Co-creation can be so much more than this

Brands that are pestering disengaged consumers for ideas should look to John Deere to see what co-creation can really do.

Something strange has been happening this summer. And I don’t just mean with the weather. Or last week’s spontaneous street parties.

A multitude of brands have somehow assumed that I want to be part of a fan club. Or a crowd-sourcing movement. Or to co-create something with them.

A creosote manufacturer has invited me to join the ’Wood Preservation Society’ a community I originally took to be a support group for Viagra users. And the maker of a much-loved British summertime drink has implored me to share with it my best summer party ideas. As if it has run out of ideas of its own.

Just when I was thinking that my rather dismissive reaction to these Stalinist attempts at manufactured enthusiasm was merely the symptom of curmudgeonly middle age, an email popped into my inbox.

Attached was what purported to be ’an open letter to all of advertising and marketing’, apparently from an ordinary 27-year-old bloke called Brian.

In this document, Brian lambasts advertisers for what he calls “some terrible misunderstanding, where you got the idea that I’d really like the prospect of coming home from work and spending my valuable free time taking part in your stupid idea about sausages, or tea, or washing bloody powder, or anything else for that matter”.

A little like the famous forgeries, the Zinoviev note and the Hitler diaries, the Brian letter is almost perfectly convincing in its verisimilitude. Though there are occasional turns of phrase which betray the artful hand of a copywriter at work. Or maybe even a planner.

It’s a funny letter. But it conveys an important point. Participation is potentially a massively powerful communications tool. But it needs to be used with discretion.

Last month, I talked about the recent IPA study, which audited the results of four different categories of integrated communications campaigns. My regular reader may recall that the last such category was what the report described as ’participation-led integration’. In other words, the kind of thing that has got Brian’s goat.

Among the total universe of target consumers, these campaigns were associated with the smallest business effects of all four categories of campaign. However, among existing users of the promoted brand, the participative model delivered the best results of all the campaigns surveyed.

This makes intuitive sense. The greater your affinity with the brand, the more likely you are to interact with it. And it’s easy to see how this interaction would boost your usage and advocacy.

So participation has a massive and powerful role in 21st century communications. But it is best deployed among those who are already predisposed to the brand not among the disengaged Brians who comprise the majority of our audience, the majority of the time.

We should also remember that while participation is a powerful way of intensifying an idea, it is not an idea in itself. It wasn’t participative campaign architecture which prompted my step-mum to buy the autobiography of Compare the Market’s brand character Aleksandr Orlov last week. It was an idea of remarkable imaginative power. And a sale at the Age UK bookshop.

The misuse of participation has also had the effect of debasing one of the most exciting and powerful movements in modern marketing, namely co-creation. All too often, the phrase is taken to mean merely the crowdsourcing of an advertising idea, or some kind of participative promotion.

However, the true potential of co-creation goes much deeper. I remain inspired by a book I came across a few years ago by CK Prahalad and Venkat Ramaswamy, called ’The Future of Competition: Co-creating unique value with customers’.

The main thrust of their argument is that the future belongs to brands that engage customers in the process of designing products and services that meet their unique needs. But the most surprising and exciting parts of the book are the sections that tell the stories of the brands that have gone the furthest towards this goal.

They’re not Nike or Apple. They’re brands like GE and believe it or not John Deere, the iconic US tractor company, whose ride-on lawnmower made such an impact as a bit-player in the last series of Mad Men.

In the Midwest, John Deere no longer just pushes metal at farmers. The brand works with farmers to create tailored solutions comprising leasing and maintenance packages, workflow management systems and accounting tools. It even incorporates data from similar farm clients, with the result that it can predict yield improvements and thus price on a profit-share, rather than cost-plus basis.

Extrapolate this down to the consumer level and imagine the competitive advantage that a retail bank, insurer or telecoms brand could create with such an approach. Especially if the co-created service package could be re-tailored dynamically by the customer in response to changing needs and circumstances.

Now that’s true co-creation. I have a feeling even Brian would be impressed by that.

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