Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

In an ever-changing world, traditional notions of ownership are rapidly shifting. On the one hand there is evidence to suggest that today’s consumers are increasingly viewing the enjoyment of experiences, rather than the ownership of possessions, as the social currency du jour. On the other hand, there is ongoing debate around who the actual “owners” (or custodians) of brands are. In essence, do corporations own brands, or are brands owned by their consumers and “fans”?

This evolving social dynamic has given rise to a phenomenon known as the “sharing economy”: a blanket term for all the new business models that are allowing everyday consumers to share property, assets, skills, experiences, ideas and knowledge – both with each other and with the corporations or brands that form part of their world. This paradigm is rapidly changing the people think, behave and live. Simultaneously, it is shaping the ways people consume products, content and experiences, while redefining the value (and, indeed, the purpose) of brands to their multiple target audiences.

The ongoing boom in activities and industries such as ride-sharing, home exchange, crowdsourcing and peer-to-peer commerce, not forgetting the pervasiveness of social media platforms, are proof of this sharing economy in action. The less obvious manifestations of this new economy are defined by two intertwined forces: participation and co-creation.

Participation: the power of connection

Participation taps into a growing desire to connect, share and broadcast. By driving social involvement (both online and offline), it helps to facilitate consumers’ engagement with brands and each other. In many ways, brands have been doing this for years in various guises. Peruse any communication strategy or engagement plan written over the past two decades to see how often buzzwords such as “activation”, “dialogue”, “experiential”, “viral” and “social” appear. Beyond the jargon, however, participation has the ability to foster a level of connection that often transcends boundaries of time, space, geography and even politics.

A powerful manifestation of this was in Coca-Cola’s acclaimed “Share a Coke” platform, rooted in the idea that sharing and connection are, essentially, what make us human. The global soft drinks giant launched a simple yet innovative concept – Small World Machines – in India and Pakistan, neighbouring countries that are, ironically, worlds apart due to decades of political antagonism. The hi-tech vending machines, which were installed in two popular shopping malls in Lahore in Pakistan and New Delhi in India, invited consumers to put cultural differences aside and share a moment over a Coke. A live communications portal linked strangers on either side using 3D touchscreen technology to project a streaming video feed onto the vending machine screen, while people were filmed through the unit to capture live emotional exchanges.

Participants were encouraged to complete a friendly task together before sharing a Coke across borders. Some of the more memorable interactions included a young girl in India touching hands with an older woman in Pakistan and an impromptu dance-off between two men in their sixties that went on for several minutes. Built on the idea of human-to-human connection, the success of this initiative proved that what unites the two countries is much stronger than what sets them apart. At the same time, the campaign encouraged collaboration between Coca-Cola brand teams from the two countries, showcasing the power and value of connection in crossing seemingly impossible boundaries – on multiple levels.

The big take-out

“Whatever your organisation looks like today, the sharing economy is too big an opportunity to miss – or too big a risk not to mitigate. It may sound grim, but if your business can’t figure out how to disrupt itself, someone else out there will do it for you.” – from a recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

Co-creation: the value of reciprocity

Co-creation is more difficult for many brands to grasp or put into action successfully. This is because the essence of co-creation is a ceding of control from the world of the corporate to the world of the consumer – a notion that is unsettling for more traditional organisations. As an emerging school of thought, co-creation postulates that both the corporate and its customers, or stakeholders, are active, equal and reciprocal participants in driving a brand’s vision and purpose, and shaping its experience in the marketplace. In effect, both parties stand to leverage the potential shared value inherent in this more democratic, fluid style of business. And, as the cliché states, it is the end of business as usual.

Co-creation in the context of the sharing economy – where the increasing ubiquity of technology and a plethora of feedback loops have created a society of more vocal, empowered consumers – is having a profound impact on traditional business-to-consumer relationships and rhetoric. Today’s consumers, fatigued by conventional brand monologues, are spearheading the “consumer-to-business” movement. As part of this, we are also seeing a shift from consumer to “prosumer” (a term first coined in 1980 by US futurist Alvin Toffler), whereby individuals are concurrently taking on the roles of both producer and consumer. These new prosumers not only see brands as vehicles for personal expression, but themselves as active stakeholders in driving brand narratives and experiences.

With this in mind, more and more brands worldwide are also turning to consumers from a strategic development perspective – a phenomenon I refer to as “co-creative planning”. This goes far beyond conventional market research. A good example of a brand that has embraced this approach is Aviva, one of the world’s largest insurance groups. When a brand migration from Norwich Union to Aviva in the UK threatened to alienate customers, the organisation saw an opportunity instead to co-create its new strategy with existing policyholders. Using “customer councils” (a collaborative technique developed by London-based agency Branding Science), Aviva company representatives were paired with customers for a series of value-innovation workshops. Findings helped to inform the company’s plan of action, meaning that Aviva customers played a part in writing the brand’s migration strategy.

The implications for brands today

Brands such as Coca-Cola and Aviva illustrate a key learning: to succeed in the sharing economy, it’s vital to reconsider how we define (and create) value. Simply put, brands should seek to close the value loop while keeping the communication loop open-ended. Similarly, brands need to recognise that great ideas and strategic excellence are not the sole domain of the corporate world, marketing departments or communication agencies; consumer input is now critical.

While the debate around brand custodianship will continue, one thing that’s clear is that the era of the passive audience is over. We’re in the midst of a business revolution – one in which the power of the prosumer cannot be ignored or underestimated. The message is clear: either collaborate with the full spectrum of stakeholders in your brand’s value chain, or run the risk of alienating a new breed of consumers living in a world where the power no longer rests in the hands of a select few; an increasingly connected and purpose-oriented world where new paradigms continue to disrupt old tactics.

Mike dos Santos is strategic director at Joe Public Shift.