Loser generated content?

“TV Advertising used to work like this: you sat on your sofa while creatives were paid to throw a bucket of shit in your face. Today you’re expected to sit on the bucket, fill it with your own shit, and tip it over your head while filming itself with your mobile”

It was way back in 2009 when these words from Charlie Brooker first signalled the end of the ‘loser generated content’ era. In 2011, Byron Sharp told us that it was empirically unjustified to spend marketing money on social media. Soon, marketers had turned their backs on risky crowdsourced campaigns and anyone suggesting a community-focused strategy was labelled naive. The industry refocused on the strategically superior challenge of creating the next John Lewis ad. RIP Engagement.

Fast forward to 2017 and Sainsburys’ director of marketing Mark Given has just described #fooddance, “the most interactive campaign we’ve ever done” as a “step change” in the brand’s approach to advertising. Mainstream, risk-averse brands like Santander are adopting this “new approach” of advertising that actively gets involved in people’s lives. Involvement is making the break from youth/digital/edgy brands to the mainstream and participation is already being touted as a buzzword of the year.

So what changed?

Firstly, for all the data pointing to how well a traditional advertising strategy works in theory, we are having to come to terms with the fact that it doesn’t always work in practice. One in three mobile users are expected to block ads in 2017, while Google took down more than 1.7 billion ‘bad ads’ last year. Studies have suggested that 89% of ads are not remembered or noticed at all. It turns out if you’re not building a brand people want to spend time with, you’re not building a brand at all.

Secondly, we’re realising that as an industry we became so focused on psychology that we forgot about sociology. We stopped talking about how the primary consumer impulse is to copy other people. For all the revelations about the power of emotions and heuristics, we almost forgot the most simple truth of all: brands don’t influence people. People do.

It was Ehrenberg himself who identified that the secret to successful brand building is creating a sense of popularity. That the point of a brand community isn’t to drive sales amongst a relatively small audience — it’s that by making you seem popular they will attract new buyers. In a highly networked would, the opportunity isn’t to engage in dialogue for the sake of it — it’s to get your market to do more of your marketing.

Thirdly, and perhaps most excitingly of all, we’re beginning to realise that consumer involvement doesn’t have to happen at the expense of creativity. We can do user engagement with a swagger. We can get positively involved in people’s lives without forcing unnecessary interaction into every campaign. We can get involved in culture and still stay single-mindedly on brand.

But the era of participation branding is still in its infancy. There’s still a lot we don’t understand about the impact of culture on brands and the best way to activate the power of people. That’s why we’ve invested the last 12 months into building the Participation Brand Index — the first global study of its kind.

Using data from 14,000 global consumers across multiple sectors, it explores how 177 different brands from Sainsbury’s to Netflix are mobilising people to build their brands. It explores the relative significance of different marketing levers from social purpose to cultural provocation in driving brand performance. It integrates these different facets into a template for assessing a brand’s potential ‘return on involvement’.

It has just launched, and if you’d like to find out what brands like Jeep and AirBnB are saying about it then read on: