going to have to be personalized and customized for customers to want your product, and; it is extremely beneficial to consider consumers insights when designing packaging, campaigns, collateral, etc.

So, what did I take away from this conference? Consumers are really too smart for all of the advertising sludge they are exposed to everyday, and frankly, most of them are sick of it. Consumers have the money that power the brands, and these brands have finally come to realize that their ideas, wants, needs, and opinions are the most important considerations in product design and implementation. Brands that embrace this are and will continue to be more successful for a long time to come. And on a smaller scale, here at Metropolis, we need to continue to encourage our clients to be in a constant state of reevaluating their brand and the materials they use to market themselves. It will make them more successful, keep us on top of our game, and bring us interesting work.