We’ve seen what producers do in their struggle to define the meaning and promise of the brand relationship. But what can customers do? Do brands rule consumers, or vice versa?

A customer’s first option is apathy. “Just ignore it.” Sellers have to expend a lot of energy to grab buyers’ attention, and brands are becoming harder than ever to ignore. Brands are more prevalent in our lives today than they were in the 1980s and 1990s, but as consumers, we still want to believe that we are not influenced by brands, or that, in any case, we are free to make choices between competing brands.

It’s well known that competition makes a brand grow stronger. A brand that’s number two (or number one with a chaser) has to prove itself constantly.

Customers critiquing big brands is nothing new. People have enjoyed wearing T-shirts with rude variations on famous logos since at least the 1960s. Organizations such as Adbusters have gone one step further, doctoring billboards to subvert the corporate brand message. Though such actions are criticized as juvenile and illegal, the fact is, they draw attention to the hypocrisy and cynicism of some brands’ advertising, and are remembered by both customers and corporations long after they disappear. One would like to think that big-brand advertisers have learned their lesson: you can’t say things that are hypocritical or cynically manipulative of your audience.

In 2000, anticapitalism reached a zenith with the publication of Naomi Klein’s book No Logo. Her attack on the labor and marketing practices of the companies behind some of the world’s biggest brands caused a storm. The book was rebutted in the Economist, which pointed out that, rather than exploiting consumers, brands are required to earn their trust, and therefore are a tool by which consumers can hold corporations accountable. Contamination scandals involving Coca-Cola in places such as Belgium, Poland, and India forced the company to be honest with consumers and take steps to ensure product safety, because the company was concerned about the reputation of its brand.

Going to the other extreme, some marketers have complained about what they call the “tyranny of the consumer.” Chris Anderson, founding editor of Wired magazine, told an audience, “Your brand is what Google says your brand is, not what you say your brand is,” apparently meaning that any disgruntled consumer with a grudge can use the web to tear down years of accumulated goodwill.

It’s true that in this age of radio talk shows, ubiquitous e-mail, and weblogs, accountability is being demanded more than ever. But corporations are realizing that they can use the same tools to defend themselves and recover their reputations.

And finally, buying behavior is still based on emotion, not a rational weighing of the information at hand. The anti-iPod video/website, ipodsdirtysecret.com, presented some damning information about a flaw in Apple’s star product. Apple fixed the issue, and it doesn’t seem to have had any measurable impact on iPod sales or brand perceptions. Sites like ihatestarbucks.com and www.microsuck.com have also had an impact.

Customers can influence brand meaning by positive actions as well as negative. Remixes, mash-ups, and spontaneous “crossover appeal,” where a brand is adopted by an unexpected audience, are more and more a fact of life for brands. Savvy companies take advantage of this and set up their production for mass customization or actual co-creation of products, as has LEGO Factory, which gives customers the opportunity to design, share, and buy their own custom LEGO models.

Certainly, web technology has given customers greater power to respond to producers. We are entering an age in which successful, lasting brands will be those that harness customers’ ideas and make them a permanent part of brand development.