How far can, (or should), brands go in handing over their voice to their customers? In the age where trust and transparency are front and centre, it can be risky for sure. But brand engagement with customers also needs to be real, authentic, and relatable. So handing over control of your brand to your cheerleaders - your community, ambassadors, members is one clear way to show up authentically. 

How gutsy are you or can you be to give over the microphone to your members?  And by not taking this risk are you missing out on the glory it can (and will) bring to your brand?

The risk factor of relinquishing control and handing it over to your customers is different for every brand.  But all brands can benefit from empowering their customers to champion their cause in their own words.  Wherever you are on this journey, and no matter how controlled your brand narrative is, and has to be, there is always a place to start.

Start simple - keeping it safe. The classic brand freebie is still a hugely powerful tool. As people wear your branding they’re sharing your message for you. In Huel’s case, the prevalence of gym goers wearing the brand logo not only says that it’s a popular product, but one that’s great for gym goers like you. Huel still controls the brand message, but it is the power of their community that makes them a success.  This is not dissimilar to the classic product placement approach to brand building. This is why Beats launched by giving their headphones to famous musicians, then models at fashion shows, and athletes at the Olympics.

Same goes for digital brands like Strava. Not only do they create communities within the app - they allow you to share your success on social media. Friends and family can not only give you the encouragement to exercise more (and use the product more), but you’ve also become a brand ambassador simply by posting about your run. A quick scroll through your feed and you can see which tools your friends are using to stay fit. 

Strava is great at creating a community and brand ambassadors among its users

It’s exactly what Spotify does every year – they’re empowering their users to spread their brand message. They create stories to celebrate their users, how much they use the product, and simply provide unique content to easily share across your platforms. They are still controlling their brand message but providing an easy way for their users to spread the brand message in a fun, engaging, and humorous way.  Suddently,  other music users feel instantly left out – they feel like everyone is on Spotify and I must join.

Wordle saw the power in creating these unintentional brand ambassadors. The app had existed for several months before they saw someone sharing their results on social media using simple coloured squares. Within days of building the auto-share functionality into their product, their user base spiralled to astronomical numbers. Again, the brand narrative is very tightly controlled – but it’s the power of the community spreading the message.

Even looking at a brand like Apple. Incredibly premium in everything they do. Every single touchpoint is designed to perfection. Even they hand the mic to their fans. The ‘Shot on iPhone’ campaign communicates the brand in an authentic and powerful way – not even showing the product itself for the first time. The fans are the heroes of the ads – it’s their creativity that’s being celebrated. But Apple created a way to do this without losing any control.

Creating a visible community of fans is a simple way to tip your toe in the water of slowly relinquishing control to your audience to be seen authentically and in a different light that you could ever do yourselves.

Take more risks - relinquishing control. Talking about the power of the community wouldn’t be possible without highlighting GiffGaff – the mobile network run by you. The entire brand premise is built on the idea that the power sits with the community of users. The products and packages are designed so the consumer is in control. The FAQs are all on a community forum. Giffgaff challenges the traditional mobile market and is receiving a lot of glory from it. But in reality, it is still an incredibly safe space for them as a brand. They get the authenticity from the engaged fan base, but their brand messages the community put out is still controlled by the brand.

Glossier goes one step further – with establishing powerful communities of passionate fans. These communities have become spaces where the brand can directly engage with their superfans, like a free focus group. They even have an invite-only slack channel purely for that reason: choosing the most engaged fans to give them quick and efficient feedback as they make important choices about the brand. These fans are having direct input into the brand’s direction – and they are, of course, then advocates for the products that are then released. They’re taking the brand’s message directly to their followers and their networks.

Xbox goes even further when they went out to their fans to not only launch but create a new gaming console. They allowed their fans to design, promote, and earn money from the sales of the new console.  Fans were allowed to set up their own “Fanchise Model” where Xbox set up a site for all their fans to sell the personally designed console.  The more they promoted, the more they sold, and the more they sold, the more they earned. It was a win-win for the brand and the fans. 

A slightly left-field approach from Starbucks who’ve created a community that is more adjacent to their brand and products. They set up a private Facebook group that reflects a key moment in the year for the brand - Autumn and the return of the pumpkin spiced latte (yum). Obviously it is a place for fans to get excited about the annual return of the pumpkin spiced latte, but it is more than that. It’s a space for their fans to connect all year round – again an opportunity for the brand to listen and learn more about their customers. And in trusting them, and valuing their input, Starbucks are able to create brand stories that resonate and connect with their fans, harnessing word of mouth creating a cacophony of chatter that brings more people to the brand. Again, the power of relinquishing control and getting direct input from fans is key.

Somewhere in the middle.  At WW / WeightWatchers we are on this journey.  We have an invaluable community, and have had one since our inception almost 60 years ago.  Jean Nidetch was in fact a trailblazer of her time - setting up the original social network before we even knew what social networking really was. She saw the value of getting people together and talking.  And the support of talking with each other, being vunerable, and breaking down barriers was the key to its success then and today.  It allows for a human voice to narrate the brand.  And when you bring in a real, authentically human voice to tell your story, your brand shines through and through. People come because they see the power of it.  And people stay because of the connection and community that has been built - by them.

We hand over the microphone to our members - to be our advocates, our content creators, allowing them to show us what they eat in a day, how they move to stay healthy, and even their setbacks, because we know that the weight loss journey isn’t perfect 365 days a year.  And we’re getting almost three times the engagement on content that is created by our members (vs content we create directly from the brand) - showing what real life weight loss looks like. Why? Because people want to see how we transform lives through the narrative of our community.  We are still telling our brand story, in the way that we need to - so are not losing control of how the brand shows up, but are gaining so much more by allowing their voice to tell it for us.

Where will this all go in the future? Web 3.0 is here. And lots of brands are experimenting in this space. Now, don’t get too lost in the details, but simply think of it as a new channel to build even more powerful communities - like Adidas. In January they launched 30,000 NFTs from their “into the metaverse” collection, all sold out in minutes…In just 2mins the business earned $22,000,000. But the value isn’t in the money – it’s in the community. These people are paying for access to this elite Adidas community. The NFTs might potentially be a good investment – but they’re being purchased because of the promise of receiving early access to new drops – first dibs on physical IRL merchandise. These fans are so desperate to be representing the Adidas brand and spreading their story that they’re paying significant sums of money for the opportunity.

It is possible to pass the microphone over without losing control of your brand message. The more you are able to risk and let go, the greater the glory is to be had.  By opening the doors to your brand, and engaging with your fans, respecting them and ultimately celebrating them - you will empower them to spread your message. That authenticity, that passion, is what will continue to drive the success of your brands in the future.