Be Elitist: Why (brand) democracy fails

July 14th, 201112:46 pm @


“Democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequaled alike.” Plato, the Repubic

We battle daily with the problem of failed participatory campaigns. Too many brands strive and fail, leading to digital-into-the-ether, interactivity-to-no-one, campaigns that fail to add any real value or inspire anybody.

It seems to be the consensus to create “consumer participation”, so “all consumers can get involved”; that the “democratisation” of consumer channels gives all consumers this opportunity for expression.  At a recent conference I attended, I heard the creative director of VIMEO stating “now all consumers can be a Leonardo Divinci”. Aside from the fact that, no matter how many tools I have available to my disposal, I could never paint like Davinci, the fact is we are still left with as much participation inequality as before.

Check out this 15 year old chart from BBH Labs:


Notice anything? It paints the same picture of participation that we experience today.  Most Diggs come from a core few, most product reviews come from an active few, and most participation comes from an active few. According to Hitwise, only 0.2% of visits to YouTube are users uploading a video, and just 0.16% of Flickr visits are people posting photos.

So it´s fair to say that, despite all this “democratisation” hype, we are plagued with as much consumer complacency as before.  But it would be wrong to think, however that this is a bad thing. Instead, marketers should embrace the leading-few and find ways to enfranchise them and their enthusiasm to spark interest in others.

It´s true that these “Urban tastemakers” have specific and similar personality traits. Like most leaders, hey don´t want to be led. As a brand you should think of providing playground for self expression. For connecting. For communicating.

A couple of examples highlight this learning.  Take NIVEA, who released a series of hair care videos on the internet targeting most probably “hair interested consumers”. The result? Just 96 channel followers. An example of how setting a wide consumer target leads to the result that no consumer feels that the brand is speaking to them. It´s comes across as a brand monologue. By contrast, 21 year old Ellie Fowler who started the blog through being bored witless in her summer break receives over 62,000 followers. The problem with brands trying to be social is that most of the time, they are not. They don´t have the ability to react quickly, be personalised and frankly (in this case) be cute.

So what makes this leading few so influential? It´s true that, with a classic “leadership” personality type, they have specific and similar personality traits. Like most leaders, they don´t want to be led. As a brand the best thing you can do is think of yourself as providing playground for self expression. For connecting. For communicating. Nike recently ran an underground event in Berlin that, at the event was totally unbranded. The brand knows that the most powerful branding is carried through night time tweets by the influential few, who mostly find branding tasteless.

By contrast take Smirnoff´s latest crate swap campaign where countries were asked to create a crate that perfectly summed up their nations night life. It would have been tempting to give this task to the country brand managers, but instead, they handed out the golden keys of creativity to one Key Opinion Leader in each market, who was then able to manipulate marketing efforts themselves.

Check out the MTV cast below:

So once we recognize this driving principal of participation we can encourage it. Consumer evaluation service Yelp has tranched off their “Yelp Elite Squad” with special benefits and services for high value & high participation Yelpers.

It´s a similar story for NIKE Grid, where runners play in a real life board game connecting postcodes on foot. Just 200 young “urban tastemakers” from london were invited to the opening party and from these few, news flew through the underground movement via Twitter, Foursquare and blogs to make it a sensation, resulting in 2,500 runners and 3,000 runs across the London postcode jigsaw.

Whether DJs, fashion experts or radio stars, these KOLs seemed to feel real ownership of the task, and challenged themselves with finding the most exciting, innovative ways to find something fun, appealing, and even, be better than the rest: The great thing about opinion leaders is that they have an unsurpassable passion for.. well, leading at the edge.

You might feel it takes a big leap to give your brand to others, but in reality, its likely to be the case that they know and connect with your audience more than you do, and bring a level of grass roots authenticity to the brand that might be missing.

As BBH Labs aptly says, “The best way to win the game with the masses is actually, creating for the clever few”.