Consumers Are Behind the Wheel - and Why Not? It's Their JourneyMad Men’s Don Draper reminds us just how much the advertising world once ran on hubris (“What you call love was invented by me to sell nylons”). And how assured advertising executives were of their ability to control the message (“If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation”).

While the hit show surely exaggerates 1960s ad man behavior, there’s no doubt that overall, Don Draper is spot on.

Brands -- through their advertisers -- told consumers what they wanted, and did so with great authority. People of a certain age will remember Trident’s campaign Four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum. This statistical-scientific sounding fact was drilled into the consumer’s head so often that later on in the campaign, the brand ran a commercial in which the voice-over asked a young toddler why his mom let him chew Trident. His response: “Because of the thing on TV.”

My how things change. Let me count the ways. 

1. Brands No Longer Control the Conversation

Brands haven’t controlled the conversation since the early 2000’s. Once the Internet went mainstream, users started generating content for other users to read; content that detailed their opinions and experiences with products and services. In 2005, the term user-generated content, or UGC, entered the lexicon and savvy marketers realized the user’s network of friends and family held just as much sway as they did.

And perhaps it always did, but without the means to survey a large number of friends simultaneously, people had no choice but to rely on the brands. After all, in the days before email, if you wanted to know the opinion of ten friends, you’d have to call them individually -- or host a party. Today, you can ask 200 of your closest Facebook friends what they think quicker than you can dial a phone.

2. Brands Can't Dictate What Customers Want

Brands no longer dictate what consumers want; often it’s the other way around. Case in point: Amanda Hocking, the romance novelist who, after receiving no less than 50 rejection letters, decided to self-publish. People were free to buy and download her books online -- and in short order, 6,000 did so each month. Reviews started appearing on, and eventually the publishing industry got interested. In 2011 she signed a multi-million dollar deal with St. Martin’s press.

And then there’s Kickstarter and the whole crowd-funding movement, where people literally say what they want by financing a product’s development. Since 2009, Kickstarter has helped bring to market a host of video games, technology, films, albums -- even an origami kayak. Meanwhile, AirBnB has completely eliminated the hospitality sector from the travel equation for a great many vacationers.

Now I’m not claiming that brand messages and branded products will fall by the wayside. But make no mistake about it; brands no longer control what the consumer wants or what the consumer believes. And they certainly don’t control how people go about deciding which products or services to buy -- that process is now fully owned by the consumer, and there’s no going back to the Mad Men days.

3. Decision Making is Complex

Consumer decision-making is no longer linear; it’s a web. Once upon a time, the brand more or less bombarded people with a message, and after seeing it enough times, we went out to buy the product. Decision-making today is so much more complex: with steps for discovery, learning, choosing, purchasing and sharing your opinions with your network.