The term “prosumer” is widely used in marketing discussions these days, but no one knows what to make of it.

Yet another portmanteau, prosumer is a combination of the words “professional” and “consumer.” In essence, a prosumer is someone who is especially proactive on the path to purchase, searching for information, engaging in conversations with brands, pressuring for the best deal and writing his or her own reviews.

In the travel industry we see many consumers taking on these characteristics, theoretically creating a legion of engaged, informed customers. But is this always a good thing for travel brands? The answer isn’t as obvious as you’d think.

In Asia, most travel-related research is conducted online

Consumers are becoming professional, if not predatory, shoppers. In Asia, we know that up to 95% of Internet users research products and that airlines and hotels are two of their favourite categories to find online.

The Web has opened up a wealth of information and comparison tools to travellers. Sites like FareCompare.com enable consumers to see airfares stacked against each other; Farecast.live.com actually allows them to predict whether that fare will go up or down!

If your brand is strong in the prosumer space, all this will drive engagement in mutually beneficial ways. In Australia, we’ve seen online shopping for designer brands take off as they exploit differences in cost and exchange rates to expand markets.

Witchery, (a local brand) and Topshop (a U.K. brand that now ships to Australia) have seen huge sales growth in this market. This is all built and based on their compelling brand identities (check out Witchery’s beautiful branded music video or Topshop’s colourful blog), as much as price. Of course, engagement drives returns: In an online retail environment these are the stocks that get the best ratings.

But the travel industry has relatively few brands strong enough to do this, or committed enough to engage. Our customers mostly engage with travel categories – flights, hotels, rental cars –not with our brands. As a result, eager consumers are directed to places ­that support a commoditization of the product – think online travel agents like Expedia and aggregators like Kayak.

Asian consumers prefer user-generated reviews for restaurants, hotels and holiday destinations

The global financial crisis only exacerbated this trend. The cycle of endless discounting made prosumers acutely aware of how important they are to businesses, and of the bargaining power that comes with this.

As a result, we have created a consumer mindset of “show me your loyalty and I will show you the money… just don’t expect my loyalty in return.” Prosumers expect to see brands recognizing and rewarding their patronage.

Upfront gestures of goodwill (such as a complimentary drink on arrival) are preferred, but consumers are prepared to haggle. More and more, the most travel companies can expect their brand equity to deliver is the phone call to negotiate.

To prosper in this dog-eat-dog world of prosumerism, we need to tailor offers more effectively, not give the product away. We need to make sure we link those offers specifically to our brands and the values we want to promote. We also need to look at how other categories leverage prosumerism to greater effect.

I’m trying to think of travel brands that have consistently delivered this level of engagement in a way that would stand comparison with brands like Nike, Apple or even Topshop. But I’m really struggling. Can someone out there help us find those beacons the rest of the industry can follow?