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October 06, 2009

Live from World Business Forum: Ready for the Participation Economy?

You may not trust your employees beyond giving them a security swipe card to get into your office building and a password to access limited parts of your IT server. But if Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, is right, you may have to start trusting them—and their friends—with your branding. 

When Roberts came of age in the marketing business, he said he was taught that brands had all the power, now he recognizes that maybe the 1960s Woodstock Nation was right—that the future is about "power to the people." 

"Now the consumer is the boss, and she really is. She's living the life she wants; the only problem is she has half the money she had a year ago," said Roberts, speaking late this afternoon at the World Business Forum. He said you have to coach your company's leaders to figure out how to create product loyalty beyond reason. Customers are looking for the purchase that's priceless from a non-monetary perspective. "What are you giving me that's emotionally priceless, and will let me have some joy?"  Roberts said your customers are asking you. 

Since, as Roberts explained,  marketing today revolves around the consumer, with "the consumer the medium," it occurs to me that you might want to ask yourselves how to encourage your employees to take branding to their social networks to spread the word. "We live in the age of the idea," said Roberts. "They will take your idea and move it along," he said of the public. 

In your company, maybe instead of investing energy and ideas solely in conventional advertising, you can round up your workforce for your own mass marketing appeal. To encourage innovation, launch a contest to see which of your employees can come up with the best YouTube spot about your company, and then let it rip. See if it catches on, and offer rewards not just for the most innovative video but for the one that receives the most play across the Internet. How many of you have tried something like this already?

Your employees will need to be guided by your request that the videos not violate your "corporate culture" (whatever that term means), but, ultimately, this new way of marketing will require that you let go and trust them. If your "corporate culture" is all you say it is, then you have nothing to worry about. If your employees get it, then they, as an automatic response, won't violate it.  If your corporate culture is nonsense (which it appears to be at many companies), then this marketing experiment will offer your company an opportunity for growth. 

After all, the videos will say just as much about how your employees feel about your company and brand as they do about what they think of those you sell to and what they think their friends will like. You'll also be forced to ask yourselves uncomfortable questions. How secure are you about your (true) work life?   Would you be comfortable if some of the scenes in the videos were shot in your own office?  Would your own office violate your brand?

The funniest thing that I keep hearing about are companies who sell products or services that its own employees don't benefit from; or that the company, through what it sells, espouses a philosophy it doesn't extend to its own workers. What if your company, for instance, specializes in creating beautiful spaces for other companies but you have your own workers slaving away in a ramshackle building?  Or what if you're fond of telling the public what a great "family company" you are, but you're stingy with benefits like maternity leave and flex-time for working mothers (and fathers)?

Since consumers, including your own employees, are the best way to get the word out about your products and services, shouldn't you be treating them nicer?  And shouldn't you be preparing them to spread the word via their social networks?  

Of course you'll need quite a sense of humor to allow them to take the marketing plunge for you. How about this: What if enterprising employees decided to create a humorous YouTube video about a food product your company sells with a scene set in your boardroom with dirty farm pigs feasting on what you sell?  Would that be a no-no?  Why?  If it gets passed along on the Internet and spreads the word about what you're selling, shouldn't you, and your board, just swallow their pride (or trough)?

The youngest of your workers, those most adept at spreading information to their friends, and beyond, about what you do, have their own irreverent way of communicating. Thinking back to this morning's presentation from Patrick Lencioni, are you prepared to trust them?

How many live pigs in your boardroom are too many if it means a viral YouTube video that's just what you paid a marketing firm  in futility to create?  Don't underestimate the power of pigs—when you encourage them to share.


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