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.

Tips for crafting a great #brandmanifesto

Great brands all are built on powerful stories or myths. As humans we want to belong to brands with emotionally engaging stories that make us feel something and provide us with social reward.

As a creative planner I often am tasked with developing a brand manifesto (sometimes called a brand story or brand creed) as the culmination of brand strategy development work. They typically serve as the springboard for the advertising creatives to crack an overarching idea for the brand but are often used as brand films to restate or relaunch a positioning in the market.

Now, I’ve written my share of brand manifestos over the years and they aren’t easy (I’m regularly bouncing ideas off great copywriters I work with) but super rewarding when you craft a good one. They require countless re-writes to truly capture the essence of the brand idea you’ve landed on in your strategy. Like all good stories/movies/video games, you should be able to some up the plot/interaction in a sentence, a single minded thought  which anchors your story.

My all time favourite brand manifesto/creed is from cult brand Harley Davidson. It perfectly captures the ‘bad boy rebel’ spirit of the brand.

Ok, here are some tips I’ve found useful when looking to craft a brand manifesto/story /creed and a few great examples.

  1. Build the story around a powerful promise/what you’re fighting for
  2. Bring to life what (and who) you’re for and against  
  3. Start each thought with ‘WE’… a belief system and relationship with the consumer you’re wanting to bring to life. Check out Victoria Secrets manifesto here made by VCU students
  4. Use emotionally powerful verbs, ‘doing’ words which inspire and motivate
  5. Have a beginning, middle and end which builds to the key message takeout
  6. The context of the statements should be both timely and timeless, tapping into fundamental human truths, not just quick trends that come and go
  7. Be evocative yet pointy –  short punchy statements not longwinded puffery. 
  8. Try to seamlessly bring the consumer, brand, category and cultural truths together in the narrative
  9. Dramatise the usage occasion and ideal brand relationship
  10.  Land on a key brand idea (which may or may not become the tagline)

Here’s a brand manifesto I recently wrote for the good people (Lloyd) at Big Richard – a great little condom brand here in Australia who wanted to be a little more mischievous than the Durex’s of the world. It’s a little longer and definitely more provocative than I’d normally write but one could say we had a lot of fun with this one:

At Big Richard, we’re for Mischief- Mating.

Big Richard is the story of a condom brand that understands that bit of life that most people don’t get. We don’t want you to wear our condoms if sex for you is just going through the motions, if sex is a routine. If there’s no fun, no injuries, no cringe stories, we’re not for you.

We are for the guys and gals who know how to do it and how to do it well.

There’s mischief involved.

There’s fun, there’s laughing. She bites your lip, so you pull her hair – you know how it is.

The kitchen bench is closer than the bed, as is the floor, the couch, the dining table and the hallway.

We’ve had enough of the awkwardness involved with condoms. We’re about lightening up that ‘condom moment’, even giving you a few acrobatic moves on our packaging,  but don’t blame us if you pull a hammy.

If you cry when you ‘make love’, we aren’t for you.

Unless of course those tears are because of the pain that’s mounting in your calves from your 40th minute of the Mexican Double Jaguar Scissor Twist position.

If you think spicing up your sex life means possibly lifting her leg up if she says yes, then look elsewhere for your chosen condom brand. If the loudest sex you’ve ever had is because the cat sat on the remote and turned the stereo up to 15, you aren’t our kind of guy.

We’re for doing it standing, sitting, laying, upside down, downside up.

We’re for the couples who are just as likely to fall off the bed as to fall on it.

If you’re up for that bit of cheeky sex, so are we

We’re careful, so you can be carefree.

We’re the official condom of the booty call.

Wherever, whenever, we’re that little bit of planning for all of your spontaneity.

Join the Mischief Mating. You know you want to.

Planners need to be architects of the brands story and behaviour

Today more than ever, the media and message are one. Everything is media, people are media, platforms are media, even the best brands like Nike, Red Bull and Apple are media. So I believe the role of a Planner today needs to reflect this.

I believe we need to be the architects of both the brands story and how it behaves in media/culture in order to drive engagement.

In terms of the BRANDS STORY, we have and will always be required to use insight to really articulate what the brand stands for, what  it’s point of view on the world is and what story it should tell to create ongoing conversations in culture – or how can it tap into/add value to an existing conversation.  This hasn’t changed from what a planner has always done, however, today it’s far more about making a contribution to people’s ‘conversations streams’ in social media and less about one off campaigns that are a monologue. Thinking about how people will interact with these stories is critical. I’m a big believer in transmedia storytelling as opposed to ‘matching luggage media’ strategy.

Being the architect of the BRANDS BEHAVIOR is a challenging job as it requires a deep understanding of how people engage with media (in the broadest sense) & culture and how the brand should behave in culture in order to create ‘infectious interactions’. It’s about creating ideas people want to play with, pass on and invite into their lives. If we can create engagement via interesting brand behaviours then we’re well on our way to morphing culture, not just mimicking our audiences lives.

I believe our role within the agency is about both inspiring social creativity and also being about to nurture and protect both the big and small ideas that contribute to the conversation the brands stimulating in culture. It’s about insights that inspire interactive storytelling on behalf of a brand. Thoughts?

What communication agencies & brands can learn from ‘The Wire’

Last week I  was chatting with one of my fellow planners, Cat Collins about things that have had inspired us creatively. She got talking about how the HBO series ‘The Wire’ was an amazing piece of storytelling and that brands could learn alot from this masterful series. So I asked her to do a guest post. Here tis. Thanks Cat, love your work 🙂

I believe that The Wire is the greatest work of creativity to have emerged in recent years, maybe even in my lifetime. So surely, there must be some lessons we can learn for our own creative endeavours. Here are 5 observations that I think we would benefit from applying to our work with brands and communications. Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeet.

1.       Don’t be scared of scale.

The Wire is epic. It tells the story of the disintegration of an entire city from every angle – education, drugs, the law, politics, the media, industry, families. A lot has been written on the demise of the big idea as communications becomes more nimble and agile. The Wire shows that a big idea, told through multiple, interwoven stories is a very powerful thing indeed.

2.      Don’t underestimate your viewer.

The Wire makes no attempt to make the show watchable. The dialogue is fast and the Baltimore dialect takes a while to understand. The storylines are complex and you have to be paying attention to know what the hell is going on. I’m pretty sure that the Millward Brown scores for comprehension would be abysmal. But it is the effort that you make to step into the world of the Wire which makes it so compelling and makes the reward for watching that much greater.

3.       Tap into big human truths.

I don’t have much in common with a drug dealer on a West Baltimore corner but the issues the show tackles ensure I relate to every character. Love, loss, moral codes, ambition, family, loss of purpose in life – all big issues which strike a chord with anyone on the planet.

4.      Embrace unconventional heroes.

Omar, the gay, black, stick up boy who whistles while he hunts. Stringer Bell the brutal henchman with a mind for commerce. Snoop, the diminutive girl whose bloodthirsty appetite for violence is extraordinary. All too often in communications we fall back on stereotypes and miss the opportunity to surprise.

5.       Be true to your vision.

When David Simon pitched the Wire to HBO he presented a coherent vision of how all 5 seasons would pan out. He knew the characters stories and had a vision for how theses would be played out on screen. Comparing the pitch to the finished work, it’s extraordinary to see how much of his vision he managed to pull off. Next time you pitch a creative idea and then watch it get pecked to death by 1000 ducks, remember why it is worth fighting to keep the integrity of an idea intact.

Has social media influenced creativity in brand communications?

 I’d say the answer to this question is a resounding YES. We all know great creativity when we see it, it’s easier to define what it isn’t than often what it is. For me, it’s when I get that little rush of blood and I think WOW, if only I came up with that idea. For me, creativity has and always will be the ability to simplify and turn the ordinary into something extraordinary. I read an interesting post by Edward Boches recently about ‘Creativity in the age of  Social media’ and I’ve pulled some key thoughts from that post as well as some of my own thoughts and quotes from people I respect in the marketing communications industry.

In todays social media context, brands have to embrace being far more free form in their approach to creativity.  Being agile, adaptive and continually culturally relevant is far more important than being structured and ‘right’. Creativing ideas is about being fluid.  Trends are moving at hyper speed so creativity in the era of social media is about constant experimentation with popular culture, bouncing your brand off different aspects of culture to find fresh tensions and conflicts to exploit. As one blogger put it ‘people becomes fans of culture, not advertising…so cultural relevance is always the key for creativity

As marketers we may give birth to an idea, but it’s the collective community who sculpt it into something interesting that makes it go viral. Today in the era of social media, ideas live and die quickly, it’s not about the size of the idea, it’s the VELOCITY the idea has through social networks that it’s success should be measured by.

Some thoughts on what creativity in the era of social media is all about from some industry leaders:


“It’s not the stories we tell, it’s the stories we get others to tell for us” Edward Boches


“In the age of social media, creativity has both an acid test and genuine advocate in one place. Good work is embraced and gathers momentum and the bad stuff dies on the vine very quickly. The important thing to understand is that the brand, creative director or client’s voice is just one of many now and all have an equal share in the destiny of great work! “ Sudeep Gohil. Partner, DROGA 5


“Creativity in the age of social media is about sparking and participating in conversations. Success is making something go viral. Ideas must not only be great stories that want to be shared but are also shareable. In this new age, creativity has been UNSHACKLED. No longer does the elite own it; it is now a commodity. It’s what you do with it that counts “ John Winsor, Partner, Victors & Spoils  Author  of ‘Baked In’


“In the past creativity was solid and stagnant, you created it and people reacted to it. Now you create it and it can evolve, continue, be built upon, torn down, remixed. The creative process in social media isn’t something that ever ends”  CC Chapman, Creative Director, Campfire NYC




Just some thoughts, certainly there are other viewpoints, just putting some stuff out there I found interesting.

‘Baked In’: some great thoughts on how to ‘bake’ marketing into your product

I’ve just finished reading ‘Baked In’ by John Winsor and Alex Bogusky from one of the world’s best agencies, Crispin Porter + Bogusky. John was kind enough to give me the opportunity to review the book prior to official launch.

What a great read. As many of you know, I write a lot about Generation C – and some of the key dimensions of Gen C are their need for Co-Creation, Collaboration and Control over brand stories. Brands today need to engage their ‘communities’ in all aspects of business and this book brings it to life with some great examples. In a nutshell it’s about the blurring line between product and marketing – the need to ‘bake’ marketing into your product.  This book is short, sharp and easy to ready with some great case studies and examples from Crispin clients.  It’s the book that keeps on giving as every chapter has a twitter feed associated with it so you can join in a conversation ecosystem that’s created by readers of the book. The guys are practising what they preach when it comes to stimulating conversation within communities.


Baked In by Winsor and Bogusky

Baked In by Winsor and Bogusky



I’ve pulled out some of the most interesting statements/points of view in terms of how brands can ‘bake’ marketing into their product innovations and stories:

  • To be successful a brands story must connect with a LARGER CULTURAL CONVERSATION that’s happening
  • The MIDDLE IS TO BE AVOIDED by marketers at all times
  • Every product has a story, the JOB OF MARKETING IS TO MAKE IT SING
  • CREATIVITY IS LIKE ANTHRAX, extremely potent, hard to distribute, so to ‘weaponise’ it is to find out how to distribute it quickly and widely
  • Real innovation comes from the POWER OF RANDOMNESS
  • Culture always wants to change, especially pop culture, WHAT’S THE CULTURAL CONVENTION YOUR BRAND CAN FLIP?
  • EXPLOITING CULTURAL CONFLICTS and tensions is the key to big ideas, use them as levers to create change (this is where the boys at Crispin continue to set the standard in terms of cracking culturally interesting ideas)
  • Live your product. service to FIND TRUTHS AND INVERTED TRUTHS
  • Always allow members of your brands community to take self guided explorations of your brand
  • Brands built on INTUITION are more likely to be disruptive and adapt to a rapidly changing environment
  •  MINE YOUR BRAND’S HISTORY for interesting stories
  • Steal from other categories to innovate
  •  STORIES and the ability to share them are what make us human
  • Great product names are essential to design – bake in names that mean something in culture eg: MINI, Flip, Red Bull, ipod
  • If possible, innovate to CREATE AN ABSOLUTE – don’t bother communicating if you are ‘faster’, ‘lighter’…ER’s are meaningless

Thanks John for the chance to review ‘Baked In’ some great stuff here for marketers who are looking to engage people in the new marketing environment.

‘Influence’ Communications Planning

If the buzz word of marketing in 2008 was PARTICIPATION, the new area marketers need to subscribe to is INFLUENCE communications. Influence communications is marketing to not only the individual, but their network of peers that surround and influnce them across social platforms. We now know that for youth, decision making is a team sport, they use web 2.0 technologies to completely dictate most of their brand interactions..from what shows to wear, what brands to engage with, what parties, clubs to go to..they are constantly seeking the influence of their mates for tribal belonging.

In the process of trying to INFLUENCE collectives of youth, marketers need to do the following things:


Monitoring of customer conversations with each other online  – all about measuring the buzz around your brand


Stimulating conversations in culture and participating in them, so the brand community has something to talk about..via forums and communities. If there’s nothing to talk about, you’re dead


Make it possible for brand enthusiasts to help spread the word via, social media apps they can pass on to friends


Enable customers to support each other via customer support Nike Bootcamp


Help people work with each other to develop ideas to improve products, brand experiences. Invite consumers in to help co-create the brand, think of it like Open Source Branding.

So overall, marketing to the community, not the individual, ensure you’re listening to what’s happening culturally around your brand, then stimulate interesting conversations for people to get involved with…then ensure you foster those conversations and make it easy for the conversation to live beyong your marketing spend. Lastly, you need to understand that Open Source Branding – letting consumers to help co-create your brand assets leads to deeper levels of influence within the brand community.

Youth are NOT a target audience, they are Partners in production

Marketers need to stop thinking of youth as their ‘target audience’.  This description treats them as a destination point for marketing messages and assumes they live in isolation of each other. In reality web 2.0/ social media platforms have made youth remarkably connected and the way in which they discover, process and share information and content has changed dramatically. Forget target audience and trying to talk to individuals. Think about what ‘COLLECTIVE’ you can interact with and inspire – they are all about belonging to a group and now rely absolutely on that collective for which brands to engage with.  Todays youth are obsessed with remixing content and need to be treated as your partners in production and distribution of ideas – think of them as ‘message carriers’ – your biggest media asset.

Young people appreciate brand narratives which build and involve them across different touchpoints, not just linear one dimensional ads. This requires us to stop thinking about marketing communication programs as rigid structures – the future will all be about flexible ‘open source ideas’. It’s difficult, but you need to plan for content you don’t create. Like the fact that people may rip off your ads on youtube or create facebook fan pages, or blog negatively about your ideas. You need to be able to embrace this type of community feedback.

Our job as marketers is to spark conversations in culture around topics of interest relevant for youth, then allow for collectives to jam on it and send it on.  Savvy brands tell interesting and engaging stories which zig and zag across multiple media platforms but are built around a common theme which creates cultural capital amongst youth collectives.

Audi, Lexus, BMW, Mercedes Benz Brand Positioning

Luxury Car Brand Positionings

A deck I wrote which basically looks at the brand positionings of the four major luxury car brands – Audi, Lexus, BMW and Mercedes Benz. I love cars, so had great fun in test driving them all and putting this perspective together. For the record, I’m happy with my little R32, but will be stepping up to the M3 soon…