“The problem with a complete [brand] story is that the audience plays no role in it.” – Tamsen Webster.

When I heard this quote on the On Brand podcast, it struck me in the gut and made me pause the episode to think. How often do companies actively include their customers in the evolution of their brands?

The answer is rarely, and it’s such a lost opportunity.

How can brands co-create?
Brand co-creation can be a very formal affair like setting up workshops with customers, but it can also be as simple as observing how they interact with you and how they talk about you and then adapting your behavior.

While you can develop a list of descriptive words about your business that you believe to be true, if your customers don’t view you that way then that is not what your brand actually stands for. A brand is the culmination of all consumer experiences and interactions with your business, and not solely company approved messages.

This disconnect can pan out in two ways. If your customers bought into the brand idea that you presented, but don’t perceive your brand the way you aim for it to be seen because they are dissatisfied with your service, then you have to work on meeting their expectations. This doesn’t require a shift in brand strategy.

However, if your customers are satisfied but still don’t view your brand the way you intend, then a change in strategy may be required. An example of that is Taco Bell, the global fast food giant.

Taco Bell = freshness??

Ask anyone today if they associate the word “fresh” with the brand and they’ll scrunch up their face in confusion. The ground beef and dripping cheese sauces used by the company don’t convey the image of freshness, but that was exactly what the company strove for in the the 1970s, as seen in this TV ad below.

 

Moving ahead a few years, Taco Bell quickly realized its customers weren’t coming for freshness. They were coming for a cheap meal. Feeding a whole family for under $6? Now that’s a real edge. So the company totally capitalized on this insight and ditched the freshness message in favor of “value for money” for years to come.

Fast forward to 2017, and Taco Bell maintains its value driven message, but has also added another dimension to its communication. Acknowledging that this is the kind of food you’re not proud to eat but hits the spot when you need some junk to elevate your mood, it launched the “Morning is Hell” campaign. Below is one of the TVCs.

Even better than that campaign was when the brand acknowledged that Taco Bell is the kind of junky food that you indulge in after a crazy night out, it released this hilarious 2013 Viva Young Superbowl commercial. Instead of shying away from this reputation, it owned it.

Let’s look locally
A local example of where more conscious co-creation could be useful is HealthBay Polyclinic, a UAE based clinic I have loyally visited for the past 5 years.  Many Dubai residents love the clinic’s neighborhood feel and how it maintains approachability while offering top class medical care. It’s accessible and the team is friendly but professional. Their doctors are booked out for weeks and even months at a time due to this winning formula.

The clinic has recently rapidly expanded following significant investment and a beautiful rebrand, which modernized its look and feel. Originally, the group took over a few extra villas to increase its capacity in Jumeirah, but in the last few weeks the majority of the operation has moved into a massive location in the neighborhood.

The inside of this new building no longer reflects the clinic’s original cosy vibe, but instead is a shiny new medical center that looks no different to the myriad of other hospitals in the city. When I saw this, I couldn’t help but feel sad. I could already see the brand losing sight of what made it so great.

Is it a bad thing that HealthBay is doing so well that they needed to expand? Of course not. What I lament is that their expansion is causing the brand to move away from what has led to its success: the down to earth, approachable, but top quality healthcare. It is pushing forward to develop a healthcare brand that is cutting edge and able to take on its massive local competition, but in the process it is losing its patient-centricity, which was one of its key differentiators.

So, what’s the value of co-creation?
Customers who feel acknowledged and listened to will feel more affinity towards a brand. They will develop a deep relationship with the brand rather than a superficial one of company and customer. This improves the lifetime value of that customer and the positive effect he may have on his own network. When people feel personally involved, they become brand advocates, and the shared opinion of a brand advocate in his network is more valuable than any mass media advertising.

How can I get started with co-creation?

Ask questions and listen. Make it a regular habit to observe how your customers interact with your brand and their feedback about your products/services. According to a recent Think Jar study, 70% of brands that deliver outstanding customer experience rely on feedback.

Beyond listening, you need to lose the fear of change. What your consumers want from you may be different to your original vision, but a company’s whole purpose of existence should be to serve its target audience.

A final note
As a business, you can’t ever truly define how the consumer perceives you. You can create the infrastructure around your brand experience, but in the end the customer is equally important in the evolution of the experience and the your brand as a whole.