Max du Bois
Max du Bois 4 April 2016

Co-creating the Relationship Experience

It might come as a surprise to some, but social media is not actually a technology trend. As humans we have always wanted to connect, tell stories and share experiences.

The very first tribes were based on communities of people who interacted with each other. Social media is more of the same just delivered more effectively.

What has changed is the way organisations, who have always sought scale, are reconnecting. They abandoned relationships long ago for the sake of efficiency, and now they are re-kindling that age old relationship game because our heightened level of connectivity allows them to do so. At least they are trying to. Many use connectivity as little more than broadcast, squandering its unique ability in faux dialogue

This new way to conceptualise the dynamic of relating to our stakeholders, audiences and customers is something NUS tapped into when they asked their target audience, in this case students, what they wanted. By listening and then centring their marketing proposition around their responses they got to the hearts of the 7 million students they represent.

The resulting re-brand took the students’ voices and crafted a brand that aims to shape the future of education. NUS handed over their digital platforms for people to set up their own interest and sub groups, further strengthening the bond with their brand.

According to NUS President, Toni Pearce the new brand not only made a massive difference to the way NUS is viewed by their key audiences, the biggest impact was on how they subsequently viewed themselves.

Without doubt this took courage. Building a platform from which everyone can participate and then stepping back to allow them to do so, meant relinquishing control over the brand.

Likewise Macmillan unleashed the transformative power of co-creation when they set out to  redefine what they were in the world to do.  Key to their success was multiplying their limited budget by a highly engaged and motivated ‘fan base’, a strategy that at the time was deemed both bold and dangerous yet that resulted in Macmillan becoming one of the Uk's most recognised, trusted and respected brands, trumping many bigger spenders in the process.

Macmillan understood that to trigger a shift towards an identity their audiences would genuinely relate to involved letting them help shape and define the brand. In effect the switch from an organisation who cares for people affected by cancer to a powerful movement that allowed everyone involved to become a brand ambassador and a co-producer came when they realised they no longer ‘owned’ their brand. It was a simple - and brave - matter of letting go.

Those in the commercial sector are better versed at the power of user generated content. Yet whilst many commercial brands have recognised that relationship-building approaches need to replace the "ownership" type of mentality for brands, those in the membership and third sector often struggle to let the reins go.

In our experience, working with cutting edge mental health charities, we have seen first hand how this type of co-creation taps into the most powerful form of drive, one that builds brands by aligning with a transformative idea.

To make this happen requires sourcing and then magnifying the very essence of what the brand is about. The key is identifying this brand message which is achieved by understanding and accessing what the target audience truly believes.

The focus here is on sharing rather than selling, joining the conversation rather than taking over the microphone. It is no longer about the individual, it is about the group as a whole and it is as far away from good old fashioned persuasion as a brand manager can get. As a result marketers need to distance themselves from the end result, in effect becoming the enabling tool to help people express and achieve their goals.

Those brands that seize the opportunity to re-define their roles and re-shape their visions using their audiences as their co-creators are reaping the rewards.

The charity sector, more than any other sector, has genuine emotional stories to tell. Whether they are supporting those affected by cancer, working with homeless people or saving endangered species, theirs are true life stories that shape peoples lives, dreams and hopes. The very fact that they champion a cause could result in human co-creation turning into a powerful revolution, however it does require a shift in mindset if charities are to make the most of it.

The flip side of charities closely touching people’s lives is that, at times, these same participants can be critical, their experiences will not always be heart-warming and positive. That is part of the textured third sector landscape, it is not always filled with happy endings.

A charity brand may find they are co-producing with less than happy customers, but that is precisely what will make for a unique brand which is authentic, which genuinely mirrors what is needed, because it comes straight from their target audience’s heart. It will not always be glossy or rosy but it will be powerful and that in itself will make the brand messaging transformative.

By shifting the mindset away from ‘target’ audience, which implies a more predatory attitude, to ‘participants’, we break down the walls between the organisation and the people, turning the focus towards ‘us’ rather than ‘them’. The result will be transformational as those charities who base their marketing on the aggregation of all the conversations between themselves and their audiences, will in effect be creating a bottom-up community which will gain in momentum as it develops.

Currently charities are loosing support as well as vital donor engagement. The more they try to shore up and resist the negative messaging, the worse it becomes. The more they try to put a veneer over their brand, the wider the cracks become. As it turns out, the reason for this could become the solution to their woes. Throwing open the gates to their digital platforms, encouraging people to become active participants, giving them a voice and handing over the microphone as it were, will lay the foundations towards a fresh new perception of what charities are about.

Building a solid platform with an overarching principle behind it rather than a jumble of content, enables a charity to craft its own, unique vision and footprint. The next step is to turn to its audiences and ask them to build on this vision, to create a brand that resonates with them and has true meaning for all those people it touches.

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