Co-creation: Why brands must collaborate to survive

The future for brands lies in partnerships that create new value. By Matt Hay, co-founder of co-creation agency Latimer Group and chief executive of co-creation platform Bulbshare.

As audiences seek greater collaboration, the opportunity to create their own content and to participate in a dialogue, brands must adapt to survive. 

The smart ones are those that are prepared to shift the balance of power: democratise, give audiences a say and understand that they need to put consumers at the heart of their brand. The brands that will own the future are those that open themselves up to co-creation.

At the same time, audiences are becoming ever-more cynical toward brands, which means that trust, authenticity and transparency are key factors. Co-creation is the most direct way to realise these goals. For a more savvy, entrepreneurial generation – with the technology at their fingertips to connect to brands when and where they want – the brands that they will trust, love and recommend to friends are those that treat them not as customers, but as colleagues and collaborators. 

People no longer respond to being told what to buy. They want to be involved, to feel that they are part of the process – to shape the way in which the brands they invest in behave.

A new era

This is the new wave of co-creation. Marketing messages that merely seek to "broadcast" rather than engage with their audience are falling on deaf ears (or worse still – at least for the brand – are being cut off entirely by sophisticated ad-blockers). Where once the core brand marketing objective was one of interruption, it’s now based on interaction. Indeed, some of the most successful brands have rejected the idea that there are consumers that need to be interrupted at all.

Airbnb describes its customers as a "community"; its business model is based on creating value by connecting people on a global scale. For Uber, its model not only drives people from A to B despite it owning no cars, it also engenders customer-centric innovation and im-provements to its services through user ratings and driver reviews. This is breeding an evangelical zeal in its users that goes way beyond the traditional word-of-mouth advocacy that most brands dream of. As Uber’s co-founder and chief executive, Travis Kalanick, put it: "Our virality is almost unprecedented. For every seven rides we do, our users’ big mouths generate a new rider."

Great expectations

Alongside deeper, more authentic relationships with your audience comes a rising threshold of expectation as to how you behave as a brand. These expectations are either left unmet and risk undermining your brand (see Uber’s pay disputes) or, when expectations are met, help elevate a brand’s status to new-found heights in the hearts and minds of its audience. 

But what exactly is co-creation? It is all about one very simple idea: that working together is better. It’s not exactly rocket science – the thought that when we collaborate, listen to each other and embody a community spirit, we will create something far better than if we work in silos and resist the collaborative process. 

It goes beyond asymmetrical relationships where a brand sits on one side and the user or customer on the other. It’s about acknowledging that all parties bring different areas of expertise to the process that are of equal value and fundamental to this collaboration.

When co-creation goes beyond the stakeholders in your office and brings in your customers to problem-solve and create products and services, that’s where the magic happens. Blurring the lines between creator and consumer, turning customers into creative partners and empowering people to influence the decisions brands make doesn’t just lead to customer-centric products and services, it also has the potential to transform brands into a force for good in the world. And, as they begin to understand the power of listening to their audiences, we’ll see more brands that care, have a conscience and offer a level of transparency that was previously unheard-of. 

The My Starbucks Idea community has generated more than 300 implemented innovations and more than 150,000 ideas from customers and member

The remarkable shift that Unilever chief executive Paul Polman has implemented across his company’s portfolio of brands is a case in point. It also signifies that this isn’t just a peripheral fad – Polman has made it central to the brand story. Better still, it’s contributing to the bottom line. According to the Uni-lever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) annual progress report, about half of Unilever’s growth in 2015 came from its "sustainable living" brands, which grew 30% faster than the rest of the company’s business. 

The recent Iris Participation Brand Index report also recognised that companies putting "customer participation" at the core of their brand offer are not only increasing workforce retention, they are also outperforming competitors – a three-year investment in the top 20 global brands in the Index would have earned a return four times higher than that of the bottom 20.

Tech-enabled

As ever, technology has also been a driving force behind the growth of co-creation. The advent of big data, alongside the evolution of social media and mobile technology, has enabled new levels of brand-consumer connectivity, and inspired heightened audience expectation as to how brands behave. While social media has allowed consumers to have conversations with brands, publicly endorse the ones they love and create and share their own content, it has also opened the door to brands seeing their audiences as friends, fans and collaborators, rather than solely as customers. 

It is this cultural shift that has revolutionised the relationship between brand and consumer, giving rise to audience collaboration, brand democracies and co-created content. More-over, as mobile technology continues to evolve, more and more platforms will emerge that will make co-creation a daily event for audiences. 

Take the Lego Ideas Community, for example. This is where fans can submit suggestions for new Lego sets. These are voted on by members of the community and, if they garner support from 10,000 of them, qualify to be evaluated by the Lego Review Board, which selects the projects to be manufactured and sold worldwide as official Lego products. The creators receive a royalty (1% of total net sales of the product), credit and biography in the set materials, and ten free copies of their set. 

Similarly, the My Starbucks Idea community has generated more than 300 implemented innovations and more than 150,000 ideas from customers and members, which have included free wi-fi at Starbucks and the introduction of "skinny" drinks. 

Lego and Starbucks represent a new breed of company that has embraced the existence of bespoke co-creation platforms as a vehicle for launching products, services and campaigns led by their audience. This will spell a new era for the way brands approach their creative process, making it far more collaborative, transparent and democratic.

People-powered creativity

Technology already exists that allows brands to connect with their audiences on the move, gaining valuable consumer insights and feedback, creative ideas and user-generated content. These platforms create closed communities of specific consumer groups, then let brands share questions, ideas and briefs with this specific community, drawing targeted responses from people they value and trust. While this kind of activity has existed for a long time via brands’ websites and social-media pages, a wave of co-creation technology marks a transformative shift in how brands can connect with their audiences.  

Much of this is fuelled by traditional innovation cycles failing to deliver results in a hyper-competitive and convergent market where customers expect personalised experiences, not "one size fits all". The "build it and they will come" mantra of the consumer age is being replaced by a philosophy that believes the most fertile ground for product and service innovation lies in the intersection between customers, brands and the stake-holders that surround them.

The existence of bespoke, brand-specific co-creation platforms is fuelling this shift and ensuring that before brands launch any product, service or campaign, they will go straight to their own audience communities to ask their opinion or seek creative ideas. This will spell a step change in the way brands approach their creative process, making it more agile and responsive to the demands of the consumer.

The age of the content curator

Co-creation doesn’t end with brands. It is changing the way media channels and entertainment companies look at themselves, too. Audiences are no longer happy to be spoon-fed content; they want to curate their own schedule from the wealth of online content at their disposal, the bustling landscape of places to go for it, and technology that lets them watch whatever they like, when and wherever they want. 

The reality for broadcasters is that we don’t go to content any more, it comes to us – either through word of mouth, peer recommendation or algorithms that fill our social feeds and drive our autoplay suggestions. The transient audience no longer has a loyalty to the "publisher" – the TV channel. We’re indifferent as to where Games of Thrones is hosted, be it Sky Atlantic or Amazon Prime; which channel we use is becoming largely irrelevant. The ease and immediacy of migrating from one platform to the next means our loyalty lies not with any one channel, but to our chosen content and our relationship to the shows’ community of loyal viewers. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Net-flix has built such a strong online community, grounded in discovery based on shared interests. Curation, peer recommendation and word of mouth will win every time.

Generation co-creation

Further bolstering these developments is the YouTuber generation: the advent of an army of bedroom-based content-creators with vast audience reach and influence who are changing the way broadcasters see their audiences. 

The apex of a generation empowered by social media to broadcast themselves, create video content and share it with friends and followers, YouTubers force media channels to see their audiences more as collaborators. With their own online channels commanding millions of views daily, they have become as influential as traditional media channels and are being used by a growing proportion of brands and broadcasters as a means of gaining influence and creating content. 

With 150 million users already loyal to Snapchat, Media-kix forecasts sales of 11 million units by 2020

As active, creative audiences with the ability to make and distribute their own content change the way we consume our media, traditional broadcasters must look to them for inspiration. Established media channels must realise they no longer own the broadcast space and – just like brands – turn toward a more collaborative future with audience co-creation at its core. 

A case in point is Snapchat with its Snap Spectacles venture. The premise of the video-recording sunglasses, unlike Google Glass, is, principally, as a creation device – for audiences to make and share video between themselves on the move. Google Glass had a focus on consumption, whereas Snap Spectacles allows audiences to be part of the story, to go beyond passively observing and instead to create, and this is the key driver of this smart technology. Might this be the key to ensuring Snap’s fortunes don’t go the way of Google Glass? With 150 million users already loyal to Snapchat, Media-kix forecasts sales of 11 million units by 2020. If Snap Spectacles achieves just a 1% adoption rate this year, it might give us a clue.

The future for brands

So, how should brands most effectively ride the co-creation wave? At its best, it has the power to transform the way audiences perceive the brands and organisations they care about, closing the gap between them and building trust and authenticity. 

To forge a true affinity with its audience, then, co-creation should become a key part of an organisation’s processes and brand stra-tegy. Future-facing brands that realise this are in constant con-versation with consumers, gaining feedback and insights about every product or service they launch. 

There are clear commercial benefits, and the brands that understand co-creation will flourish – those that don’t will be left behind and find survival tough. 

Beyond commercial gain, brands that collaborate have the power to create social change, too, creating a more fluid and agile relationship with a more engaged, active and fulfilled audience.  

How brands can embrace co-creation: five ways to be truly collaborative

  • Involve your audiences in a constant conversation, gaining insights, feedback and ideas relating to every product and service you launch – and engaging them at every stage of the decision-making process.
  • Realise the power of peer-to-peer. Create opportunities for your audiences to comment on and validate each other’s ideas and your offering.
  • Use technology that facilitates audience collaboration and co-creation. Social media is no longer the only platform on which to connect with consumers; co-creation-specific technology is out there. 
  • Set your audience communities challenges and create campaigns that invite collaboration. Encourage your audiences to get on board, submitting creative ideas and responses.
  • Be transparent. Invite your audience into the heart of your brand by being honest and open about the decisions you make and the way you operate. Transparency builds authenticity and trust.

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