Change the rules, not the game: the Power of #ParticipationBranding

In 2012, my co- Regional Strategy Director, APAC at  Iris Worldwide,  Paul Gage @gagey501 and I did a lot of thinking around what we see as the future of brand building within the digital & social revolutionImage. At Iris, we believe the best brands of tomorrow will be Participation brands. Below is a thought piece we recently wrote on the power of Participation branding and our take on the 5P’s marketers really need to think about:

If you work in brand consultancy or a brand strategy department right now, you might be a bit worried about your future.  There are a lot of marketers on both client and agency side talking about the death of branding, marketing and strategy.  Kevin Roberts from Saatchi’s has been particularly vocal with his talk at the Institute of Directors annual convention in the UK.    There have been other keynote speeches at Cannes and Spikes in 2012 that promoted the ‘don’t think, just do it’ approach.

The trouble is, this ‘put it out and see if it works’ approach is not far removed from the myopic thinking of ‘build it and they will come’ which led to the vast microsite graveyard.

Do branding and strategy people need to start polishing their CVs?   Well if you’re still hiding behind brand architectures created in workshop vacuums without real people and still believing there’s a single brand essence, promise and big idea that should flow through everything then maybe it’s time to start crawling for recommendations on LinkedIn.

We still need good brand strategy and big thinking.  We just need to change the rules, and that does mean less talk, more listening and more action and more re-action. We need to change the rules by which brands are imagined and behave.

The most loved and effective brands are an intrinsic part of culture – stimulating interest, involvement and advocacy without constant media support. They are authentically valuable experiences that people participate in, not just a string of marketed products and services that they consume in a passive way.

The successful brands of today and tomorrow are Participation Brands.

These brands put participation at the heart of the brand experience – not as an add-on.  They create a gravitational pull enabling them to outsell without having to necessarily outspend their competition.

Being a participation brand means you still have to have a strategic purpose – it’s not a free for all of random initiatives.  However, this purpose is not something that sits on a PowerPoint slide.  It’s a dynamic, evolving and collaborative system embedded into the operational DNA of the organization.  It’s an approach that’s designed to involve customers, stakeholders, fans and beyond through immersive and interactive initiatives that allow people to join in, connect, converse and co-create.

Essentially, a brand is only as good as the sum of their audience’s positive interactions, so value comes from creating an ecology of interconnected experiences that drive advocacy.  But this ecology is designed from a strategic intent that allow the brand to be a part of the fabric of an ever-evolving culture of passions, relationships and conversations, not a fixed entity demanding a pre-determined consumer response.

A word of caution though.  Participation branding isn’t just doing ‘more digital and social’.  Genuine participation brands think content, context, experience and conversations.  This means planning for all interactions and possible participation moments.  Of course technology leaps through multiple screens and surfaces brings multiple opportunities for participation.  We should also develop initiatives for human interactions at events and experiences, call centres or in retail environments.  Technology is an enabler that allows for greater participation in all of these interactions that the brand can have with people and create a cohesive ecology.

Participation branding doesn’t mean trying to get everyone to get deeply involved at all times.  That’s unrealistic.   But people have different motivations that can lead to different tactics. Being useful, driving belonging, enhancing one’s status, rewarding and recognizing my contribution – these are all different motivations for participation and sharing of ideas.

So how do you create a participation brand? Where do you start?  We all know the famous 4P’s of marketing, well, we think there are now 5 principles governing successful participation brands, they just happen to start with ‘P’ as well!

Purpose & Passion.  Believing in something and being willing to make it happen as the way to drive profit and perception.  It’s essential to align with people’s passion points. Being interesting in what people are interested in and making sure your brand has a meaningful role.

Prototype.  Trialing new business models, new initiatives, and not being afraid to bring people into those prototypes and learning on the fly.  This means living at the speed of culture, not the speed of research.  Being in a constant state of beta mode.

Play.  People change their behaviours when they actively get involved and do something.  The principles of play and gaming allow people to see goals and get rewarded.  Marketers need to stop thinking about their brands as static systems, but rather ask themselves ‘What game are we asking people to play with us’ ?  Participation brands let each and every person leave a bit of their DNA on an idea. They leave space for a person to ‘mark’ the experience as their own so they can pass it on as their branded involvement, not the company’s.

Presence & Propagation.  We can’t just be engaging people when it’s convenient for us.  We need 365 days of presence not 360 degree bursts of activity.   In this digital age people actively filter to find what interests them.  So we need appropriate propagation of our initiatives – through advocates, adorers and ambassadors, but also realizing that there is still a necessary role for paid media too.  However, media should be targeted, relevant and encourage participation.

Pivot.  (With thanks to the Lean Start Up).  Great participation brands know that to stay relevant they need to constantly PIVOT and react to what’s happening in culture. Planning for content you don’t create and setting up structures to be able to evolve and adapt your product and campaign ideas depending on how your community interact with them.

Participation brands are not afraid to move on.  Some things run out of steam.  Don’t flog an idea beyond its shelf life.  But equally, remember that marketers and agencies get bored a long time before ‘real people’ do.  You need good reporting, KPIs, benchmarks, measurement and evaluation.

So who’s doing it well?  Of course the titans and icons of Nike, Apple, Google and Red Bull all have participation baked in: Nike’s Fuelband, every Apple product, Chrome’s initiatives with Jay Zee or with Lego and Red Bull with their music  and action sport initiatives.

But what about in APAC and in Australia in particular?

The work we’re doing with Johnnie Walker’s sponsorship of the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes F1TM team  - the ‘Step Inside’ platform is an example of creating content, experiences and conversation around different contextual environments with different levels of participation.    Branded content videos offer people a low-effort way of seeing what’s happening inside the circuit with Lewis and Jenson.  This is linked to promotions in duty free, bars, clubs and grocery outlets.  Branded events activated through social media allow a deeper level of participation and the opportunities to get really close to the glamour and the action of F1TM with face-to-face conversations with the drivers or the opportunity to drive an F1TM car.

2012’s most successful campaigns like ‘Share a Coke’,  ‘The Perfect Lager Project’ for Arvo beer, ‘BYO Cup Day’ for 7 Eleven and ‘Mobile’ Medic’ for the Australian Defence Force – all had participation baked into the DNA of the idea. All with amazing results.

So, no we don’t think we’re living through the death of marketing, but rather 2013, will be an amazingly exciting time for brands.  But brand consultants, strategists and planners need to throw away their wheels, onions and pyramids.    It’s time for us to leave our ivory towers and get involved with the real world.  It’s time for strategy to participate.

Coke FaceLook app for Summer Love

Great Facebook integration with live activations for Cokes 2011 Summer of Love campaign in Israel. They created FaceLook to connect teenagers online and give them an innovative way to express themselves. Idea based on app from,  facial recognition technology integrating with Facebook posts.

What friends will do for a free Coke

Coca Cola have taken their interactive vending machine idea to a new level, quite literally. Building on the brands strategy of turning their most famous touchpoint, a vending machine into an interactive and social content producer, they’ve created the Friendship Machine. Cute little idea to show what friends will do to get a free Coke.

Another example of how a simple social idea can surprise and delight, which for Coke, is a key part of their brand strategy.

Is crowdsourcing getting old? Coke’s 24hr live session w/ Maroon 5

Coke’s on the crowdsourcing bandwagon.

Last week, Coke in collaboration with Maroon 5 and peeps of the world embarked on a social experiment around music. Maroon 5 were tasked with creating a song within 24hrs with the help of you, the consumer, facilitated by Coke.  The idea was called Coca C0la Maroon 5 24hr Session

The idea was highly interactive driven via Facebook, Cokes youtube channel and twitter. Clearly, I like the idea of collaborating with consumers around the creation of a song, it taps into Gen C’s need to be involved with the brand story in real time and obviously taps into Coke’s key content pillar around music.

An example of some of the tweets they received from the Coke community

 They’ve cleverly weaved in a charitable outcome of the song creation as  for the first 100,000 downloads of the new track from April 1, Coke will be making donations to RAIN (provision of clean drinking water to African nations), however i think they need to be more transparent on how much they’re donating.

For those who knew about it, Coke did a great job of driving real time follow factor of the idea, you could follow the band in real time ove rthe 24hr period and vote on things they were doing via hashtags eg: should they take a ‘#break’ or  ‘#song’ to keep them singing/writing.. See here.

The big question for me is whether crowdsourcing has been done to death? Is there anything original here? Are consumers over it? Or are the low levels of engagement due to the fact Maroon 5 are on the way out?

 It’s not as innovative as Old Spice’s ‘ask Mustafa to do something & we’ll create content’ twitter campaign, but I think it’s a pretty good attempt to foster collaboration between Coke fans and Maroon 5′s fan base.

The big question will be how much participation did this social experiment drive on a global scale? The videos on youtube all have very low levels in interaction & given Coke’s got 23million facebook fans and I was expecting far greater global engagement.

All comes down to great content driving high levels of interaction. Unfortunately, unless you’re a hardcore Maroon 5 fan, there’s nothing really interesting here.

Coke launches ARG around secret recipe

Coke has just launched an ARG (Alternate Reality Game) based around its secret recipe and a dude called Dr Pemberton (who apparently invented Coke). It’s quite cryptic and weird but I’m sure  if they seed it correctly with their massive Facebook fan pages, it will get traction, big time.

They’ve seeded a video on YouTube embedded with hidden clues and links to a Twitter page, FTP vault accounts, Facebook App Pages, Live video Feeds, Random Microsites, more Microsites and a YouTube video.

Seems like a big departure from their ‘happiness’ positioning, but for me brands that have mythology around them like Coke, should celebrate it.  I think this is an interesting way to start conversations on social platforms for Coke’s fanatics who always have wondered about Cokes recipe…maybe?? Having said that, it feels about like Levi’s ‘Go Forth’ where they’re tapping into the whole 1800′s Civil War thing. Am gonna follow it and see how it evolves. Good on Coke for having some interesting initatives out in the market, combined with Expedition 206, they are experimenting with pop culture.

Trading in TV ads for the Pepsi Refresh Project

The Pepsi Refresh Project

First post of 2010, here goes. Well Pepsi global have made the ballsy move to reallocate a significant amount of their marketing spend to a global social project. They’ve jumped on the youth empowerment bandwagon and created the Pepsi ‘Refresh Project’. Pretty simple, people suggest ideas via social media, if you gather enough votes for your idea (to ‘refresh’ the world in some way) Pepsi will hand out cash for you to do it. From grants of $5k to $250k, they are giving away millions of $$$.  They’ve taken a generic positioning of ‘refresh’ and are applying it on a cause related global scale.

Does it feel orginal? No I’ve seen a few similar ideas done last year and orginally in ’08 with AMEX Members Project.  Is it engaging? Well the current content promoting it is dead boring but the engagement machanic and idea toolkit is simple and easy which is the #1 rule in this type of participation based idea.

 Firstly, respect to Pepsi for trying to do something that positively creates value in our society and engages young people. However, the problem I see with this idea is a potential  disconnect youth will have with this idea coming from Pepsi. Feels like a brand trying to do a 180 on people. So one minute you’re showing me over the top TV ads with Britney and JT and standing for Hollywood celeb culture, the next minute you’re trying to save the world??? I think alot of American youth are going to be scratching their heads going ..WTF???  But if they are serious about it and stay committed to this positioining and it filters through to all their NPD and trade practices etc, they should get some good traction.  There  is mass ‘save the world’ sentiment going round at the moment (for good reason) and marketers are tapping into it, even if HOPENHAGEN really didn’t do much at all.

It’s clear Pepsi global is worried that Coke is getting all the good ‘social’ karma with their Coke Expedition 206 idea, ‘spreading happiness’ around the world for a year and involvement with Hopenhagen.  I will be keenly following this idea and I’ve already seen transit posters promoting it here in Sydney, no doublt they are blitzing media spend in North America/Europe.

At the end of the day, the are creating positive value in society and I give them cred for that, well done Pepsi !!

My top 5 youth ideas for 2009

Well I’m about to log off tomorrow for 2009, back Jan 6th. It may be a little quiet around here for a while. I’ve got some cool ideas that I’ve been working on the past months that will be breaking in early 2010, so I lookforward to putting them out there and seeing what people think.

 It’s been a great year, I hope you’ve found my insights into youth marketing, planning,  social media and Gen C interesting. In my time off I’m going to be thinking about how I get my book on Youth Tribes going, as it’s such a morphing space, but I’m excited about getting into all the different youth subcultures in Australia and understanding their differences and universal commonalities.

For a bit of fun, here are my  5 favourite youth ideas/content deliveries of 2009:

1. Red Bull Project X – Shaun White Secret Halfpipe (clear winner) – Creating a secreet halfpipe for Shaun White to practice new tricks in…in a word AMAZING. RB are the kings of creating mythology around their brand and deliver the storytelling ina simple yet inspiring way. They know that they are far more than an energy drink brand, they are a youth entertainment media brand. No one ‘creates culture’ like RB.

2. Burger King Whopper Sacrifice – brilliant idea which fucked with the establised codes of culture by getting people to ‘scarifice’ friends to show their love of the Whopper. It’s so brutally simple and engaging. Just when everyone though FB was about adding mates, Crispin turned things on it’s head and made the world go into sacrifice mode.

3. Levi’s ‘Go Forth’ - superb job of creating a new manifesto for Levi’s and making the  ‘Original’ brand position mean something for American youth. This brand idea did a great job of tapping into Generation O (Optimism) which is sweeping across America right now and capturing a relevant mood of global youth.

4. Sprite ‘Reality Remixed’ – Green Eyed World - truly social idea with great follow factor, following the breakout year of a pop hopeful,  Katie –  which in the world of music marketing is absolutely rare…fantastic consumer engagement via the youtube series and Facebook connect interaction, awesome use of technology to make the idea truly social

5. DC Shoes ‘Gymkhana’ videos  – the series of Ken BLock ‘gymkhana’ videos are a youtube phenom, makes the brand feel so authentic and cool when you see KB burning around trailer parks doing tricks in his WRX. DC shoes are smart, they entertain their true believers and the rest flock towards them

Some other cool things that have been quite innovative in engaging youth:

- Fiesta Movement – innovative way to launch a car, try sparking a movement by giving 100 cars away to kids to drive around for a few months…created deep engagement with ‘agents’ and the car was the backdrop to the storytelling. They’re shifting into getting fans to ‘create the 2011′ advertising which worries me, but lets see what happens.

Halo 3 ODST:  - love a great little ARG which sent Canadian gamers on a trasure hunt across Toronto for VIP access to the launch party…they engaged the true believers and the game sold out like hot cakes.

- V Australia 4320LA (Well done Sudeep and Nick K) – smartest use of ‘Twitter’ for a campaign, although the return leg of 4320Sydney wasn’t as engaging.

- Coke Expedition 206 - sheer scale and audacity of the idea of taking 3 20 somethings around the world for a year to spread ‘Happiness’ in 206 countries is cool…whether there is follow factor is yet to be seen

- Gatorade ‘Replay’ – clever doco created by Gatorade in the US..getting two high school football teams from the 90′s who are super fierce rivals to replay a drawn match. Captivating content and an authentic role for product which is rare in branded content these days, without it feeling forced.

Have a great Christmas/Hannukah and Happy New Year  and am hoping one of my ideas make it onto this type of list of innovative youth marketing ideas/programs.

Youth Interview with Greer- team WOW finalist for Coke Expedition 206

I wrote a post a few days back on Coke Expedition 206. They’ve got 3 teams of 3 people, one team will be chosen as Happiness Ambassadors to travel around the world for a year in 2010 spreading happiness in every country Coke is sold in. It’s a global expedition on Coke (excuse the bad pun).  It’s a cool idea that really only a brand like Coke could pull off. I was lucky enough to get in touch with a fellow Sydney-sider Greer, who is one of the finalists in  team WOW who are currently in second place with 38% of votes.  She’s got some interesting perspectives on Happiness and why the expedition will be valuable to her (if her team wins). So vote for Greer in Team WOW. Here’s some thoughts from Greer on the Expedition, Happiness, youth culture and what she stands for.

Tell me how you got involved in Expedition 206?

I was lucky enough to be on the mailing list for Lonely Planet suppliers as I had sold them a travel video about Italy. When Coke put out the call for applicants they did it through companies/agencies who would be able to find people with relevant experience for the project; it was not private just targeted. The initial job application did not state the company that you would represent, it was very secretive. It was not until the final 18 were invited to go to Atlanta for a week long selection process did we find out that is was Coca-cola. I, along with 17 others spent a busy week in Atlanta. We did team building exercises, filming expeditions, under pressure video editing as well as psychological testing. On the second last day, we found which which 9 had been selected as finalists and who was in which team. We then had approximately 24 hours to film and put together our promotional videos, when I finally got on the plane home you can imagine how exhausted I was! It was a roller coaster experience. we got to know that other 17 people very well and formed some great friendships. When we found out who was in the final 9 and who had not made it, it was bitter sweet. Happy to be included but also thinking of your new friends who had not been selected. Having 18 talented people to choose from I am sure the decision about the teams would have been very tough to make.


Team WOW from Coke Expedition 206

What does ‘happiness’ mean to you and why do you believe it’s important for global youth?

I am happy when I am content with the things I have happening in my life and I am able to just relax & enjoy them. Everyone suffers pressures whether it be from work, family, peers or themselves and I think happy people are the people who can accept or ignore those pressures and just be content with who they are. This is a tough concept for youth as I know when I was a little younger I was constantly aspiring to be, have or do something other than what I was, and that can make it harder to enjoy the ‘here & now’. Of course it is still important to have goals and work towards them but smell the roses along the way and live in the moment not in the future.

 Is there a ‘happiness’ issue/crisis?

I believe happiness has always been and will always be an important issue. It seems to be a simple concept but in fact it is very complex. It is not just about enjoying happy moments but also about living in a happy/positive state of mind. Being happy does not need to depend on your economic situation, and I think by being able to ask people in so many countries from so many walks of life; will give us a great understanding about what truly makes people happy.

Why do you think ‘happiness’ is so important for global youth culture?

I am not an expert, but when you hear stories about youth suicide and depression; it does make me very concerned. As youths our lives should, in theory, be less complicated and more carefree than adult life, but so many youths to not have a healthy state of mind and do not enjoy their younger years. In privileged societies such as our own it would appear that we are less content with all we have than those in poorer countries who are content with far less. I think it is very important to address this and help show youths how to be happy with less and how to be content with themselves.



Team WOW trying to become Happiness Ambassadors

How is it that two Aussies made the final 9? What do you think it is about Aussie youth that make us ‘happy’?

I can’t be sure how they picked us, though I think what appealed was our sense of humour and easy going nature.  Australians, generally speaking are a culture of people who are always ready to have a good time but we are also hard working. Internationally I think we are well liked by most other cultures; travelling, I never had a negative response towards Australia.

What’s your life mantra?

 My mantra is not very fancy, its very simple. It will all work out, one way or another. When ever things don’t seem to be going to plan, I just think ” Ah well, its going to work out somehow.”

Why do you think your team deserves to win over the other two teams?

 I’m not sure if its a matter of deserving it more, but I think our team is best suited for the trip. We will live in each others back pockets for 365 day to survive that you need to have the right personalities. I am very driven and love to be busy so I will adapt well to the hectic schedule of the trip. All three of us have high energy but also know when to buckle down and focus. We also have the perfect skill set between us; EZ (Erin) is the writer of the trio, Brendan and I both of plenty of video experience and we are all experienced using online technologies and blogging. I studied digital media at COFA and have technical knowledge as well as a creative eye. Aside from our skills we are all genuinely nice people. Working together so far we have all been under a lot of pressure and we have proven we can make quick and sensible decisions together. We all contribute and compromise to work together as a team. Being a prima dona on this expedition will just not work.

Complete these sentences…

I believe in…what goes around comes around

I am inspired by…people who rise above their circumstances.

I always be happy and enjoy my life.

I hate..feeling like I am wasting time.

I care….about other peoples feelings.

I wish….that’s a tough one because I wish can be something almost unattainable… I wish there was no war

My friends…are all important to me.

My dream….is to be able to live my life creatively, without feeling trapped by circumstance or finance.

The link to vote for our team is :

And our facebook page is:

Coke Expedition 206- Happiness Goes Around

Expedition 206- happiness going around the world for 3 Happy Ambassadors

Expedition 206- happiness going around the world for 3 Happy Ambassadors

Hip Hip Hooray, finally a truly big idea from Coke that celebrates their brand essence of ‘happiness’ in a culturally relevant and interesting way for global youth. I say finally, because the last great thing I saw from Coke was ‘Happiness Factory‘ – sorry guys. They’ve created a killer idea here.  Coke have recently launched Expedition 206 ‘ happiness goes around’. It’s essentially a global expedition to find and spread ‘happy’. Coke are sending a team of 3 ‘Happiness Ambassadors’ around the world to 206 countries over 365 days to find out what happiness truly means to people and to spread optimis – this team is chosen by the public of course.  I like this idea as  it’s trying to contribute and spread some positive love throughout the world. It’s a social idea that will no doubt have a strong following. It also taps into an evergreen global youth need – the thirst for adventure.   Look, ‘Happiness’ as a territory has been done to death by many brand’s, but only Coke can truly take a leadership position on it and there product genuinely delivers on it. Tapping into the positive pyschology trend has worked for many brands and Coke are probably the only global brand that could be this off.  For me (so far from what I’ve seen) , this is a great idea, average execution. They’ve pretty much copied the entry mechanic of ‘Best Job in the world’ and thats fine, stick with something simple that works, the only real difference is that with Expedition 206 it’s about choosing a team of 3 pre-selected 20something’s.  What they are doing well is leveraging all of Coke’s big sponsorship properties in 2010, eg: Winter Olympics  and FIFA World Cup – so the winning team will no doubt be promoted predominantly at these events. After watching alot of the videos of the entrants and what the teams stand for, I guess I was hoping for a little more, but it’s got me enaged enough to want to find out which of the three teams in 2 weeks gets voted by the public as the Happiness Ambassadors.  Well done Coke for spreading the happy.

Coke ’09 ‘Open Happiness’ a total dud

Coke has been banging on about ‘Happiness’ in their comms for the past 5 years or so ago. Alot of other brands have also tapped into the positive psychology movement and the trend has probably run it’s course in my opinion. This is the latest Summer campaign for Coke from Mother London. In my opinion it is a total dud, it’s painfully boring and if I was Coke I’d be asking for my money back. It doesn’t create culture, it doesn’t create talk value. Feels like Coke said ‘We want something like Gorilla, that starts a party’. Maybe I’m being too harsh, but I can’t imagine 19yr olds going, ‘Have you seen that new Coke ad’.Coke Summer 09 Campaign \”Open Happiness\”