Let’s All Join Hands: Making the Co-Creation of Brands Consumer-Inclusive

We (Hampus Landelius, Mats Lundgren, Sebastuab Kretz, Stefan Kragh) wrote an review on the co-creation process in branding that I think brings some interesting aspects to the table. Check it out!

An emerging perspective on brand co-creation

As Brodie & Chernatony (2009) concluded the 2008 marketing theory symposium for EMAC (European Marketing Academy) and the learnings from the nine submitted academic papers from the conference’s participants (from both EMAC and ANZMAC – Australian and New Zealand Marketing Academy), an effort was made to single out some important topics in the marketing community. These essays, the authors argue, show how the field for marketing and branding studies has roughly been divided into three categories. These include a) New definitions and integrative theory b) Social and relational perspectives and c) Emerging perspectives. This, might one argue, could also function as a basic divider for which starting point is used going into the study of brand and brand creation.

In the pursuit for the conceptualization of branding Brodie & Chernatony suggest theories of the middle range, to make lesser claims as we yet only see the dawning of an emerging perspective of brand meaning. This paper examines such a middle range theory, one that deals with social and relational perspectives in the co-creating the brand relationship experience (Payne et al, 2009). We then subject this to longer range theory – the standpoint theory of critical social theory (CST) (Harding et al, 2004) – to support the idea of a fundamentally inclusive understanding of the consumer in aspects of co-creating brand relationships.

The need for co-creator thinking

The past three years have provided an increasing amount of articles dealing with the topic of co-creation of brand meaning. Many contemporary researchers now acknowledge that the brand managers aren’t the only ones with a large influence on how brands are created and how they evolve over time.

This is clearly exemplified by Bengtsson and Ostberg (Bengtsson & Ostberg, 2006; adopted from Holt 2004) who claim that each and every brand has at least four major authors (these are Brand Owners; Consumers; Popular Culture and Other important Stakeholders). These parties all invoke different meanings on the brand through the stories they tell about it. Furthermore the authors state that“… a brand is a culturally constructed symbol, created by various types of authors who furnish it with symbolic content. This means that a brand is a co-constructed object whose meaning is closely bound to context and time.” – pertaining to the logic of brand meaning not being created by one-way communication, but rather through a very complex set of interactions between all stakeholders of the brand.

Brand meaning being co-created through interaction between its users, and not controlled by managers alone is a concept influenced by post-modern ramifications (Pitt et al., 2006). The interactions between consumers and the dialogue linking consumers to the organization and other brands is essential in order to create mutually beneficial and loyalty sustaining meaning (Berthon et al., 2008). Nowadays this comes naturally to many consumers, since many of us are actively ‘…mixing in cultural and individual expectations as they (we, the consumers/users) construct their personal narratives’ (Escalas, 2004: 169)

In “The Digital Economy”, Don Tapscott introduced the term “Prosumption” as a term to describe how the gap between producers and consumer becomes blurred and in his book “Wikinomics” he further elaborates on the term.

When consumers become ”prosumers”, they participate in the creation of a product in an active and ongoing way. The difference between co-creation is that the consumer does more than customize or personalize the product, they self-organize and engage the product on their own. This new generation of prosumers treats the world as place for creation, not consumption. Prosumers create their own communities online, where they share their knowledge, spread information, collaborate on projects etcetera. Communities created around products have become more commonplace, reason being that technology is the major facilitator – technology such as inexpensive digital devices, open source software, user-friendly editing tools, cheap storage and bandwidth. The emotional drivers for those people involved in the communities are getting credibility from friends, making something new, and being in the frontline in their field. (Tapscott 2006, p. 129)

Prosumers can both be seen as threats for companies, as well as it can be considered a lucrative opportunity for  tapped knowledge. It’s lucrative in the way that companies can get free R&D from the prosumers, and it becomes threatening in the way that the communities can evolve in a way that moves away from the relevant company’s belief system.

Co-creating with self-selected prosumers is, according to Don Tapscott, one of the most powerful engines of change and innovation. Co-creation with prosumers lets companies take part of the “wisdom of the crowds”. He explains further that a risk companies take if they don’t stay close to their customers is that the prosumers innovate around the company. Designing for prosumption, is to make the product editable, reconfigurable in its nature.  Tapscott states that in the world of prosumption, business isn’t about creating finished product, it’s about creating innovate ecosystem for prosumers. (Tapscott 2006, p. 148)

Don Tapscott further explains the difference between the co-creator and the prosumer.  Co-creation is about customizing goods, services and experiences. In this manner the company takes to listening to the customer to share his/her insights for free – and surely customers with the best ideas might get rewarded for their help. However, Tapscott considers this a company-centric view of co-creation. The company tells the consumer indirectly what to create, and how. At the end of day the company benefits more than the co-creator since the rules of engagment are enacted by the company. In a prosumer-centric-view, the customer is in charge of co-creation. The consumer does the thinking on their own behalf, in their manner. This phenomenon has also been described by Henry Jenkins as ”Convergence Culture”. (Jenkins, 2006)

Value creation from different perspectives

The traditional system of company-centric value creation (that has served us so well over the past 100 years) is becoming obsolete. Leaders now need a new frame of reference for value creation. In the emergent economy, competition will center on personalized co-creation experiences, resulting in value that is truly unique to each individual. We, the authors, would like to propose that a new frontier in value creation is emerging, replete with fresh opportunities. In this new frontier the role of the consumer has changed from isolated to connected, from unaware to informed, from passive to active. As a result, companies can no longer act autonomously, designing products, developing production processes, crafting marketing messages, and controlling sales channels with little or no interference from consumers. Armed with new tools and dissatisfied with available choices, consumers want to interact with firms and thereby co-create value. The use of interaction as a basis for co-creation is at the crux of our emerging reality. The co-creation experience of the consumer becomes the very basis of value. We seek a model for attempting to understand and manage the processes  involved in the co-creation of value.

In their 2009 Journal of Business Resarch article “Co-creating brand: Diagnosing and designing the relationship experience” the authors Adrian Payne, Kaj Storbacka, Pennie Frow and Simon elaborate on the ongoing shift from goods-dominant logic to the new service-dominant logic. This echoes the writings by Vargo & Lusch (2004) on the shift to a serivice dominant logic.

One of the key foundational propositions of this new evolving logic gives the customers a new important role where the customer always is a co-creator of value, and the brand becomes the experience. The authors observe how the brand relationship experience correlates in a context of co-creation and service-dominant logic. Payne, Storbacka, Frow


Fig. 1. Overview of model development process. (Payne et al. 2009, p. 381)

and Knox went through a three-phased plan in order to create a model that could help businesses and other organizations to better understand their co-creation process. Based on this 3-phased plan they created the mentioned conceptual model of how to design and manage customer experiences. It could be worth noticing that the authors proceed to use this model in a case study to exemplify just how the model can help design and manage the different phases of a brand relationship experience for an innovative new product. The article gives a theoretical contribution towards the development and refinement of a model that helps in the understanding of the brand relationship experience, in a context of service-dominant logic.

The authors to the article also point out the fact that researchers need to consider a broader context when exploring the brand relationship experience. Another practical contribution is produced by a case study that illustrates an application of a co-creation model that explores the building of brand experiences.

The solidifiying of identity and credibility inside the consumer community

Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff (2008) show how certain eCommerce businesses embrace a consumer-to-consumer style of business. In explaining what motivates these businesses view on consumers, the authors relate to an online survey conducted by Forrester research, which showed that 83 % people trust friends’ advice regarding buying decisions. 50% trust complete strangers recommendations on the social web. Thirdly, people trust company advice.

People are helping each other through social networks for several different reasons. Li and Bernoff believe that the fundamental force behind is the drive to be social. It’s a need to connect with others. The authors mean that the motif is driven by impulses and describes them further as: a) The altruistic impulse (people give blood because they think they should), b) The exhibitionism impulse (people desire to be seen), c) The creative impulse (people can find synergy effects with others), d) The validation impulse (people like to be seen as knowledgeable experts, contribution often gives feedback within communities which reassures them about their place in the world) and e) The affinity impulse (joining and connecting with people sharing same interest is major driving force)

The consumer-to-consumer paradigm appears to be a useful starting ground for the co-creation process. According to Jeremiah Owyang’s Forrester report “The Future Of The Social Web” (2009), today’s consumer networks are disjointed because consumers have separate identities in each social network they visit. Technologies and shared standards that enable a portable identity will soon empower consumers to bring their identities with them. This has every potential of transforming marketing, eCommerce, CRM, and advertising. As the web will evolve from separate social networks into a shared social experience, consumers will rely on their friends much more as they make online decisions, whether or not brands choose to participate. Socially connected consumers will strengthen communities and shift power away from brands and CRM systems.

In critique of the company-centric bias

The model evolved from the article ”Co-Creating Brands…” is based on assumptions made by a group of company executives. Somehow this is emblematic of an inclusive relationship to the customer – customers are not necessarily inside the dialogue where their participation is defined as essential. As the concept of the ”prosumer” – the consumer as an integral part of the symbolic/brand production process – is being defined time and time (from McCracken 1990, through to Tapscott 2007, Ekström, Norén 2008), it appears as if the challenge lies not in the re-inventing-the-wheel-like manner of constantly defining the consumers participation in brand creation, but rather a what’s next curiosity related to the inclusive practice of said theory.


Fig. 2. A model for co-creating the brand relationship experience (Payne et al. 2009, p. 382)

We, the authors propose changes to the model in figure 2 to better accommodate what we believe the future to have in store for any brand that wishes to have a constructive relationship to its customers. Seen on the right hand side of figure 2 we see a part of the model labeled “Additional sources of brand knowledge”. A sub-category here is the ever so illusive “Customer to customer interaction”. We’ve had problems understanding where and how to implement the different sub-categories seen on the right of the picture and to our best guess they’re implementable wherever the reader wishes them to be.

We put forward that instead of where the current “Supplier processes” encounters “Customer processes” layout of the figure, there ought to be a third process-family involved, namely the “Customer to customer processes”. As has been described in all of the previous articles and other works cited in this text, there is a strong trend towards letting the customers and consumers have a strong influence on how to evolve the brand.

Standpoint Theory: over-arching critique of mid-range theory on co-creation of brands

In the 70s and 80s critical social theory (CST) developed the Standpoint Theory as a vehicle for its critique of the bias in the dominant subject position in social relations. One of its founders, Sandra Harding, embodied this idea by suggesting that a lesser privileged social position is more likely to generate perspectives that are ”less partial and less distorted” than those generated by other social positions (Harding et al 2004). Considering this, having the co-creation of brands understood and modeled from a company-centric view appears to be not only obsolete (as previously stated) but also exploitive of the privileged position that any company has in the privilege of choosing how to encounter the consumer.

We, the authors, would like to propose the consideration of Standpoint Theory as the underlying blueprint in brand co-creation, for better understanding the benefits of a fundamentally consumer-inclusive approach.

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