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.

Five key shifts driving social ideas

There have been countless slideshare presentations highlighting the changing consumer landscape and the impact that social platforms have had on how we build brands. So, I’m not going to create another slideshare presentation. Rather I thought I’d highlight five key shifts I’ve noticed in the way brands need to behave in the ever changing socialscape. Some of these shifts are not new, I hope to share my perspective on them.


Communication is no longer about manufacturing an image around a brand. This is not to say that lifestyle branding is dead, however  it’s now far more about being authentic and truly transparent in all aspects of a brands behaviour. We used to use advertising to shift image perceptions with the hope buyers would shift their purchase behaviour. Now, it’s about crafting new realities for consumers by creating open and transparent brands. We’re also seeing brands CSR initiatives being scrutinised far more closely. My old boss David Jones, CEO of Havas talks passionately about this shift here.  It’s true to say you can’t get away with anything in the social world. This shift is making brands far more accountable for their actions.


Propositions are dead. Yelling at people hoping they’ll latch onto a brand benefit or attribute is pretty much over. Unless you’re Apple and have truly remarkable product innovation. Sure you need to build out from a brand truth, but I believe it’s as much about brand behaviour in media as well as brand messages. It’s all about how we can inspire behaviour change through creating brand behaviours which deliver value. Whether it be through a thoughtful gesture, a branded utility, or entertainment. Every brand essence or brand truth should be a VERB  not a noun. Social objects which are based around doing something and which have their own reverberation. We’re already seeing brands now focus on creating ‘experiences’ and then turning those experiences into the content for advertising. Attention is scarce, we need to drive engagement via doing stuff for our audiences which add value to their lives.


Marketing in a black box is dead, as are matrices where we put segments and consumers into boxes thinking that they are anticipating our messages. Marketers need to relinquish control of their brands.  Open up and allow for collaboration. Apply a ‘beta marketing’ approach whereby you collaborate with your fans constantly in crafting and recrafting your marketing strategy. I’m not talking about crowdsourcing new product design which is so 2009, I’m talking about genuinely involving your fans and advocates in the brands story. A recent research report suggest that 84% of brand fans on Facebook are actually customers, so it’s clear people want to collaborate with brands. You just need to work out what sort of collaboration that is. Whether it’s a ‘digital fling’ as Saneel Radia calls it or more of an ongoing ‘Digital Marriage’ eg: Nike + platform. I believe great flings like Intel Museum of Me are still critical to spark a reconnection with a brand.


We need to shift our marketing strategies to think about the ‘networked community’. Understand how the ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ links between people are created and how brands can be relevant within these communities. That’s the key to unlocking virality of an idea. Social seeding is now an artform within the communications planning skillset. Planners who understand how to create ‘influence’ and spark virality (assuming you’ve got a great idea) are worth their wait in gold. How many great pieces of content do you see with 500 views on YouTube.?


Marketing has sped up. We now expect ideas and narratives to play out in real time. Brands which spend 6 months bringing out a campaign will struggle for relevancy. The brands which will succeed will be super responsive to culture and allow fans to take ownership of ideas in real time. I’m talking about far more spontaneous ideation and creation of ideas. This requires complete shift in how we bring creativity to market in agencies. Urgent Genius is an example of this philosophy as is the highly awarded Old Spice Responses campaign. When I worked on McDonald’s we used to plan launch campaigns 15months out. I think those days are short lived. Brands now need to be super reactive as culture moves at lightning speed and the brands who can keep up with it and even inspire culture will be the brands which win.

There are many other implications of what’s happening to communications as a result of social media, these are just a few  thoughts based on observations as well as what I’ve learnt from others.