Brand Together: How Co-creation Generates Innovation and Re-energizes Brands By Nicholas Ind, Clare Fuller and Charles Trevail. Philadelphia, PA: Kogan Page Limited, 2012. 172 + x pages.
“Brand Together” is an advocacy piece on using a co-creation framework for branding of consumer products by three leaders in the field, two of whom are founders of Promise (a brand strategy and innovation consultancy using the co-creation process for major international companies, some of which are featured in the book). The book draws on published materials spanning art, philosophy, psychology, reality television and classical branding; 20 interviews with brand managers; working sessions with co-creator experts; and experiences with a 236-member moderated online community centered around co-creation. The central premise is that our culture has become participatory (p. 18 and p. 82), such that branding should now be an exercise undertaken with customers as opposed to for customers. The authors provide a framework for co-creation of brands and multiple examples of how the co-creation process has worked effectively for their clients.
The authors “see brand as a stakeholder experience”—the result of hearing about, buying and using something that influences future consumer intentions (p. 21). They note that Generation C (the “Connected Generation”—born after 1990 and nurtured on interactive, computer-assisted communications) will make up 40% of the population in the United States, Europe and BRIC countries (p. 12) and has expectations of being active participants with, rather than passive recipients of, their favorite brands. The authors also note that classical ethnographic observation of consumer behavior fails to completely comprehend the emotive elements associated with brands, resulting in a disconnect between observed product interactions and true consumer needs. The solution, in the authors’ minds, is to create collaborative, iterative environments in which employees and consumers are engaged with brand management in brand development activities.
Part one of the book deals with the more philosophical elements of the authors’ advocacy. Nike, Starbucks and Patagonia are used as examples of how a company needs direct customer interaction to define critical brand elements. Quoting the CEO of a major consumer products company, “you need to get so close to customers that you can understand their needs and wants, even when they can’t articulate them themselves” (p. 36). The starting place seems to be developing a “brand ideology.” While the book gives examples of such ideologies by several international companies, the ideologies from very different companies all seem to be quite similar, designed more to elicit a positive emotional response in the consumer and not particularly related to the specific products themselves (perhaps more an artifact of the co-creation process that is advocated, in which the company sets the boundaries of identity for the product and elicits the specific product benefits on which to base brand to the ultimate users).
Part two of the book attempts to convey a supportive framework for using the co-creation processes without being overly didactic. The process seems to start with what is referred to as the Final Big Question (FBQ)—in most cases centered on how the product or service should positively influence the everyday life of the target demographic. The FBQ needs to be expansive enough to go beyond the ordinary features and benefits of the individual product, such that the company can interject the brand into the fabric of the consumers’ existence. Examples of FBQs include “What is the biggest role that Kraft can play in people’s lives, all around the world?” (p. 70). The second step is creating an environment in which critical stakeholders can explore and ideate (p. 75 and p. 101). The co-creative process occurs when such environments are opened to consumers who are vested with the brand. Such investment can be via in-store interactions, focus groups or (preferably) via online community engagement. With respect to online communities, the authors suggest that contributions are best solicited when the participants have “brand engagement” (through actual use), with social elements of the community being a secondary motivating factor for participation (and rewards-based systems accounting for less than 10% of motivation to contribute) (p. 84). The authors indicate that the benefits of such community co-creation included increased speed to market, lower cost and higher profitability, better product quality and greater satisfaction, and reduced risk (p. 141). The authors also include specific KPIs for co-creation (p. 142).
While the book is excellent in supporting the argument that innovation in product development and branding is seldom successful if limited to the laboratory (or brand management), the argument for co-creation seems less convincing (and sometimes self-serving of the consultancy practice of the authors). For example, while providing excellent examples from the open source community for co-creative efforts, there are very few comments in the book about the potential legal issues that develop when intellectual property is derived from the efforts of non-employees. Similarly, there are no negative examples of consumer communities or suggestions on how moderators keep consumer communities focused and on-task. The end result is that co-creation seems to be an interesting element of brand strategy (and perhaps essential in capturing younger demographics and future markets), but only one of many effective means of establishing and maintaining product relevance in the marketplace.
For brand managers who have yet to adopt social networking into their toolbox, “Brand Together” offers some excellent examples of how to integrate online communities into building brand and brand awareness and how to expand thinking beyond current products into evolving target demographic needs. The book also does an excellent job illustrating the evocative/emotional aspects of the purchase decision and how branding can positively influence such decisions. The book also draws from excellent examples of branding by major international companies. But the book’s concentration on advocacy for the co-creation technique comes at the expense of solid empirical evidence on how the 236-member online community created by the authors operates (such description being delegated to the last three pages of the text, p. 161-163) and providing specific examples of how the FBQ has been practically used to generate successful brand introductions by large international companies.