Will All Brands Be Open? Should All Brands Be Open?

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Social Media did a whole lot more than just connect us all in 140 characters (or less) and through Facebook status updates.

If you’re not sure what "more" means, drop everything and read the book, The Cluetrain Manifesto, by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger (hint: if you click on the Cluetrain link above, you can read the book online for free). In short, "more" means: open. The battlecry for transparency, honesty and for all sorts of industries (this includes government, businesses and more) to open up has been the central talking point around the power of Social Media.

Can brands really open up? 

Between us, I’m not so sure anymore. When it comes to customer service and listening to what people are saying about a brand (positive, negative and neutral), Social Media can have a huge impact on a brand. The public policing has done a lot to change the traditional "command and control" mentality that many organizations have for their brand. In this instance, having a brand that is open to listening and engaging with its consumers makes sense, but I’m not sure that is the same thing as an "open brand." Listening and reacting has made brands more accessible and has enabled and empowered consumers to interact and engage (as much or as little as they like) with brands.

What about true brand innovation?

When it comes to sincere innovation, I’m not so sure. Apple‘s Steve Jobs is often quoted as saying, "It’s not the consumer’s job to know what they want." It’s not just a great line, because anyone who works on the inside guts of a brand – at the truly innovative level – knows that it’s going to be near-impossible to pull true innovation out of the crowd just because you created a virtual suggestion box on an augmented wiki platform and have encouraged your consumers to tell you what the brand should do next.

Is innovation the tweaking of a brand or the reinvention of a brand?

If someone heads over to StarbucksMy Starbucks Idea platform and gets people to vote up the concept of a coffee stir stick that snaps into the sip hole of the drink cover so that nothing spills in transport (which is a true story), does that represent true brand innovation? Does that make Starbucks an open brand? Before you answer, consider this: does Starbucks invite (and respond) to every comment on their new new logo design direction? What about posting next quarter’s advertising campaign online for all to see and vote on? Better yet, why not leave the next branding campaign to us? I mean, after all, they’re now an open brand, right?

Before you go freaking out, please check this out…

Here’s a Blog post titled, Looking Forward to Starbucks Next Chapter, written by Starbucks Chairman, CEO and President, Howard Schultz shortly after the company announced their new logo/positioning. Read some of the 850-plus comments that fall beneath it. Does this sound like a brand that is now in the hands of the consumer because we now live in the age of Social Media where everything must be open and the consumers now control the brand? I’m not picking on Starbucks (or Apple or any brand) at all, but let’s be honest: brands are only "open" so long as it’s a good Marketing, Communications and Public Relations. The net output of that may lead to some semblance of product adaptation or the introduction of a new product or service (or, like The Gap it could also lead to some back peddling), but that’s hardly a truly open brand where the innovation and growth comes from the consumers and the community in tandem with the employees of the company. The reminder here is that words are powerful and you can’t just be open or have a democratized brand when it comes to Marketing… it’s either a part of corporate DNA or it’s just another Marketing tactic.

What do you think about true innovation and the power of a brand? Can a brand’s true innovation come from the consumers?


  1. I think that all brands have moments of ‘openness’, some more than others, but I don’t think any brand is truly open 100% of the time. I don’t think they really can be, because there needs to be some internal direction and influence on what the brand’s ultimate goal is. If there’s no internal drive or direction, then the brand never develops a definite shape. The community influences that shape, for sure, but the internal culture and processes are just as important to determine what makes a brand successful.
    Being an ‘open’ brand is about creating real communication, valuing customers opinions and recognizing how they can direct your business forward. It’s not necessarily about handing over the keys and simply taking a ride in the back seat as your customers drive your brand wherever they want it to go.

  2. When you buy a product you own the product and rent the brand. Companies still own the brand and they want their brands to be successful so they try to please their customers and they always have long before the intertubes entered our lives. What’s new is the speed of the customer feedback. Because companies and their brands have become more accessible and more responsive and quicker to respond it gives us the impression that their more open to our suggestions but I think they’re as open as they’ve always been. They just get more feedback than they used to.

  3. Barry Judge, Best Buy’s CMO, often puts new advertising spots on his blog before they’re finished to get feedback on where they’re going. The feedback is all over the map. However, I have yet to see him stop an ad from running because of any feedback on his blog.
    I have always felt that brands rarely (if ever) truly innovate. They evolve and tweak, and social media is a great way to gauge that effort (consider Gap). But brands should not live or die by what self-appointed individual marketers say.
    I think all brands should enable access, give the public a chance to see the inner workings, and I think all brands can allow the public to define the brand, how the public may see it, but that doesn’t mean the brand must assume new definition because of it.
    In this case, an open brand is a crowdsourcing brand.

  4. This can work for a firm with a single brand and there is one brand owner.
    But for firms with a suite of brands, you face political issues and turf wars.

  5. Product/service innovation can come from consumers. Dell Ideastorm comes to mind as one example where this works. The Edsel comes to mind as one example where it did not.
    I do not have faith though that brand innovation can come from consumers.
    Consumers buy products. If they are not satisfied with the product and/or find some way to improve it, they can voice their opinion, and should the company not adopt it, they can vote with their feet, dollars, etc and just buy from some other company that will give them what they want.
    Consumers do not however buy brands. They buy products and services. They can choose to purchase products or services from brands that somehow align with their interests – eg. purchasing from Company X because it gives Y% of profit to Charity Z – but by and large, consumers do not buy because of the brand rather because of the product or service.
    So, try as we might to define a brand as open, maybe by necessity, brands are just more open to consumer-initiated innovation with regard to their products than they are with regard to their brands?

  6. Harley-Davidson – a brand we have all used in presentations as an example of something much more than the product – is not about motorcycles. It is about a 40-something putting on leathers and being cool (again). It is about community and the familiar nod when you spot someone who has made the similar choice. In fact, there are more HD stickers on more things than there are HD customers. Harleys are not the most reliable and certainly not the least expensive bikes.
    The Green Bay Packers just won their 13th championship which means they have had 79 seasons in their history that did not end hoisting the trophy. Arlington Stadium can safely hold the entire population of Green Bay, Wisconsin’s city core. And if you are lucky enough to get on the waiting list today, you might get your season ticket to Lambeau by 2031. And the Packers are the only major sports franchise that is a not-for-profit.
    And in the case of Starbucks, weren’t we booking their funeral two years ago?
    If a company has a national or international footprint, it’s difficult to embrace every single customer’s ideas and implement them. There is a point of diminishing results if you try and integrate every idea – large and small. But if you close the door, that next gem that could blow up real good (in a good way) will never darken your doorstep.
    IMHO brands are created between customers. The rest are products. It’s up to each and every company to decide which they will let happen.

  7. I would say that it is incredibly difficult for brands to be open, but then I work for an insurance startup and our industry (in the UK anyway) is notoriously stuffy when it comes to social media. It’s either completely lame or hugely gimicky. So we’re trying to find a balance while remaining as open with our potential clients as possible.
    I think you’re trying to say that there is no thing as an ‘open’ brand, but what about companies who are willing to share any information that is asked of them (apart from financial/legal details), and treat social followers like they were sitting beside them i.e. not shying away from difficult topics? Are they ‘open’?
    Great post!
    PS Really enjoying your blog, Mark from {Grow} recommended I read your book which I definitely will have to do sometime.

  8. What’s the difference between “open” and trying to be all things to all people? When’s the last time you saw a movie, tv show, or commercial, that was designed by committee or focus group and you knew it because it was shapeless, meaningless and almost inoffensive drivel?
    Brands should be open as long and as far as it allows them to retain their identity and vision. That might mean occasional missteps, or it might mean changing the focus and losing a few customers who’s loyalty is so weak it can be swayed by a logo change.
    Some business books call this “firing your worst customers.”

  9. Brands are very good at “tricking” customers and people in general into thinking they are being innovative and sometimes revolutionary. Using social media channels in 2011 doesn’t mean you are being innovative or open anymore, just that you’re being smart.
    It’s not about the fact you use certain channels anymore, but how you use them, I guess.
    I recently read about a new MMORPG game called Rift and I was very interested about how they plan to involve people in their virtual world, I cite from the Mashable article I read:
    “[..] by aligning its story line with a television show that SyFy is producing using the same world. If an event in the television show changes the world’s landscape, those changes will be reflected in the game world after it has aired”
    I don’t know how this “experiment” will end up, but isn’t this an innovative start that will grant the game’s brand to be recognized far more than just another Twitter-friendly one?

  10. I have also read that post about Rift. And it seems to me that it’s a cool way to attract audience. I’m a bit jealous of it coz I have the same Idea for our MMORPG game Ragnarok(if you remember).
    Yes, words are powerful that it could damage a brand and should remain protected.
    There are better ways to innovate brands without risking its Online reputation.

  11. Can a brand’s true innovation come from consumers?
    How about this, how does innovation work? Can a brand have a relationship to it’s consumers.. and echo system, lets say, that drives innovation?
    One of the big problems I have is that today is just one day in forever.. and it’s still early days for understanding where the hell its going or what it all means.
    For instance.. I had this idea of creating a “black opps” wordpress plug in.. the idea is I would right these radically honest blog posts.. but big chunks of the posts would be blocked out.. as if it were a freedom of information act release where some of the stuff was still classified and thus blocked out… But the idea here was that what got blocked out would be dependent on the kind of engagement the reader had with me or my content..
    I mean what if only your best, most engaged consumers have access to x information?
    I was watching a documentary of Motorhead.. and there best fans get there own trailer.. just for them.. and they have the band members home phone numbers.. and they don’t give them out to people….
    I mean lets be honest here.. I’ll tell a really close friend some of my deepest darkest secrets.. some I may only take to my grave.. other’s I’ll tell only certain types of people.. etc, etc.. I don’t see why brands should be more transparent then humans.
    Also I think there’s a structural thing to innovation.. which would be very complex to explain.. that you can look at it as a systemic effect… so that you can design a system.. perhaps a culture, that drives it.
    But also.. I’m a huge Joseph Campbell fan.. and he’d talk about how certain ideas come from “the folk traditions” and some ideas only come from the elites. Now an elite is.. if we were going to talk about.. lets say politics.. the person who gave there life to politics.. there are certain ideas that will only come to that person.. not to the rest of us.. and there are other ideas that would come to the rest of us.. and we can look at history and see this.
    So I think the thing for brands is to figure this out..

  12. While I believe that consumers can assist innovation by sharing their perspectives, I ultimately agree with Steve Jobs’ statement. I’m reminded of something that Alan Moore (creator of the Watchmen comic series) stated in the documentary Mindscape:
    “It’s not the job of the artist to give the audience what the audience wants. If the audience knew what they needed, then they wouldn’t be the audience. They would be the artists. It is the job of artists to give the audience what they need.” (source: http://intellectual-thoughts.com/Alan%20Moore%20Quote.htm)
    In my opinion, social media has changed branding causing it to become more dynamic and flexible in some cases because so many target markets are available, but it can definitely backfire. Like those pesky gecko Geico ads in my opinion! 🙂 I believe the last sentence of your article sums it up – a brand is either authentic and inspires trust because it is part of the corporate DNA, or its just another marketing tactic. If the consumer feels they can push a brand to meet their whims then they may lose confidence in the brand… Paradoxically, being told ‘no’ can inspire a sense of trust.

  13. I definitely take the jaded realist view of brands’ attempt to be open; much of it is done “because the have to in this day and age” while others may have a more altrusitic vision. At the end of the day, somebody has to run the company and somebody has to make the decisions. We all know what it’s like to make a ‘decision by committee’…it makes alot of people a little bit happy..and most of the people mainly dissatisfied.
    Openness can help create a warmer persona of a brand…and I doubt that people really believe their comments will be make it up to the C suite…but by the same token, as long as the consumer feels as if he/she is being listened to…that may be enough to define a brand as being ‘open’.

  14. I think that open is in the eye of the beholder and its importance to the brand success is, like most things, subject to the brand’s popularity. Your Apple example is great – there are scores of people in the Apple store and yet Steve Jobs (this generation’s Henry Ford) has a strict almost jealous lover like view of his brand.

  15. I believe that a brand exists in the consumers mind. Corporations like to believe that it exists in their executive boardroom …but it doesn’t.
    For any company to say that they are now ‘open’ means absolutely nothing (unless of course they are now willing to admit that their brand never was totally in their hands in the first place).
    Don’t get me wrong, businesses do have the ability to influence the way consumers see their brand…but it is a symbiotic relationship, a 2-way street…a dance if you will.
    And if we decide to call this latest dance step “innovation” then so be it, the illusory brand dance continues, both partners thinking they are leading the other. Let the music play!

  16. What does it take for you to call a brand “open”? Your blog post seems to imply that every single decision has to be made by customer vote, and every single customer idea has to be implemented, in order for a brand to qualify. But under those circumstances, it’s no longer a brand or a company, it’s a collaborative movement.
    Yes, they’re only open to the extent that (to their best judgement), it benefits the company. That’s their JOB: to make decisions that benefit the company. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

  17. “The more your business doesn’t seem like a business the easier it is to love.”
    I’ve been using that line in presentations for a few months now. I stumbled upon the phrase while trying to describe what businesses should be trying to do today. The more open the brand is, the easier it is to understand it’s story. Usually this is lead by people, amazing people who believe in the company.
    Brands need to look internally and find their best ambassadors who have a vision of where the brand is going and encourage them to open up to the world. It’d be the best branding.

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