Marketing is becoming honest. About time. Gone are the days where egocentric know-it-alls with theatrical messages only ever followed one goal: to sell. Present-day marketing curates customer problems and translates them into desirable products. Wishful thinking based on marketing theory? Or a feasible approach? A field test.
“It’s far more efficient to develop products for your customers than to look for customers for your products.” There are lots of clever quotes from American marketing luminary
Seth Godin. But there is probably none so trivial and yet so deep in meaning. The mere fact that his marketing holiness is so eager to posit something so mundane demonstrates the apparent strange state of affairs when it comes to understanding what marketing actually is. But why this grotesque misconception? This misapprehension manifested itself during the time of the marketing gold rush. In the unsaturated markets of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the task of a marketer was simple: devise standard products that fit right into the company’s existing product portfolio without incurring any significant additional expense. Next, emotionalize these products using smooth, feel-good messages, before using a budget of millions to hammer them into the brains of potential consumers. But then Tim Berners-Lee invented the Internet, and this one-dimensionality so cherished by the self-referential marketing posse was suddenly taken away. Today, markets are largely democratic, customers are well informed. People don’t buy what’s available; they buy things that provide a benefit. And what provides a benefit is decided by the collective. Those who listen to this collective will have a clear edge. Modern marketers don’t really see themselves as passive sales intermediaries, but rather as observant curators. They take the attractive ideas and wishes gained from discussions with their brand community and translate these into desirable products. For them, the basic question isn’t “What can I sell?” It’s “Which problem do I have to solve?”
“Making products for your customers is surely far more efficient than finding customers for your products” — Seth Godin
Lego Ideas: brick by brick towards the development collective
With brand name companies, this modern stance is, unfortunately, the exception rather than the rule. The most groundbreaking example comes from Billund in Denmark. With its Internet platform
“Lego Ideas”, the Scandinavian toy giant has not only been demonstrating since 2011 how curation and collective innovation works, but also how these can become the nucleus of product development. Today, the platform is bustling with more than half a million Lego super fans, all with registered user profiles. The rules are simple: all Lego fans are invited to submit their big ideas to the collective. There are really no limits to the imagination. Last year, for example, one user with the pseudonym “Lucius Sweet” asked for a Lego set featuring cult rappers Run DMC. According to the proposal, the set would contain around 400 parts and cost just under 50 dollars. An idea has to be supported by 10,000 users to qualify for a review by Lego. Those who reach that stage and succeed in convincing an in-house building-brick review board can expect one percent of net sales, five Lego sets for themselves, and are credited by name in the set materials. Lucius Sweet was denied these 15 minutes of fame. Only 352 supporters voted for his homage to Run DMC. But for 17 other inventors, the dream of creating their own Lego set has come true. “I can’t mention specific numbers,” said David Gram, Head of Marketing and Chief Curator at Lego Future Lab, apparently not wanting to reveal too much. “But the platform is working well – very well.” Yet according to Gram, Lego’s C-level management wasn’t always convinced about the platform’s innovative strength.
Curation vs. innovation: using swarm intelligence in the right way
The reasons for this C-level skepticism are speculative. One possible motive is security. Lack of confidence is another. It’s evident that a lot of business leaders still don’t genuinely believe in the innovative strength of the swarm. And they are in good company: “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups,” was something Steve Jobs believed, too. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” he said. True. But does gathering ideas in the collective stop continued development in company labs? Hardly. How economically viable and innovative potential ideas are and whether they fit in with the company’s chosen branding strategy are exactly the issues that progressive marketing curators need to be concentrating on. Here, the swarm can offer help, particularly when it comes to achieving the company’s economic objectives. How? In creating a bond between loyal fans and the brand – first by providing them with a voice and then taking this voice seriously – a business is not only curating good ideas. It is also ensuring that these fans provide positive reports about the product. In times when some social media influencers have more reach than a national newspaper, this is certainly significant. Those who are quick to identify product-savvy influencers are not only paving the way for future sales but are also reducing costs for things like lengthy brand research and interviews with focus groups.
A field test: making the perfect white T-shirt with 400 co-designers
For established brands, building up a local influencer network still seems to be something that’s “nice to have.” For a young company, however, it’s the only chance for success. With this in mind, I dove head first into a
start-up adventure with my co-founder in 2013. A fashion label for men was our goal. Debut product: the perfect white T-shirt for men. How we got the idea is easy to explain. In 2009, we went to New York for a few years, leaving the old world for the new to miss the old products we cherished. That included the white T-shirt. So one afternoon, I asked digital oracle Google for advice. With moderate success. It seemed there was no high-quality, affordable white T-shirt out there. So what now? Let’s make one ourselves. But to do that, we first had to validate the idea. Asking our friends gave us conflicting insights. We therefore had to find a team of experts. So for weeks we looked for male, fashion-crazy bloggers and asked them a simple question: “What do you think makes the perfect white T-shirt?” The response was phenomenal. Almost 50 percent of the 400 people we asked responded with a surprising level of detail. In fewer than five days we had curated so many usable expert tips that we could get started straight away on prioritizing individual features and on product design. Our expenditure up to that point: the promise of a free T-shirt once the product was completed.
Brand image: make it simple but significant
The shirt design was in the bag. But a second fundamental question remained: How should the brand look? A white T-shirt stands for radical simplification. A brand design that underpins the central product promise to the customer should also, so the theory goes, come across as radically simple, pure, and without any frills. Furthermore, the brand name also had to underpin the product, and the accompanying slogan should allow people to understand immediately what the product is about. In the end, we condensed months of thinking and design iterations into the following: “whytes – The perfect white T-shirt”. A word mark that, using a combination of black and white, reflects the essence of the brand: plain ambition. But would that really appeal to the fashion and design-conscious men that made up our target group? Would this unembellished simplicity perhaps not be “fashionable” enough for them? A further question for our collective – with two benefits: First, we were able to verify our brand design concept directly with our target group. Furthermore, it was yet another opportunity for us to tie distinguished brand ambassadors to our idea. Even during the development stage, several of them were already blogging about our collaboration. Free reach, even before the actual launch.
Summing up: reach and reputation without a marketing budget
Regular communication with your target group to get to know and understand them is the central task of modern marketing curators. Those who listen and read between the lines will quickly get a feel for what inspires the collective. Our brand concept struck a chord among the
co-creators – just like the product did. After successfully launching the product in December 2015, the weeks of work researching influencers paid off once again. A lot of our co-designers wrote long, passionate articles about what we had developed together. Something that didn’t just lead to a steady hum of sales. Above all, it rapidly boosted the reputation of the brand – hard currency when dealing with the traditional press and potential trading partners. To sum up: Those who identify and place trust in their collective and correctly interpret what they hear have good chances of success. Not only during the product development stage but also for marketing the product further. Loyal brand ambassadors continue to send us photos and quotes: “It’s the iPhone of T-shirts,” one fan from Switzerland recently told us. A campaign slogan for which conventional old-school agencies would charge a six-figure sum. Is there a more satisfying job than that of the helper in marketing?
Text: Thomas Escher
Illustration: Benjamin Probst/Constanze Stürz , grasundsterne
Translation: Toby Skingsley
The original version of this story appeared in print version of the “ Berliner Marketing Journal“, published by Quadriga Hochschule Berlin