Why You Should Hand Your Brand Over to Your Customers

Last Updated May 26, 2010 2:13 PM EDT

Imagine a brand that gains meaning without expensive advertising, without the constraint of positioning, without press releases, and without corporate communications at all.

Is such a brand even possible? You bet. In fact, despite the head-in-the-sand approach of some big companies, so-called open brands are not just possible; they're inevitable. The age of Twitter and Facebook has made it so. Today, every brand must reach beyond its patrolled boarders. Marketers must be open to change, to re-invention and exploration-whether your brand is Lego or Beyonce. Classic account planning has for decades held that a brand lives in the mind of its customers. This kind of strategic thinking led marketers to develop creative strategies that focused on customer benefits, not product attributes. Fueled by consumer interviewing techniques, strategists might determine, for example, that the selling proposition for grilling charcoal be based on a desire that the "meat turns out just right," versus attributes such as quick and easy lighting or slow burning. This approach was as close as a good marketer could get to opening itself up to the world of its customers.

Today, to be an open brand means not only recognizing consumer insights, but also allowing those very consumers to participate in the brand's identity and development. The best-known example of a completely open brand is Wikipedia, of course. But even traditional brands, governed by the old rules of marketing, can and should become more open.

Learning From Lego Worried about trademark abuse and other unforeseen negative consequences? So was the Danish toy maker Lego, which more than a decade ago decided to engage with the collective creativity that the brand attracted rather than fight it. Lego has since become an exemplar of customer engagement and open branding.

The first step that Lego took was to segment its users into affinity groups, from those who simply owned a Lego product to passionate Lego users who wanted to have a dialogue with the brand and co-create. Lego then looked at the demographics of its users and further segmented them-Adult Fans of Lego, Creators, Entrepreneurs, Families, Gamers, among others.

Lego then encouraged these communities. Sometimes it organized get-togethers and online groups, but often the company's brand ambassadors would simply encourage the fans to do that on their own. The results have been remarkable. In 2009 alone, more than 1.6 million people attended events organized by Lego fans. These fans are constantly promoting the Lego brand-in a far more effective way than would be possible under the old marketing model. Lego fans have uploaded more than 250,000 videos to YouTube (with the top five having in excess of 47 million views), tagged more than half a million Flickr images, created thousands of Websites and hundreds of blogs.

Along the way, the company has turned to it most dedicated fans to co-create products. In 2006, for example, Lego launched Factory Exclusives-a line of 30 products that were the result of this effort. On a mass collaboration level, Lego uses a crowd-sourcing model to let any user submit designs. If 1,000 supporters thumb-up the design submission, Lego considers it for production. And when such a project gets made, Lego may even share royalties with the designer.

The benefits to the Lego brand and its fans are indisputable. Tormod Askildsen, Lego's senior director of community development and customer experience, told me that it's led to a "snowball of inspiration." He followed up: "There are no more lost Lego souls out there!"

Plenty of other businesses have embraced open branding with great success. T-shirt company Threadless was a pioneer, for example. More than 70% of new Austin Mini's are customized by their buyers. And Nike + shoes, in collaboration with Apple's iPod Nano, create an experience that's personal and encourages users to participate in and create their own groups. The payoff has been increased consumer loyalty, desirable buzz and, ultimately, higher sales.

So where does Beyonce fit into the open brand movement? Beyonce made a smash hit music video Single Ladies. It's received 18,849,936 YouTube views. Justin Timberlake paid homage with his Saturday Night Live parody. It's received 20, 025, 089 YouTube views. A pop culture example, for sure, but it certainly shows the benefit of opening up: Beyonce's brand was parodied. She embraced it, and she enjoyed at least twice the exposure because of it. No marketer would argue with that.

  • Niland Mortimer

    Niland Mortimer is the chief marketing officer of Socialarc, Inc., a Bay Area social-media marketing firm. He's had a 25-year career in global marketing and advertising, with broad international experience in global brand management, web and online user experience, social media, global strategy development and implementation, interactive and direct marketing, customer relationship management, and advertising-agency management and business development. He teaches MBA-level marketing at the University of San Francisco and in fall 2010 will begin teaching open branding at Stanford University.