By Kate Sheerin, Associate Director, Dragon Rouge London
It’s 2.40pm on a Friday afternoon. The weekend beckons. You wrap up a few admin tasks and make the final changes to Monday morning’s social media posts. The calm before the storm as it turns out. Minutes later Twitter is ablaze, the phones ring constantly and you are fire fighting for your brand, your consumers in uproar because a politician (Rishi Sunak) has made tea for his team. It’s Yorkshire Tea Gate 2020.
Yorkshire Tea handled the crisis beautifully, with honesty, humanity and humour. #Sueyoureshoutingattea trended on Twitter and their call for kindness won them fans (and positive press) in the end. But what was most striking about this incident were the depths of betrayal that some consumers felt at seeing their favourite brand linked in what appeared to be (but wasn’t) a paid post with someone of different political views to theirs. It was like a close friend had let them down, like someone they trusted had behaved in an unexpected and disappointing way. These were consumers who really identified with Yorkshire Tea, at a deeply personal level. And not just because they make a proper brew.
Yorkshire Tea is not alone. Instagram felt the backlash of loyalty when they dared to change their much-loved camera logo in 2016 (luckily everyone seems to be over that now). Football clubs such as Juventus, Leeds and Cardiff City have courted fan-based controversy with bold rebrands. And with a more positive outcome, the hard seltzer brand White Claw found itself at the heart of a new cult last summer, as consumers appropriated the brand and made it their own.
We live in a world where everything is visible and everyone has a voice. Gone are the days when as marketers we could keep tight control of our brands, clearly defining every experience and never straying from pre-determined boundaries. How can we expect to keep control when the way our consumers interact with our brands has so fundamentally changed? From monologue to dialogue, from intermittent to instantaneous, from a few touchpoints to a multitude.
This shift is also an opportunity. What if we could make our consumers feel like a brand is theirs and not ours? What if employees are in fact our greatest brand advocates? If you can handle the inevitable Twitter storms, a shared sense of ownership can become an untold strength, creating real loyalty that lasts.
So how can brands navigate the changing tides of ownership? Well, not all ownership is alike.
Collaboration can lead to creative breakthroughs, but even more valuable than that, it brings people closer to your brand. Just look at the likes of Lego or IKEA, who have fully embraced the potential of crowdsourcing ideas, hosting bootcamps and giving consumers an active role in shaping their products. Yes, it takes bravery sometimes – asking for feedback means you have to listen and be prepared to respond. Yes, it requires transparency – letting down your guard and sharing ideas when they’re less than perfect. But if you open up the creative process and invite consumers in, they will feel more inspired, loyal and engaged as a result.
Successful brands today focus on building communities around their products. They know how powerful those strong emotional ties can be, turning consumers into ambassadors who know, love and respect the brand. From brands like Glossier that leveraged an existing blog community to create a successful business, to others like Patagonia or Lush with their clear values and purpose, brands that encourage emotional ownership often find themselves with fans and followers – not just shoppers.
The ultimate in opening up your brand to consumers. Employees and consumers become your stakeholders, invested in the brand and motivated to see the brand succeed. BrewDog’s Equity for Punks and the John Lewis Partnership are a couple of the most famous examples, and in the age of crowdfunding more brands are following suit. These are companies who believe that we can all be brand advocates and that the more invested we are, the more powerful our advocacy becomes.
Could it be that the days of brand guidelines are numbered? Unlikely. If anything, we need brand consistency more than ever before, a really clear sense of who we are and how we should behave, so that we can react and adapt to whatever Twitter throws our way. But maybe it is time we marketeers loosened our grip on the reigns of control, at least a little bit, and opened ourselves up to new ideas, new communities and new models of ownership. Perhaps we should consider ourselves brand guardians rather than owners, setting direction, aiming for consistency but ultimately allowing our consumers, employees, advocates and loyalists to shape our brands with us.