Extreme crowdsourcing: How major brands will develop like memes

The fidget spinner—it’s the phenomenon of the moment. The three-pronged toy is available in all manner of shapes, colors, and materials, and has been taking the internet and toy market by storm. Today, over half of the top 20 best-selling toys on Amazon are fidget spinners, there are hundreds of fidget spinner apps, and professional fidgeters are overtaking YouTube showcasing their tricks. The gadgets have seemingly come from nowhere—and nothing reliable explains how the craze began. That’s right. Nobody owns the patent and it’s unclear who developed the fidget spinner. It just sort of happened.

Fidgetspinner: Extreme Crowdsourcing

Is this an aberration or a harbinger of things to come? I predict that in the not-too-distant future, examples like the fidget spinner will be more common, turning brand development inside out. Instead of company-driven research and development, market testing, and go-to-market planning, major brands will develop like memes. Just as those funny photos with clever captions spring up and spread across the internet overnight, some brands will appear to pop up out of nowhere, created not by businesses but as crowdsourced cultural phenomena with no formal leadership or management.

Think of it as a form of extreme crowdsourcing. Businesses won’t necessarily create brands and take them to market. Instead, they’ll become suppliers to an existing brand movement by creating products, services and experiences to reflect the movement’s unique cultural attributes. In this world, the brand struggle will not be about getting the brand right, but instead about getting the product right for the consumers’ brand.

It may sound like a radical change from how brands are created and developed today. And it’s a shift I expect that only some of today’s businesses are prepared for. But I’d suggest—based on a look at cultural phenomena, past and present—it’s closer to reality than we may realize. Today’s companies would be wise to stay tuned to how they can leverage this kind of extreme crowdsourcing to their advantage.

Tie Died   Grateful Dead Parking Lot Scene Documentary

There are many good precursors to consider. One I remember (barely) from high school in the 1980s is the Deadheads. You could argue they were one of the original crowdsourced brands (Trippy!). Deadheads lived in a world that predated social media and yet they had their own communications system, tie-dye dress code, lingo, and mission to attend as many Grateful Dead shows as possible. Just like a meme, Deadheads sprang up quickly, cultivating their own customs and aesthetic, to become a brand movement. And most importantly, it wasn’t directed by the band. According to interviews, the band was, if anything, taken by surprise by the Deadheads. But they embraced the movement, creating one-of-a-kind concert experiences to match the Deadheads’ unique attributes and needs to travel from show to show. (And for years the band was among the highest-grossing live acts in the United States. Happy trails!)

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Fast-forward to 2010 when Emily Weiss created a blog called Into the Gloss. Her goal was to create a place for women to talk about real beauty routines and products. As many women flocked to the site, the blog soon gained cult status with very high reader engagement. From there, with so many fans engaging with the site each month, it was relatively easy to transition to providing beauty products to the core audience—which it did with the launch of Glossier in 2014 to overwhelming success.

There are many other examples in sports. When you think of sports-as-lifestyle, many brands come to mind. Ironman—a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike race, and a 26.2-mile marathon—provides athletes lifetime bragging rights and engenders cultlike participation. With its start on the shores of Waikiki in 1978, Ironman has given rise to many specialized products, including wetsuits, running shoes, protein supplements, and bikes. Cranc Cyclesport, for example, is based in Wales and serves the demand for specialized bikes needed by Ironman athletes.

Vans: Extreme crowdsourcing
Image courtesy of Flickr user Justin Wolfe.

Surfing culture is another good example, providing a backdrop for new suppliers, like Ron Jon and Vans. Or consider a modern-day version of surf culture, #VanLife, a bohemian social media movement highlighted recently in the New Yorker. #VanLife participants are focused on the outdoors and a simple lifestyle free from the constrictions of a regular job. And there are a host of suppliers catering to the culture, including restorers of old VW vans, GoWesty, and water bottle company, Hydro Flask.

Ron Jon: Extreme crowdsourcing
Image courtesy of Flickr user Walter.

I expect examples of extreme crowdsourcing like these to become more and more common—and more specific and nuanced. As people feel more connected to a brand community, businesses will need to evolve to be suppliers to those brands. This has the power to turn the work of building brands inside out. And when it’s done right, it creates the opportunity for companies to build deep relevance with communities of customers.

What’s a brand builder to do? Keep an eye on cultural trends and be ready to jump in. There are a lot of them out there. I, for one, am strangely fascinated by the Crustypunks in New York’s East Village—they may not like me saying this, but they’re building a brand.


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