Customers as creatives: how to engage consumers in brand co-creation


By: Katherine Khorey

In the 2015 holiday season, Starbucks invited customers to decorate their distinctive plain red cups with festive designs. Customers posted pictures of their #RedCupArt to motivate and inspire other brand fans, while Starbucks selected images to display on its own site.

This campaign succeeded because it was low-cost, easy to publicize, and leveraged the festive feeling Starbucks consumers already associated with the coffee chain in December. But it succeeded so strongly because it let these consumers create their own unique content to celebrate a brand they loved.

Consumer co-creation is the most powerful form of consumer engagement (see pgs. 10-11 of the Customer Engagement Engine). Co-creation can involve consumers designing their own products, such as #RedCupArt, sharing innovation ideas, or posting stories or reviews of their brand experience. Through these creations, consumers display and deepen brand loyalty, build brand communities, and raise brand profiles. Brands in turn learn who their most loyal consumers are, and what they want.

To leverage the benefits of co-creation, successful campaigns have a few points in common.

#1 Know where their consumers are—or aren’t
Co-creation opportunity should engage the brand’s particular audience on its own terms, or risk attracting the wrong audience.

In 2012 McDonald’s misjudged its brand community’s presence on Twitter. When McDonald’s invited its Twitter following to share heartwarming fast food memories tagged as #McDStories, respondents took the tag in the opposite direction. Within hours the #McDStories feed filled with stories of foreign objects in McNuggets and sights and “smells” of food that resulted in obesity and Type II diabetes. Instead of attracting sincere McDonald’s enthusiasts, the campaign drew vocal detractors. McDonald’s promptly removed the hashtag and ignored the outcome.

In this case, McDonald’s may have set the campaign up for success by hosting co-creation opportunities on their own websites, where existing brand enthusiasts were already present. This way, publicity could spread as participants shared their content with their own online social networks.

Knowing where the brand community actually is, and the best way to connect to them, is crucial to successful co-creation. This was unusually clear to Coke, when the brand, before it had an official Facebook page, partnered with the unofficial fan group that had already attracted 3.3 million followers. By leveraging the content customers had already created, Coke was able to immediately establish a significant social media presence where it had none before. Brands who generally keep up with their audiences’ habits and hangouts are brands who will find their most powerful consumer advocates.

Brands should also understand their followers’ interests, and leverage these in co-creation campaigns. Managers of these campaigns should…

#2 Know what their consumers like, and let them make it
Naturally, most branded content produced by consumers will highlight an aspect of the brand itself. Lay’s high-profile “Do Us a Flavor” competition, where consumers create and submit their own chip flavors, leverages the snack brand community’s trust, familiarity, and enjoyment. But brands can also build off these interests to form unique co-creation opportunities that engage them on a deep level.

In 2014, quirky online fashion retailer ModCloth took its community’s interest to a higher level when it ran its “Make the Cut” contest. Here, customers’ could design an accessory that would be produced or sold on ModCloth. Customers responded with enthusiasm, as the contest was built on the same interests and aesthetics that drew them to ModCloth in the first place.

There was a further incentive to this contest: the production and sale of the winning piece. Customers are motivated to co-create by the promise of value. The key factor in all examples of success in all co-creation campaigns is…

#3 They give their consumers valuable rewards
“Value” can take many effective forms. Some are monetary. In 2014, Domino’s launched its “Pizza Mogul” program for the Australian market. Customers who create and post their own pizzas receive a small cash kickback when others order their creations. Likewise, “Do Us a Flavor” finalists won cash prizes, which was surely a motivator in itself.

Customers are, however, mainly rewarded by seeing their creations brought to life, such as when Starbucks’ showed the best #RedCupArt on its site. This is a powerful way for brands to show appreciation to customers. In turn, customers know their brand cares, find high value in their own engagement, and tend to spend more.

Through these value-adding rewards, which come naturally from the co-creation process, the mutually beneficial relationship between brands and customers can be maintained and grown in the future.