Written by: Eric Eichinger
The internet, and more recently, the Web 2.0, has shaped the Marketing industry immensely. It calls for comprehensive new measures and tools, be it promotion, brand building, or distribution. One phenomenon that stands out as changing the landscape of Marketing is co-creation by consumers (also known as crowdsourcing). There is no longer a mass market that can be penetrated universally, but a collective of connected individuals who want to take part in shaping their environment. This causes a great dilemma for brand managers: Can they still be the guardian of their brand, or are they reduced to mere brand “hosts” (Christodoulides, 2009)? But what if a company can achieve a balance that allows for customer participation without losing complete control over the brand? This question shall be explored in this paper. After discussing the concepts of co-creation and brands in the Web 2.0, we will assess two companies that have attempted to find this balance through online platforms.
The Evolution and Characteristics of Co-Creation
Albeit they had not used the term “co-creation” yet, the idea of engaging customers and starting a dialogue with them online was already introduced 16 years ago by Prahalad and Ramaswamy (2000). They argued that the roles the different stakeholders play have been blurred, and that the consumers “have moved out of the audience and onto the stage” (Prahalad & Ramaswamy, 2000, p. 79). Technology has naturally progressed since then, connecting individuals through social media, message boards, or online communities. As Fournier and Avery (2011, p. 193) put it: “The technology that was supposed to empower marketers has empowered consumers instead“. Before the internet, consumers only had the individual choice of buying or not buying a certain product. But today, they can gather in a crowd and exert strong network-based power (Labrecque et al., 2013).
Muñiz and Schau (2011) argue that when it comes to consumer-generated content (CGC), its authors are practically untraceable, unknown, and are usually not rewarded in monetary terms. This situation is reinforced by the fact that co-creation often occurs through the collective effort of individuals that are loosely connected in an (online) community, diluting the contribution of any single user. But not only do the companies profit from such valuable contributions, the co-creating consumers also develop a stronger connection to the brand and its communities (Van den Bulte and Wuyts, 2007, cited in Christodoulides, 2009). The role of brands in this environment will be analyzed in the following section.
Brands in the Web 2.0
When the world wide web started to gain momentum and began to attract the masses, marketers had hoped that they could simply copy the strategies they had successfully implemented offline (Meyers & Gerstman, 2001). While this may have worked in the early beginnings of the internet, the evolution of the Web 2.0 has thwarted these plans. Characterized through interactivity, customer empowerment, and, of course, co-creation, the Web 2.0 has altered the environment in which brands operate (c.f. Christodoulides, 2009). And this, of course, poses a great challenge to brand managers. They can no longer be the omnipresent control freaks that want to protect their brands like helicopter parents want to protect their children (c.f. Mitchell, 2001, cited in Christodoulides, 2009). Rather, they need to give consumers and other stakeholders the liberty to explore the brand on their own.
In fact, Fournier and Avery (2011, p. 203) argue that on the internet, having a big brand can even be a disadvantage, as they serve as “magnetic targets” online. They justify this statement by claiming that we are living in the age of criticism and parody: Not only are users highly critical of brands and prefer to get what they need from people they know instead of brands and companies (Bernoff & Li, 2008), but they also enjoy taking brand messages and turning them into spoofs and parodies. They have become judges, commentators, and critics (Fournier & Avery, 2011). Looking at the pinball metaphor established by Henning-Thurau et al. (2013), we can thus argue that the brand, (and therefore its brand message, brand story, brand personality, etc.), is rapidly tossed around between different stakeholders, similar to the ball in a game of pinball. They recommend to embrace these new game changers, and to invite customers to participate in creating the brand.
Now where do these assumptions about brands in the Web 2.0 lead us in terms of operational recommendations? Kietzmann et al. (2011) have developed the 4C guideline to help with developing and monitoring customer engagement online. Firms and brand managers first need to Cognize, i.e. to understand who their customers are and where they converse about the brand. They then need to pay attention to Congruity, by determining how the goals of the brand can be aligned with social media. The third step is Curating, which means being involved in the communities and monitoring their input. Finally, being on a continuous Chase to broaden one’s horizon about assumptions of these communities ensures that the brand stays up to date. Keeping these four imperatives in mind, we will now progress to the core of this e-paper, where we analyze examples of online co-creation platforms and how they contribute to the development of a brand.
Two Brands and their Co-Creation Platforms
The first section of this paper has made a strong case for the idea of brands being “hosts” that encourage conversation. This can be done by creating online platforms, where consumers and people interested in the brand can meet and feel comfortable with expressing their opinions and thoughts (Muñiz & Schau, 2011). The brand only acts as a facilitator of dialogue and is supposed to listen instead of doing all the talking (Deighton & Kornfeld, 2009). If done correctly, this can help the brand to be accepted by the community and to gain “citizenship credentials” (Fournier & Avery, 2011, p. 195). The following examples will demonstrate how this can be achieved – and what to avoid.
A true pioneer in the field of co-creation is Dell, who was one of the first to introduce a digital “suggestion box” to their customers in 2007. Giving them a voice to actively criticize the company was considered a bold move at that time (Co-Society, 2014). But it is not surprising that it was Dell that revolutionized in this field. The brand’s value proposition and brand drivers include customer empowerment, open conversations and listening to people’s needs (Dell, 2016) – perfect prerequisites to act on these values and enhance the brand, as the requirement for congruity is fulfilled.
The platform skyrocketed in the first two years, receiving countless submissions from enthusiastic fans. After these prime years, Dell seemed to have lost interest, and customers expressed that “it would work a lot better if Dell joined the conversation rather than just watching” (Forbes, 2012). Dell listened – and rebuilt the platform in 2011, thus proving that the brand also followed the principles of “curating and chasing”. The company even hired one of the most active users to moderate the platform. Picking someone “out of the crowd” to join in the rebuilding activities was a truly smart move to blend the line between brand and community. He also hosted “Storm Sessions”, where Dell regularly encouraged discussions on particular topics.
However, the last Storm Session was in 2014, and even in general, it seems like Dell has once again abandoned the platform. Many of the entries that are prominently advertised date back to 2007 or 2008. The section that features ideas that were eventually implemented by Dell shows no sign of any recent additions. This, of course, discourages any form of co-creation, as it is doubtful whether Dell will even read the suggestions. This has even more severe consequences for the brand. If Dell claims that the brand stands for community and empowerment, but gives off the impression that the platform is not more than a façade, the brand loses a lot of credibility. Especially in these times of online parody and criticism (Fournier & Avery, 2011), this ambiguity can quickly cause spillover effects to the company’s products and decrease trust in everything the brand stands for.
Another company that took the opportunity to enhance its brand by establishing a co-creation platform is Lego. The brand is without doubt a good fit with this concept (thus ensuring congruity), as it has encouraged generation after generation to explore their creativity and imagination. In stark contrast to Dell, the platform is very intuitive and up to date. Each Lego idea submission shows a progress bar that indicates the number of supporters and the time an idea has left to reach the 10,000 supporter mark – this is when Lego will officially review a project. By being so transparent, the company prevents misunderstandings that could turn the community against the brand.
While Lego gives the users freedom over discussing ideas, the brand has established some channels that allow it to curate the community. Lego has a blog linked to the platform, where it publishes interviews with users whose ideas have been realized, for example. They also give tutorials, such as how to take the best pictures of their Lego model ideas – a great way to support the community without being too dominant. Finally, every project submitted has a section where the company can leave official remarks. Often, these comments are written in a style appropriate to the submission, e.g. referencing characters from the movie an idea is based on. That way, the company is speaking the language of its customers, which also represents the playful and maybe a little “nerdy” Lego brand very well.
However, the brand has faced some challenges as well. In 2012, Lego rejected a submission which was based on the TV series “Firefly” (Lego Cuusoo Blog, 2012). They justified this by stating that the content of this show was not a good fit with the brand and not appropriate for the 6-11 core target audience of Lego. This created backlash from the community, as they argued that previous Lego sets of movies are also not suited to this demographic. Not only can this heavily dilute the brand, but cause confusion and disappointment within the community (We Economy, n.d.).
Can Co-Creation and Branding Be Aligned?
Can a company achieve a balance that allows for online customer participation without losing complete control over the brand? And if so, how? This is the question this paper was set out to evaluate. The two examples chosen – Dell and Lego – give a good impression of the underlying answer to this question: Yes, it is possible to strike a balance, but it comes with considerable pitfalls to the brand should the company fail to appropriately accommodate the community. The 4C model by Kietzman et al. (2011), which was applied in this paper, proved to be an effective guideline for marketers to run their co-creation platforms. Dell managed to reach their customers (cognize) and align their goals with those of the brand (congruity). However, the company failed to actively curate and chase the community in the last few years, thus contradicting and endangering the brand’s characteristics that emphasize customer empowerment and conversation. Lego’s strategy, on the other hand, is a great example of giving freedom to its community, while still curating and chasing on selected channels, such as the Lego blog on the platform. The brand further understood that when it interacts with the users, it needs to speak their language, thus becoming a part of the community and gaining citizenship credentials (Fournier & Avery, 2011).
Since both brands analyzed in this paper innately emphasize creativity and innovation, they had an obvious strong fit with co-creation platforms. Additional research could look at brands that do not necessarily include such values – mystarbucksidea.com comes to mind, for example. Here, co-creation would arguably add different layers to the Starbucks brand than it did with Dell and Lego, and would thus face different challenges than the ones presented in this paper.
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