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The Expo of the unthinkable

Everybody's talking about consumers at Expo West 2011. No surprises there, but everybody's talking about consumers in a way that speaks baldly and directly to a power inversion moving its way inexorably through the cabinets in our kitchens, the aisles in our stores, and the cubicles in our offices. Companies appear to have lost control of commerce, thanks to social media, the very public debate about health & wellness, and the frightening outlook for preventable diseases afflicting Americans of every stripe, especially our children. This is a process, of course, with variations and degrees across different industries operating in natural products, but what seems more and more certain is the presumption of the outcome here. Companies lost. Consumers won.

Here are three voices sounding the clarion call of consumer advocacy from the floors of Expo.

  • Jeff Hilton of Integrated Marketing Group: "Consumer power is clearly on the rise. It's frightening to some companies, invigorating to others, but consumers have all of the control today. The smart companies are opening up their brands and letting consumers become part of that story."
  • Donald Wilkes of Blue Pacific Flavors: "The consumer is moving so fast now that traditional, hierarchical businesses just can't keep up. It really is the age of the unthinkable," in reference to Joshua Ramo's book of that name.
  • Alex Bogusky of Fearless Cottage and Common: "For the first time ever in history, the majority of mass media is unsponsored. It's peer-to-peer. It's us speaking to each other in authentic voices. There's a big shift in power underway as media control moves from companies and governments to the consumers."

The takeaway here, still months and years in the making, is that companies wedded to secret formulations and toxic ingredients are not aligned with today's consumers. Companies not willing to adopt transparent business practices are not speaking clearly to the wants and needs of those consumers. Companies that respond to their consumers, as always, can only stand to prosper from this changing dynamic while companies trapped in subtrefuge and obfuscation stand little to no chance. There's just no hiding anymore. In this new light, Anaheim feels a bit like Woodstock this weekend—with a lot more marketing spend clouding that grassroots agenda. As Hilton suggests, Woodstock 2011 is both an invigorating and frightening prospect.

Fully empowered, whatever will consumers do with this new sense of agency? Will we shape our companies to better promote our well-being? How so? Are we up to the challenge, given the carnage already at play in the marketplace? Which companies will adapt and survive? Walking the booths at Expo, it's easy to succumb to novel products and the pomp and circumstance of high commerce, but the real trends at play seem quieter and a bit more cerebral to me. I'm beginning to think that commerce may not look like this for much longer.

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