From consumers to fans: the new brand relationship

Creating conversations and experiences that win fans is the new Holy Grail, and R&D and PR is part of the reward.

Consumers today are more than just people that buy goods, they also consume the context and content around brands, so much so that they can help make said goods better, be a source of creative inspiration, or the adamant defenders (or haters) of “their” brands. Smart companies are leveraging these relationships, whether it be a CEO asking his social network to weigh in on new products, or a brand creating movements around things that bring the world together, like the Olympics, for example.

And the ad industry is realigning its operations and offerings around these new ways of involving consumers, which is what Sid Lee has done. It’s not surprising that the agency, which has offices in Montreal, Toronto, Austin and Amsterdam and is known for going outside the typical ad agency purview with things like architecture and film production, should once again delve into new territory. While it’s not unusual for an advertising agency to have a PR division, like all things Sid Lee, the promise is that this one will be different – the next evolution of public relations. The “new PR.”

Justin Kingsley, who joined Sid Lee about two years ago to lead the strategy team, started developing the new division in November with partner Nicolas Van Erum. Sid Lee PR, which officially launches this month, will reflect the evolving nature of the brand-consumer relationship – one that goes beyond dialogue to truly involve the consumer – and will focus on a few key areas: PR, events, sponsorship, integration, reputation creation and management.

“We’re trying to bring a new point of view, a new way of integrating campaigns so that the consumers feel that they’re involved in a different way,” says Kingsley.

He describes the old advertising model as a brand, an ad and millions of consumers. Now, he says, the model is a brand, a multitude of media and one consumer. And that consumer has media choices and ways of communicating like never before.

“You have to treat every single consumer like he’s a journalist for the New York Times. What he has to say, or his expertise, means something. And when you’re building a campaign, you have to empower that voice to give that person a chance to shine because that’s what they want.”
While the PR division is only officially launching this month, Sid Lee has been employing its tactics with a number of clients, including UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre.

Quebec-born St-Pierre has over 2.8 million “likes” on Facebook. Not bad for the star of a sport that, while gaining momentum, is still not considered mainstream. But, according to Kingsley, what’s most impressive is not that St-Pierre’s following has nearly doubled in just over a year, it’s that his interaction rate is 10, sometimes 20 times higher than other celebrities with similar followings.

The key, says Kingsley, has been listening to St-Pierre’s fans and finding links between them and the athlete, which can go beyond sports.
“For a guy like Georges, what happens to him outside the octagon is just as important to his fans as what happens inside the octagon. Here’s a guy who practices five Olympic sports, he’s spiritual, he’s [various] things. Then we look at his fans and what they like, so we can create conversations around those subjects,” says Kingsley.

“When he injured his knee, he didn’t fight or train for a couple of months but his interaction rate went up because he started talking to his fans about their favourite quotes, movies, books. We didn’t know it was going to happen so we tested things, and they got more involved. You can do this with almost any brand.”

And he really does mean any brand. While Sid Lee has seen social media success working with sports properties like GSP and the Montreal Impact – the soccer team that debuted last summer for which Sid Lee created a fan movement called “the Guard” and rallied fans to fill the 60,000-seat Olympic stadium for the opening game – Kingsley says he gets just as excited for a cast-iron pot.

When the agency took on Belgian kitchen pot-makers La Creuset as a client a year ago, it started developing insights around the individual experiences that people have with the products.

“I started breaking down what the pot means,” says Kingsley. “What happens inside the pot is pretty magical, but actually what happens around it is just as magical – the experience of that pot is the story.”

The agency looked into how consumers were using La Creuset products. “You start realizing people all over the world use it differently. What comes out of it is a different experience every time, so we start building campaigns around people’s stories. We don’t have to invent them because they exist.”

Kingsley says there are potential plans to use those stories in unique ways, like a user-generated La Creuset recipe book.

And Sid Lee’s architects are working on La Creuset retail locations, set to open in 2013. Kingsley says they will be an “information hub” for fans of the brand, with possible plans for a test kitchen that will host guest chefs. It will also be a place that individuals can use, for example, to create their own online cooking show by bringing in ingredients and having it filmed to be broadcast to their Facebook page.

Kingsley calls it his Confucius rule and says,“Tell me I’ll forget, show me I’ll remember, involve me I’ll understand.”

What better opportunity to get fans involved in a movement than the Olympic Games?

Sid Lee has been working with Adidas on a global campaign for the London 2012 Games centered around 32 young Londoners.

Based on the insight that there are 20 boroughs on the outside of London and 12 on the inside, Adidas went into those boroughs and interviewed young people, ultimately choosing one from each borough who “embodies what the Olympics stands for and what Adidas stands for, and the passion that they stand for in their own lives” to represent their region for the campaign.

The entire “Take the Stage” campaign was then built around them, everything from TV to print to social media, to contests that invite people to “Take the Stage” through the chance to be the photographer on a shoot with David Beckham or open for rapper Wretch 32 on tour.

“Our insight is that the old way of doing PR is trying to be part of the news, and what we’re doing here is creating the news,” says Kingsley.

Another company that’s using real stories and taking a consumer-driven approach to its Olympic campaign is Procter & Gamble, which has focused its efforts around one important consumer group – moms.

“We realized early on that we’re not in the business of athletic apparel or sports drinks, but we’re in the business of helping moms,” says David Grisim, associate marketing director, P&G Canada. “Moms play such an important role in helping not only Olympic athletes but all kids achieve their best, so it was just a great opportunity for us to tell that story.”

A global spot, created by U.S. agency Wieden+Kennedy and housed on, tugs at heartstrings as it depicts different kinds of athletes growing from childhood to Olympian, helped along by their mothers. A Canadian cut of the spot earned 600,000 views, and globally it had received over six million by press time, without a mass ad campaign to support it.

A Facebook app allows users to record a 15-second message to their moms that can be tagged onto the beginning of the “Best Job” spot.
“Creating the opportunity for people to share their own stories, and be able to share the video with their friends and family and their mom, it just lends itself so perfectly to social media for a digital launch,” says Grisim.

And like the Adidas campaign, P&G is sourcing real people for its creative. In Canada, a video series called “Raising an Olympian” launched in May, telling real stories of Canadian athletes like diver Alexandre Despatie and his mom.

While the broader campaign encompasses all P&G brands, the company recognizes the value and opportunity in social media to involve niche audiences.

A prime example is Pampers, which has engaged its audience in the past with non-advertising activity like a “Hello Baby” app, created by the New York office of StrawberryFrog, which tracks a woman’s pregnancy and offers parenting tips.

For the Olympics, the brand has created a program called “O Canada, Baby!” Also developed by StrawberryFrog, P&G worked with Olympic spokesperson, hurdler (and mom) Priscilla Lopes-Schliep. It allows parents to upload videos of their tots to Facebook, which the brand will then mash together to form the first Canadian national anthem sung entirely by babies.

“We used to talk about digital marketing and have a separate focus, where now the language that we use as a company is much more [about] marketing in a digital world,” says Grisim. “We really start with thinking about ways we can engage people, and facilitate ways for them to help write the brand stories themselves.”

Perhaps following the reality TV trend, which made us believe “real people” are fascinating, this notion of consumers writing the brand stories seems to have permeated the marketing landscape. Not only do consumers want to be personally involved, marketers are realizing more than ever that it’s the consumers that make the best stories – they just need to be captured in a compelling way.

Take, for instance, the Budweiser Canada Super Bowl commercial, created by New York-based agency Anomaly, which documented the real reactions of rec league hockey players in Port Credit, ON. who were shocked when Budweiser surprised them with the full NHL treatment – including fans, cameras and announcers. The spot has amassed nearly four million hits on YouTube.

But nowhere does telling personal, local stories resonate more than in the CSR realm. Unilever brand Hellmann’s has been going local for five years with its Real Food Movement, first centering the program around creating urban gardens, then focusing on teaching the importance of eating local foods. For the past three years, the focus has been on the Real Food Grant Program, which offers $100,000 to support initiatives that bring Canadian families together with real food in their communities.

When Hellmann’s received a grant application from the Camille School in Red Deer, AB. to banish fried foods from its cafeteria, senior brand manager Stephanie Cox and the Hellmann’s team knew it would be something special.

“When we received the application, we knew immediately that we wanted to get involved because it was a long-term solution,” says Cox. “You can’t script that, it kind of happens organically.”

Working with its ad agency Ogilvy, the Hellmann’s team went into the school and replaced its deep fryer with new appliances to make healthy foods, and brought cameras along to capture it, turning it into an event, complete with a monster truck that ceremoniously destroyed the old deep fryer.

“The reality is, there’s so many inspiring stories out there that you don’t have to make them up and create something artificial,” says Cox.
At press time, the video had just been posted, with plans to work with media agency Mindshare for a more robust media campaign that would include paid media, PR (working with Harbinger), and online and social media activities (with digital agency Dashboard).

No doubt spurred on by the viral success of its 2009 video “Do you know where your food comes from?”which has amassed over 100,000 hits, Hellmann’s has plans to continue capturing these local stories, with the hopes that they will inspire people to spread the message and talk about it in their social networks.

“I think it’s put a real emphasis on having experiences that are engaging and will spark dialogue way more than ever before social media was part of the marketing mix,” says Cox. “It’s helped open up the lines of communication and in turn will hopefully help build stronger relationships.”

The social CEO

About three and a half years ago, Peter Aceto, CEO of ING Direct, sat down with his team to talk about social media.

“It seemed clear to everyone that this is not a fad, that social media was going to be a very important part of people’s lives and how they communicate,” says Aceto.

As a financial institution competing with big banks but without traditional branches, which started online in 1997 before some companies even had websites, it seems natural that ING would dive head-first into social.

“Our company has been built on a platform of transparency, simplicity and ease, and that’s how we’ve differentiated ourselves. We were in the best position to use social media and it would be an advantage that we didn’t think our competitors would be able to copy quickly,” he says.

Rather than have someone communicate on his behalf, Aceto opened a personal Twitter account that evening, and encouraged other executives to follow suit.

“[In the past] leaders and businesses were only measured by their share price, it didn’t matter if they were good members of society. Then I think the most recent financial crisis made people think, corporations can’t just do whatever they want as long as the share price goes up, they need to be transparent and open.  I think people are demanding this now and social media is facilitating it.”

But Aceto recognizes the risks. Social media missteps happen, and because of its changing nature, a 10-year plan is impossible, as is measuring the ROI of tweets.

But social has helped to shape the ING business at its core. Prior to launching Thrive Chequing, a no-fee daily chequing account, the company enlisted 10,000 of its customers, mostly ones that interact with the brand through social media, to try it out before it was offered to the general public. The result was a ton of feedback through Twitter, Facebook, emails and chat sessions that allowed ING to troubleshoot the product and fine-tune it.

“When we launched, I felt so confident that it was up to the standard of ING Direct and something Canadians really wanted,” says Aceto. “We’re opening over 200 accounts every day for the last year, I think because we created this product with the community outside of our walls.”

The experience was so positive it will shape product launches going forward. “There’s no doubt we could have launched that product six months earlier, but I don’t think it would have appealed to people as much. We wouldn’t think about creating a product without going through the same process. In 10 years people won’t do business with companies that don’t do business this way.”