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Branding in the Sharing Economy: Collaborate or Alienate?

Brand Marketing

Within the context of the contemporary marketplace, traditional notions of ownership are rapidly changing. On the one hand, today’s consumers (and especially the youth) are increasingly becoming more interested inexperiences, rather than owning possessions, as social currency. On the other hand, there is an ongoing debate around who the actual “owners” or custodians of brands are – corporations or consumers?
The evolving social dynamic of ownership has led to the explosion of a phenomenon known as the “Sharing Economy”: a blanket term for all the new business models that are allowing everyday consumers to share property, assets, skills, experiences, ideas and knowledge – both with each other and with the corporations and brands that form part of their world. This new paradigm is rapidly changing the ways in which people think, behave and live, as well as the ways in which they consume products, content and experiences.
As humans, we are fundamentally wired towards sharing and community. To consumers, sharing not only drives greater convenience and cost saving, but also fosters a sense of kinship and heightened enjoyment. The ongoing boom in activities and industries such as car sharing, social lending, home exchange, crowdsourcing and peer-to-peer E-commerce, not to mention the monumental popularity and pervasiveness of social media platforms, are tangible proof of the Sharing Economy in action.
At its most basic level, this new economy is about collaborative consumption, as defined by two intertwined factors: participation and co-creation.
For marketers, the participation part is clear, i.e. tap into the growing consumer desire to connect, share and broadcast – in effect, driving social involvement (both offline and online) in order to facilitate consumers’ engagement with products and brands, as well as with each other. In many ways, brands have been doing this for years in a variety of guises. One only needs to peruse any brand strategy or marketing plan for the past two decades to see how often buzzwords such as “activation”, “dialogue”, “experiential”, “viral” and “social” pop up!
The co-creation part, however, is perhaps more difficult for marketers to grasp or put into action successfully. This is because the essence of co-creation is a ceding of control from the world of the corporate to the world of the consumer – a thought that is unsettling for more traditional marketers and a potential logistical nightmare for brands that are not as open to new ways of thinking and doing business in a changing world. As an emerging school of thought in marketing circles, co-creation postulates that both the corporate and its customers or stakeholders are active, equal and reciprocal participants in driving a brand’s vision and shaping its experience in the marketplace. And as such, both parties stand to leverage the potential shared value inherent in this more democratic and fluid style of business. As the cliché states, it is no longer business as usual!
At the heart of co-creation is a new, more empowered consumer class (no doubt driven by the ubiquitous impact of technology on the customer landscape) and a growing trend towards “participatory culture”. Within this context, consumers are increasingly looking to brands to facilitate their experiences, rather than impose brand monologues in the traditional marketing communication sense. In fact, we are seeing a shift from the consumer to the “prosumer”, where individuals simultaneously take on the roles of producer and consumer. These prosumers believe that they “own” their favourite brands and they are rapidly verifying the notion that brands do not exist independently of the people whose world they exist in. As containers for emotion, expression and engagement, brands are more about consumer experience than they are about physical commodities. And without the experience, it could be argued that there is actually no brand per se.
So what are the implications for marketers? In order to leverage the rapid growth in the Sharing Economy, brands today essentially need to reconsider how they create value for consumers and the role brands play within the context of the consumer experience. The main goal in this regard is to facilitate and amplify this experience – in other words, close the value loop while keeping the communication loop open-ended. Similarly, marketers need to recognise that great ideas and strategic excellence are not the sole domain of the corporate world, marketing departments and communication agencies.
The debate around brand custodianship will continue, but the one thing that’s clear is the fact that the era of the passive marketing audience is over. It’s a new world for branding and marketing – one in which the power of the prosumer cannot be underestimated. The message is clear: collaborate with the full spectrum of stakeholders who form part of your brand’s value chain, including your actual customers – or run the risk of alienating this new breed of consumer, in effect missing opportunities for connection in a world where brand loyalty is no longer guaranteed and the power is no longer in the hands of a select few.
A recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) sums it up best: “Whatever your organisation looks like today, the Sharing Economy is too big an opportunity to miss – or too big a risk not to mitigate. It may sound grim, but if your business can’t figure out how to disrupt itself, someone else out there will do it for you.”
Mike dos Santos

The Strategy Department
The Strategy Department, your in-house outsource solution for all your strategic marketing needs. We are an outsource strategy department with the necessary experience and depth to deliver multi-discipline expertise to agencies and clients on an in-house basis.
The Strategy Department is a powerful partner to consider for the development of your Marketing Plans, Brand Strategy, Communication Strategy, Research or Training.
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