What does it take to be a marketing expert? If expertise is all about familiarity, then just about everybody in America qualifies: We're all so inundated with marketing images that it's only natural that we all figure we understand the language, the rules, the way it's done. This idea has lately been taken to its logical extreme: Why not cut out the middleman and just let target customers make their own ads? Examples of what could be thought of as "the people's marketing" have been cropping up all over the place:
- Mercedes-Benz has been running ads featuring photographs of customers with their cars -- the automaker received more than 1,000 snapshots when it solicited submissions earlier this year.
- KFC held a contest last year asking its customers to devise commercials for the chicken chain and ran the winning spot nationwide during prime time. More recently, Coors Light had a similar contest in Canada.
- The magazine Look-Look, put together by the well-known Los Angeles trend-spotting firm of the same name, is made up entirely of contributions by amateur artists and only accepts advertising from sponsors, such as Virgin Mobile and Pepsi, who are willing to let members of that same contributor base design their ads.
- In perhaps the best-known case of this, the political organization MoveOn.org organized a contest that solicited anti-Bush TV ads from its user community. Not only was the response enormous, but the quality of many entries was surprisingly polished.
As was the case with MoveOn.org, some of these ad-making contests are clearly geared toward people who are trying to break into the marketing business. The Coors contest, for example, was aimed at film school students. But that does not fully explain what some experts see going on here -- or what it might mean for owners of brands large and small. More companies, it seems, are letting their most loyal customers dabble with creating and defining their brands. And even more surprising, perhaps, is that many companies' loyal consumers are eager to get in on the branding game.
What's driving this? As the CEO of ad giant Saatchi & Saatchi, Kevin Roberts is in a position to know a great deal about the relationship between consumers and the brands they choose, and he has recently published a book about where he sees that relationship heading. In Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands, Roberts argues that the best brands "are not owned by the manufacturers, the producers, the businesses." Rather, "they are owned by the people who love them." A related website, Lovemarks, is jammed with postings from people evangelizing for the products and services they love, from Lego to Post-it Notes.
Another take on the people's marketing notion is in the forthcoming book Brand Hijack by Alex Wipperfurth, co-founder of San Francisco marketing firm Plan B. Wipperfurth, whose clients have included Napster and Pabst Blue Ribbon, believes that companies need to embrace brand "cocreation." By that, he means that marketers should invite consumer subcultures to help shape a brand's ideology, use, and persona.
"The real hook is to have everybody selling their experience as consumers."
The West Coast In-N-Out Burger chain has done this exceptionally well, Wipperfurth says, by developing a "secret menu," designed via customer suggestions, whose offerings are not on the official menu but are on the cash registers at its outlets. The accommodation helps create a kind of insider club, letting its members think about and discuss the brand in their own unique, unfiltered way.
Also extending this concept is Obtainium.tv, a Boston-based start-up that is basically a side project for 34-year-old Owen Mack, who has a graphic design background and runs a family kitchenware store, and his 32-year-old cousin Jesse Buckley, who works for a TV postproduction house and makes documentary films.
Motivated partly by their disgust for overbearing corporate marketing, the pair made a series of half-minute digital videos highlighting some of their favorite products -- Puma sneakers and Schlitz and Pabst beer -- and posted them at www.obtainium.tv. The concept evolved as they came to believe that there were more people like them, who had pent-up desire to promote the brands they love. "The real hook," Buckley says, "is to have this kind of peer-to-peer advertising, where everybody is selling their experience as consumers."
So far, Obtainium.tv is essentially a group of online forums featuring Blair Witch-style ads. You'll find nothing that would spark job offers from Madison Avenue, but in a sense that's the whole point -- not to join the ranks of ad auteurs but to give examples of (and encourage) what anybody can do with today's widely accessible technologies. "They're not ads," Mack says. "They're conversations about brands, in 30-second bits."
So far, the pros whose brands have been adopted by Obtainium have been fairly supportive. Pabst may link its website to an Obtainium microsite, for example. The experiment makes sense for the beer, says Pabst brand manager Neal Stewart, because its recent resurgence was basically the result of a grassroots consumer phenomenon.
It's unclear whether there's a real business here (payment for that Pabst deal is in the form of free cases of beer), but the bigger question for the rest of us is whether its founders have correctly discerned that we're at a cultural moment where marketing is democratized. And if we are, does that mean that some companies will be able to get customers to produce good advertising for them for free?
The Obtainium founders see the concept as inherently scalable: It doesn't have to be, as with MoveOn, about something as critical as the leadership of the free world. It can work for a big national brand or an intensely local one -- the catch being that you have to give up a fair amount of control. "If you're going to let them participate, you have to let them participate on their own terms," Wipperfurth warns. According to Buckley, those boil down to this: "It's not necessarily being passionate about the brand. It's being passionate about your life, and the products you choose to incorporate in your life."