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Diana O'Brien
Andy Main
Suzanne Kounkel
Anthony R. Stephan

This “word of mouth,” which helped develop the Levi’s brand as well as product innovations such as blue jeans, has historically emerged through customer participation. In today’s marketplace, participation is at a high, transforming the entire role of marketers and how they work (see our agility trend for more information).The amplification of global participation through technology provides new opportunities for consumers, citizens, and communities to engage directly in shaping, influencing, building, and co-creating platforms, initiatives, movements, and brands. The extended reach offered by digital access, and a greater willingness from consumers to play the role of marketer, has helped empower both startups and established brands to orient elements of their business around opportunities to create new products and services and encourage consumers to participate in the process.

While going out to the local hardware store to engage with customers remains a tried and tested marketing strategy, it is likely no longer sufficient to ensure customer participation. Many brands and marketers have recognized that to keep up with the competition, they need to evolve their approach and create a dynamic two-way engagement across all stages of the consumer journey and the product life cycle. Those doing it best are often seeing willing customer participants become brand ambassadors, influencers, advocates, collaborators, and even innovators, representing and driving brand participation across the marketplace. As Adam Petrick, global director of brand and marketing at Puma, explains, engaging consumers is paramount for global brands: “Our brand is out there in the public space; it’s been consumed by people all around the world, and ultimately, they are the ones that shape it.”2

In this article on the global marketing trend of participation, we present an inside look at how companies, led by marketing, are shifting their strategies to leverage the power of the consumer. We discuss tactics that brands can deploy at each stage of the customer journey and product life cycle and offer insights on the methods they’re adopting to amplify customer participation.

Where are brands getting consumers to participate?

Engaging consumers across their entire journey and the product life cycle can enable companies to harvest insights and leverage customer experience, influence, voice, and sentiments to drive development and accelerate growth—from trial to loyalty. Participation is all about unleashing the power of the consumer as the brand advocate, with consumers becoming the brand “media.” From big brands building “design-and-test” crowdfunding campaigns to co-creating products with new technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and 3D printing, our research reveals the common levers many brands are pulling to engage and build around customer participation. Accordingly, we developed five thematic areas in which brands are helping drive participation today:

  1. Virtual truthing. Online platforms such as Remesh3 and dscout4 tap directly into customers and crowds, enabling brands to engage consumers quickly and effectively to gain insights about emerging products and services in nearly real time. For instance, dscout functions as a live video diary, charting how individuals engage with products and services, delivering rich, in-depth insights for a brand. Remesh offers various ground-truthing models. Driven by artificial intelligence (AI) and analytics capabilities, Remesh can be harnessed at “any stage of the customer life cycle” to learn about improving the customer experience.
  2. Crowdfunding. Crowdfunding campaigns have been around for the better part of the past decade, helping launch startups and fundraise for new products. By voting with their contributions, individuals can support new ventures, charities, and events that matter to them. In a new wave, bigger brands are leveraging crowdfunding to gain access to consumer insights at different stages of the product life cycle. Customers purchase prototypes, enabling brands to gain critical insights early in the process to support R&D and develop the most creative, demand-driven products. For example, in 2018, Gillette launched its “heated razor” concept to gauge early-stage customer interest through the crowdfunding platform, IndieGogo. The crowd informed the design and helped move the razor into production, purchasing the allotted 1,200 razors within a matter of weeks.5
  3. Customization. Many leading brands are seeking ways to involve the customer directly in customizing designs of new, emerging products. Platforms such as Betabrand allow custom designers and producers to receive early-stage inputs from consumers, who function as co-creators in supporting prototypes.6 Such platforms help motivated designers gain access to customers and build a following, while customers can show off their skills as “early adopters.” Timberland, for example, is testing new approaches to involve its customers in shaping new designs for boots, while also building loyalty before these designs hit the market.7
  4. Collaboration. Collaborative participation helps integrate customers in different phases of the product life cycle, often enlisting their support in co-creating products, solutions, and services directly with brands. LEGO, for instance, pioneered collaborative, user-created innovations, allowing its vast network of global user groups to directly engage in co-creating their own LEGO creations.8 Mindsumo is a collaborative platform that helps brands engage customers in collaborations on innovations, while also offering a platform for crowdsourced prize challenges.9 Ferrero, one of the largest chocolate producers and confectionery companies in the world, engaged its consumers on Mindsumo by asking: “What’s your Ferrero Rocher packaging design for Christmas or Valentine’s?”10 Through this question, the company engaged interested customers to share their inputs, doling out cash awards for the best ideas. Other examples of collaboration include personalizing, designing, and 3D printing a new pair of Adidas shoes right in the store.11
  5. Communities. Communities are taking shape around specific brands to inform, support, and offer creative advice on how their products can be used. Communities pop up on social sites such as Reddit and Facebook to help brand loyalists and newbies solve problems and experiment with new uses for products. For example, Instant Pot, a pressure cooker, has an active superfan Facebook group that enables people to share recipes and connect while the company gains deeper insights about how customers are using its products.12 Similarly, Made Unboxed, a furniture retailer in the UK, engages its customers through a dedicated social platform—Instagram—on its website. Followers can upload personal photos on Instagram showing how they’ve integrated Made Unboxed furniture into personal spaces, while fellow enthusiasts can “like” the photo and offer inputs on how to improve the décor. The company’s customers, thereby, function as both service providers and educators, advising other customers on product uses and helping troubleshoot issues with furniture.

Modeling brand participation: Play the spectrum

As with all other global marketing trends, participation is diffusing in unique ways across brands. To succeed, brands looking to build more effective participation strategies should evolve along with their customers. Traditionally, marketers focus upstream in the funnel, with the objective of driving awareness (of products and services) from consideration to trial. This likely won’t work anymore, as opportunities to market to customers across the marketing funnel and customer journey, focusing on the end-to-end experience, have emerged. While integrating customers into every aspect of the customer life cycle may not be necessary for every brand, those leveraging participation are aspiring toward the same outcome—integrating customer voice, experience, and influence to directly shape and inform how they deliver value to customers to accelerate growth, from trial to loyalty.

In figure 1, we present a visual spectrum representing the stages brands follow to leverage customer participation for their businesses, followed by a description of each stage. From baseline customer insights to full-blown co-creation and the “customer as brand” model, each approach is unique to the individual goals of the brand.

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