Which type of message is more appealing -- that you need a certain model of luxury car to prove your worth and maintain your social status? Or that you have the power to forgo social convention, assert your individuality and live within your means by buying a car that’s economic and reliable? In 1959, Volkswagen took a chance on sending the latter message to consumers -- to great success -- and the concept of consumer empowerment in marketing was born.

Definition Of Empowerment

In marketing, empowerment is providing consumers with options, tools and resources to facilitate decision-making, allowing consumers to tailor a product or brand experience to suit their own specific needs and desires. By providing consumers with the power to make choices and take actions, marketers give up control over consumer brand interaction, but the result is often that consumers are happier with the brand experience and more likely to engage with the brand in a positive way, and even become brand evangelists, than they are with brands that use more traditional marketing methods.

Traditional Marketing Tactics

Traditional marketing depends on creating anxiety in the consumer by convincing her that she has a need that only the product or service being sold can help her fill, thus improving her life. In his book on empowerment marketing entitled “Story Wars,” entrepreneur Jonah Sachs refers to this type of marketing as “inadequacy marketing.” Its goal is to make consumers feel powerless to change their lives on their own, while promising that a certain product or service will provide the improvement they seek.

Empowering The Consumer

Empowerment marketing subverts traditional marketing tactics by recasting the consumer as the hero who has the power to effect change and use the product or service being sold to achieve success. One of the best examples of this type of marketing campaign is Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign. Rather than promising that its shoes will improve athletic performance, Nike’s ads generally send the message that anyone can be an athlete if they’re willing to work hard. In addition to this type of empowerment message, consumers in the age of Internet communication and social media are finding themselves empowered by the fact that their voices and opinions are being heard by companies like never before. Savvy marketers are taking advantage of this fact to make consumers feel that they have a certain amount of control over brand direction.

Creating Brand Evangelists

One of the primary goals of empowerment marketing is to convert consumers into brand evangelists. By providing customers not only with a positive brand experience that they want to tell others about, but also with tools and resources that make it easy to spread the word, companies gain valuable word-of-mouth advertising. One brand that used this tactic effectively is Kiva.org, a website that makes it possible for people to grant microloans to struggling entrepreneurs in developing nations. By not only providing free marketing materials to site users and anyone who believed in the website’s cause, but also making them feel like part of the Kiva team, Kiva was able to forgo spending a lot of time and money on a professional marketing campaign, focusing instead on improving the website and facilitating more loans to help more Third World entrepreneurs get their businesses up and running.