Brand Democratization Catches Fire

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by: Josh Hawkins

You can't shake a stick these days without hitting a blog post or business rag that mentions some incarnation of brand democratization (e.g., remix culture, collaboration marketing, co-creation, participatory advertising, CGM). AdRants, Business 2.0 Blog and MicroPersuasion have all picked up on a new ESPN/MasterCard marketing campaign that involves consumers in the creation of advertising (via AdAge).

"The marketing program will ask sports fanatics to submit videos or digital photographs and stories of their own sports shenanigans to be displayed on the Web, where consumers can vote for their favorite… The advent of easy-to-use technology is rapidly expanding the number of such viewer-involvement programs."

A recent article in BusinessWeek focuses on the immensely popular Converse advertising campaign, which similarly requests customer submitted video clips to be displayed on a website gallery. David Kiley, of BusinessWeek, explains:

"In a time when consumers can scrub advertising from their laptops and distribute ad-free amateur radio shows online, marketers are giving away some control over their ads. Their hope is that the public will accept them as entertainment rather than advertising. The most successful have found it a way to spark buzz and get creative ads on the cheap."

In many cases, the loss of brand control is not a choice. Consumer generated media tends to intercept prospective customers before they ever reach official, branded online Content, which can get command and control brand managers in trouble (read the Fortune article on the Kryptonite debacle and Mazda's blog mess). On the other hand, savvy marketers are making conscious decisions to relinquish a certain degree of control and embrace this trend by monitoring, participating, and empowering customer evangelists to carry their message.

Several of my own clients have worked hard to involve customers and constituencies in the creation of marketing communications and brand experiences. ChartHouse Learning, for example, has targeted customer evangelists to convey core brand messaging through video clips, and the submission of photos, stories and testimonials displayed on their website. Another example is the Greater Minneapolis Convention & Visitors Association who asked attendees of a recent pride parade to send pictures from their camera phones to a Flickr photo gallery for use on their niche community microsite, In both instances, CGM has helped convey more authentic, community-driven messaging, while also helping to achieve a variety of SEO objectives. 

The question that inevitably crashes down at the CMO/CFO intersection is,  "does this marketing strategy drive sales?"  According to Jackie Huba at Church of the Customer, "Of course it will drive sales." She notes the recent Vespa marketing campaign that provides blogs and other collateral materials to customers. She explains:

"Prospective customers will almost surely go online to research the Vespa… and voila! The Vespaway blog will show up in results. Prospects will read the bloggers' real-life posts and eventually become a forum for questions and  answers and in a larger sense, the de facto forum for the "Vespa Lifestyle." Just like Harley-Davidson. In essence, the customers become the sales people."

Beyond customer evangelism, the trend towards brand democratization also opens the door for a variety of new, revenue generating models, as a recent Business 2.0 article explains:

"The basic premise of the culture of participation is that any content that can be created digitally can be shared with the world. And, consequently, any digital content can be turned into a product and sold on the Web."

New distribution platforms that take advantage of long tail economics — i.e., aggregating revenues from niche consumer demand — will also monetize grassroots, consumer generated media, whether it's podcasting through iTunes or video marketing through Brightcove.

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