Dump the rule book: Brands need to show their vulnerable side to really connect

Brands that defensively build a fortress around themselves are sacrificing the potential of building meaningful relationships with their consumers, argues Landor strategy director, Charlie Cookson

Brands used to be constructed as impenetrable fortresses. They were built as concrete constructions designed to protect themselves from competitive or consumer change. A consistent set of guidelines for the application of a consistent experience. There was no room for vulnerability because the slightest crack in the wall would bring the entire house down. In this universe, brand teams were there to guard the brand with their lives to ensure no-one tarnished it.

While some may argue this is the right approach, it certainly seems a little boring. Not just for the teams who have to ‘police’ the brand, but for those employees and consumers who live with it every day. People want brands to be exciting and flexible. To offer something unexpected and to give them ownership over aspects of the experience – or even give them a role in the brand’s future.

Brands which leave no room for interpretation and act defensively will trade-off short-term consistency with long term loyalty.

We must remember that a brand is a construct formed by the individual in their own way and in their own mind. Employees and consumers alike all experience and interact with brands differently, so why do we assume that all audiences construct it the same way? After all, two people can have a similar experience with a brand and, due to circumstantial nuance, remember it completely differently. We must consider that people rarely experience brands in isolation, but in a context that is unique to the individual.

We must therefore allow brands the flexibility to play in spaces that we, as brand people,  can not control. In fact, opening your brand up for employees and consumers to participate could be the key to success. There might just be power in vulnerability. As with human relationships, it is when we open brands up to show our vulnerability, real, lasting relationships are made.

These are just some examples of brands who are embracing this openness and vulnerability –  and are reaping the rewards with consumers.

Mozilla – giving consumers the keys to the holy grail

Historically, the logo was one of the assets that brands would never let anyone other than their expert teams have control over. When Mozilla decided to update their branding they decided to put their open-source principles into practice with a ‘branding without walls’ design initiative, inviting entries from staff and consumers. Whilst not fully ‘open-source’ – Mozilla still employed an agency to oversee the process – the initiative invited consumers to be a part of an important aspect of the brands evolution and thus created a sense of mutual trust with staff and consumers.

Lugnet.com – an online community for passionate LEGO enthusiasts

Brand teams would have once tried to shut down user generated fan sites such as lugnet.com (see the World Nutella Day travesty). Not affiliated with – although wholeheartedly supported by – LEGO, lugnet.com is an all-ages community of LEGO enthusiasts. Through lugnet.com, enthusiasts can share information, stories and images of their creations, and LEGO recognises that the value of this community outweighs the potential for inconsistency. Ultimately they trade control for insight. In fact, they actively engage with the community, using them to mine insights that inform product and business decision-making.

Air Asia – utilising the collective BRAIN

Air Asia is already well known for listening to its 2.9 million Twitter followers through its@askairasia handle, but the carrier also recognises the potential benefit of decentralising brainpower within the business. Using their BRAIN ‘employee-sourcing’ platform they allow all employees to propose new ideas for products, operations and revenue generation. This strategy, also employed by Amazon via its ‘suggestion box’ feature, broadens the responsibility for innovation to every employee. Charlie Ward, an Amazon software engineer, came up with the idea for what became Amazon Prime. After all, the further away a person is from a problem, the more likely they are to come up with a different and valuable solution.

So maybe it’s time for more brands here in Asia to follow in the footsteps of some of these examples. Put down the rule book, reassess what’s important – and what’s less so – and stop guarding the fortress quite so fiercely. When you take steps to open up your brand to your communities, sometimes to the point where you feel a little vulnerable; you just might find that you make some loyal advocates and learn something valuable in the process.

Charlie Cookson is a strategy director at Landor Singapore


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