IMAGINE it’s 1870. You are an entrepreneur running a fledgling dry goods business in San Francisco. Based on a conversation with a tool retailer, you sense an opportunity to develop a new product. What do you do next? At this point in history, startups and existing enterprises alike were limited to “word of mouth” participation—to both learn from customers about existing products and services and to inform the design of something new. Businesses could gain insights only through direct interactions with customers. Using this approach, the San Francisco entrepreneur in question learnt of the limited availability of durable trousers for workmen in the market. In 1873, based on these findings, Levi Strauss & Co. obtained the first US patent to develop the original pair of men’s blue jeans.1
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 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 recognised 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.
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:
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 towards 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.
Identifying how and in which areas to integrate customer participation in the consumer journey and the product life cycle can be overwhelming for marketing teams and the company at large. There is no right answer as each of these models is relevant and may work for you but should be tailored to your company’s strategy and business objectives. Reflecting on your brand and marketing strategy—who you are to your customers and how you can best leverage them across the customer journey/product life cycle—can set you on the right path to benefit from customer participation.
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