I came across this article written a while ago by Stefan Stern in the FT, still very relevant…
Suppose they ran a new advertising campaign and nobody came? The average American is exposed to 142 “significant ad messages a day”, according to Media Dynamics, a consultancy. One of the biggest problems marketers face today is how to get attention without contributing to the problem of getting attention.
So what if whole elements of the marketer’s armoury have effectively become redundant? Is the authenticity-seeking, media-saturated consumer too elusive, individualistic and unpredictable to be susceptible to traditional marketing techniques?
Alex Wipperfürth thinks so. In Brand Hijack, he suggests inviting the audience to come and “co-create” your brand. In other words, let your customers hijack the brand.
If you think this all sounds a little west coast and alternative, you would be right: Mr Wipperfürth is a partner at Plan B, a San Francisco-based-marketing boutique.
But this book is no anti-business rant. Rather, it seeks to exploit the tribalism and quirkiness of today’s consumers, suggesting new ways of creating market “buzz”. Mr Wipperfürth’s sub-title of “marketing without marketing” is a misnomer, he concedes. Businesses still need to win market share. They may just need new approaches to do so.
Take Red Bull, the Austrian energy drink. “No new product has ever failed this convincingly” was the conclusion of the researchers first hired to test the product on potential consumers. And yet, within a few years, Red Bull was being demanded by clubbers, rock stars, extreme-sports fanatics and tired office-workers as the essential hip accompaniment to their nights on the town.
Red Bull thrived on rumour, innuendo and gossip. The company allowed punters (and worried parents) to speculate on its contents, adding a “rumours” section to its website to keep the buzz going.
Clubbers were identified as a key audience. Red Bull staff left empty cans on the floors of toilets to help build product recognition. “Drug culture cachet combined with parental meddling was an instant recipe for cool,” Mr Wipperfürth says.
“Red Bull’s executives targeted several groups at once, allowing each to become involved in creating the product’s identity,” he writes.
“They treated every sub-culture with the same intense, creative effort that other brands reserve for their mainstream consumer base. In doing so, the drink company essentially helped the market hijack its brand.”
“Facilitation” is a crucial word for the author. He does not have much faith in traditional “brand managers” and conventional campaigns. Rather, he thinks, business needs to facilitate a dialogue with consumers. “This requires finesse, patience and a solid understanding of your brand’s purpose,” he says.
Brands that are suitable candidates for being hijacked share certain characteristics of cults, the author argues. A degree of initiation or “brandwashing” may be required to build a tribe of devotees.
Mr Wipperfürth’s arguments are at times a little too good to be true, a bit too self-serving. Some of his analysis feels like ingenious post hoc rationalisation. As Gary Hamel, the management guru, has said, the dirty little secret of the strategy industry is that it does not have any theory of strategy creation: you often only identify what strategy you have been following after the event. And Prof Hamel’s former colleague C.K. Prahalad may be surprised to see that his work (with Venkat Ramaswamy) on the co-creation of value goes uncredited here.
All the same, Mr Wipperfürth makes an intriguing case for abandoning traditional techniques. It is time to stop pushing product and trying to control the market. Let your customers in on the act. Brand managers of the world, let go.