You have to feel sorry for the modern Australian marketer. They still have to deal with the old fashioned four pillars of marketing, price, promotion and … um … the other two. But now they are also expected to “work with” consumers rather than just “sell to” them. It’s called consumer engagement and is the (latest) holy grail for the truly modern marketer.

Engaged consumers don’t just enter a promotion and win a prize. Now the consumer is part of the story. They interact with the brand and the marketer. They tell the world what they think. But marketers are starting to realise that this trend can be incredibly risky. Involving consumers can pay massive dividends. Queensland Tourism’s Best Job in the World gained huge international publicity for the tiny prize of $150,000. And they got a brand ambassador for a year into the bargain!

At the other end of the scale is Witchery menswear. The brand went from unknown to a laughing stock when a Cinderella story presented on Youtube as genuine, was revealed to be fake. Fumbling and contradictory quotes from the actress, Witchery and their agency Naked, proved that the clever plan was unravelling faster than they could manage it. Consumers didn’t think it was funny or clever. They felt they had been lied to. Witchery actually paid money to damage its own brand.

The question now is, will Kraft’s engagement experiment with Vegemite ultimately be a huge winner or a huge loser for the brand?

In only one short week, a competition to name a new product combining cream cheese and Vegemite, has captured Australia’s imagination. TV, radio, newspapers, blogs, online chatrooms and twitterers have commented on what would appear to be a universally despised winning name, iSnack 2.0. The name was announced on Sunday 27 September during the AFL grand final. By Wednesday 30 September Kraft had dumped it. A brand name that lasts only four days has to be some sort of record!

If you subscribe to the “any publicity is good publicity” school of PR then iSnack 2.0 has been a raging success. In fact many commentators believe the whole exercise is part of a cleverly engineered marketing plan. Kraft spokesman Simon Talbot has repeatedly denied the choice of name was a deliberate attempt to spark outrage and comment. Consumers and commentators are now used to marketing tricks and deception, thanks to the Witchery fiasco and others like it. They are suspicious and ready to see a stunt where none may exist.

Personally I don’t think the iSnack turn-around was planned. If it was deliberate, the Kraft marketers could look like liars. If it wasn’t, they could look like clowns. I can’t see an advantage in either direction. But at this point it doesn’t really matter what the intention was. In marketing, perception is reality.

Luckily for Kraft, Vegemite is an almost impregnable Aussie super-brand. An example of its strength is that Vegemite is one of the very few non-Aldi brands sold in Aldi stores. Weaker brands might have been badly damaged by this sort of shemozzle.

The past week should be seen by marketers of all brands as a warning that consumer engagement is not an easy guarantee of success. Opening up to the whole world is inherently risky. Marketers are not only engaging with loyal consumers, but inviting a potential kick in the guts from non-consumers, pundits and even competitors.

Marketing is an industry that spends an absolute fortune on researching the “right” path for traditional media such as TV advertising. It seems strange to expose a brand (and potentially a career) to the vagaries of public opinion, at least without a bit more thought, planning and control.