Rise of the brandgelists
Brand evangelists in all their colourful incarnations, those consumers who love and feel a sense of connection, maybe even stronger than your own, to your brand, are at the centre of an increasing number of marketing success stories. Are you ready to lose a little control? Are you ready to add a little crazy to the marketing mix? If yes, then it's time to embrace the march of the brand evangelists, or brandgelists, if not you probably should step aside because they're coming anyway.
Long before there was Brangelina there was brandgelism, or brand evangelism. In fact it was well before the editors of disposable gossip magazines started fusing together the first names of celebrity "it" couples to form not only new words but a new vocabulary, when there was a love that dare to speak it's name, that between the consumer and a product, service, culture, company or a brand positioning.
The brand fans may have been harder to find in the old days, they didn't have a name and they certainly lacked the ability to mob together in the way speed of light communications and online communities and networks have made so easy, but they were there. In the pubs, parties and on the pitches you could listen in to casual conversations about how critical a certain product was to someone's life, be it a car, television, travel agent or even insurance company.
In those days there was no such thing as brand equity indexes, brand health checks, in fact branding itself was a relatively new concept. But there were millions of people doing "word of mouth" before we gave it a name. It was all very helpful to marketers but it was a game of very small numbers, one person tells their story to a modest number of friends, say it gets to about seven people, they might tell a few more people, all the while the story weakens in its impact as it moves virally away from the original source, the brand fan.
Cut to today. Anyone with access to a connectable device can tell everyone who'll listen all about how much they heart any brand and why everyone else should as well. You can label these consumers, with a seemingly unnatural love for certain brands, zealots, activists, or even crackpots but could you also label them friends, marketers and brand ambassadors?
For some smaller brands, brand evangelists are helping them not only punch above their weight, but engage the incumbent heavyweights at their own game and go more than a few rounds. Consider how Mozilla's Firefox web browser came from a decidedly geek heritage and customer base, with a near zero marketing budget, and went on to take 18.4% of the browser market share (June 4, 2008, Net Applications.com). Firefox emerged as a shiny orange fireball of choice, in a market dominated by one player - in fact Henry Ford would have been proud "you can have your browser in any colour you want as long as its Internet Explorer".
It was an understanding not only of the DNA of brand fanatics, seemingly learned on it's way up the market share chart, but how this can be harnessed for the greater good of marketing that allowed Mozilla to make Firefox such an overwhelming success with miniscule marketing and R&D budgets. Well that and its not-for-profit aura which created a lot of kudos initially in the cynical geek population - and helped it spread well beyond that walled city to become a mainstream hero.
Groups such as Spread Firefox and the love ins it runs including the virally marketed Download Day 2008 which seeks to break a Guiness World Record for the highest number of downloads in a day, for Firefox 3, on a release date which at presstime was as yet unannounced, help it harness the power not only of casual users but of those who really do feel a strong affection and who the brand, or project as Mozilla likes to call it, and who will influence many others.
The sixth man
Like a teammate without a jersey, brand evangelists can often be valuable albeit unofficial members of the marketing team. In basketball terms you would call them the sixth man. But marketers can't just create brand evangelism. It has to be earned - consumers will love your brand for ‘going the extra mile', for delivering on promises, for providing service that outperforms the market and even for remembering who they are.
But it has to start with a decent product.
"People buy products for various reasons, the most basic being the core value that the product offers. However, people buy into brands for intangible reasons. With Motorola, many of our customers become brand evangelists because of the experience they get out of the mobile products," Lena Goh, Consumer Communications Director for Motorola East Asia, says.
Goh says Motorola lovers in China have, without prompting from the company, started blogs to promote the brand's mobile devices. She says that Motorola makes sure brand evangelists are updated with accurate information about products.
"With the onset of today's new media, brand evangelism has a major presence online, primarily through blogs, where information is shared and is readily available 24/7. The advent of new social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter give marketers a new channel to reach out to their audience," she says.
In late-March Microsoft Singapore, as part of Microsoft's global ‘Heroes Happen Here' effort, used an integrated campaign featuring new media such as Facebook, blogs, and a viral online-videogame, to launch its latest wave of enterprise products. The online portion of the Singapore campaign involved a quiz on Facebook, a competition for bloggers, and a viral online-videogame called Adventures of Captain Server - all with the aim of celebrating the role of the IT professional, who gets no recognition, in how they drive implementation of technology. Over 1,500 brand evangelists or IT professionals who believed in the Microsoft product, turned up at Suntec City for the launch event.
At the time of the launch Microsoft Singapore's director of business and marketing organization, Haresh Khoobchandani, said the marketing objective was less about brand building and more about the company attempting to become more customer-centric in its approach to-go-to market. Nevertheless it is an example of where marketers gently, and successfully, prodded for brand advocacy from customers.
Music to my ears
"Brand evangelists are the most coveted types of consumers. As marketers, they do the work for us," Andrew Au, Hong Kong based marketing manager Asia Pacific for The Economist newspaper, says.
So what would you do if someone sent you a link to a video or audio and the link had the name of your product or company in it? You'd click and expect the worst, a parody, a satire, an underhanded swipe, right?
The nightmare turned out to be a dream for the marketing team at The Economist, earlier this year when two 17-year-olds from the US created a rap about the business title. In his own words, one of the creators, Malcolm ‘Ike' Edgerton told Marketing about the sequence which led to the rise of The Economist Rap.
"I sent the song to The Economist. Someone there mentioned it in an interview with The Guardian. The ‘new media' guy from The Guardian wrote a short piece on it and then bloggers wrote about it. Next thing we knew our website has a thousand-hit spike, up from zero the day before," Edgerton said.
The rap, which was created by Edgerton and Chris Misa under the name Psikotic in Misa's Minneapolis garage, is an ode to the publication's editorial standards and content, and features verses such as ‘Of th' Economist he is now an avid reader, Hopes to grow up to be a world leader, The magazine that tells the world how it should be, Cream of the crop since 1843.' Other verses include ‘The style in which they write is simple and concise, How do they get their sentences so precise?'
"I used to think that brand evangelists were weirdos. I've never been able to tell the difference between Pepsi and Coke and figure that brand loyalty is for fools. I don't intend to continue preaching the Word of The Economist forever but I can empathise with the diehards now as this magazine has really gained my favor," Edgerton told Marketing.
Good news then for Au, and the rest of The Economist marketing team, who admits he is in an "enviable position to be able to have these empowered consumers as an extension" to the marketing strategy.
"The big difference these days is that technology has armed both brands and consumers with an array of communication tools to connect with each other in increasingly meaningful ways. This in turn accelerates brand evangelism to a degree not seen before," he says.
The audio rap clip was produced at Bellicose Studios, which is a virtual record label, run by Edgerton and Misa. The Economist now has most of the rights to the song, and can exploit it, but have to negotiate with Edgerton to use it in advertising. He says neither him nor Misa received any money for their efforts which were unprompted and not initiated by the publication.
"Admittedly I was hankering after a couple hundred bucks after they responded so gratefully but it never happened," Edgerton says.
Online viral heroes have definite shelf life so if The Economist was to maximise the benefit of Edgerton and Misa's without seeming cynical it need to act fast. Press releases were sent out that celebrated without exploiting the efforts of the two. If The Economist was wondering how to break new ground among the youth demographic, this viral gem set them on the path in a way they didn't have to think to hard about.
Ray Bremner, SVP marketing operations for Unilever Asia, Africa, Middle East and Turkey, Central and Eastern Europe, says that clearly the heart of this (unprompted brand evangelism) rests with brand enjoyment and trust.
"Affinity with the brand and appreciation of its quality is the bedrock of brand success. For all FMCG Brands relatively few consumers constitute most purchases and therefore brand ambassadorial status is a measure of loyalty coupled with advocacy," Bremner says.
The world I know
Bremner is no stranger to brand advocacy, and among the brands he works with he counts Axe - a Unilever bath product and deodorant brand aimed at young men which has built a loyal following based on edgy and good humoured not quite politically correct sexual innuendo marketing.
"It is increasingly important to create a one picture holistic approach to all brand communication and activity. Nothing upsets a brand ambassador more than seeing something happen which they feel is dissonant with their brand," he says.
But Brenmer warns marketers against grouping brand loyalists and evangelists together, and says brand loyalty levels are statistically linked with market share and so the greater the brand's share of a market the higher the loyalty of its consumers and by definition the greater the number of evangelists.
"Loyalists express their love of the brand through their own purchase habits while evangelists wish to fervently convert others. Not all categories will have the potency to inspire such fervor," Bremner says.
Motorola's Goh reckons there is a brand evangelist in everyone and is not merely a creation of the cynical, message saturated empowered consumer world we now live in.
"Housewives share tips on how to remove stains and which detergent truly brightens the whites. You can do so much as to inform people about your products. What they discuss about you will ultimately depend on how good your product really is," she says.
The Economist Newspaper's Au agrees saying brand evangelism "can be a double-edged sword".
"Today's technology enables users to have the largest possible platform to either heap praise or dump scorn upon your brand. On the flip side, today's two-way dialogue between brands and
consumers allows brands to make mistakes, but more importantly, allows them the opportunity to recover and rectify mistakes," he said.
If housewives share tips on what works then they are also spilling the beans on what doesn't. Marketers may expect brand advocates to be on the frontlines, with them, defending the brand but, clearly, there have been many more publicised examples where it was the consumer leading the charge against the brand. Edgerton of The Economist Rap fame tells Marketing if the publication was getting slammed, he doesn't feel the need to defend it.
"Some people dislike their free trade bias, and that's fine with me. What concerns me is whether I enjoy it or not," he says.
Indeed Edgerton, at age 17, is part of an army of consumers, out there, who have grown up online and are not only keen to express their opinions but see it as their right, even their duty.
Whatever joy brand evangelists bring into the life of a marketing department, they aren't on the payroll and their opinions and influence generally aren't for sale, in fact as soon as they are their influence is compromised. Even in The Economist Rap there is some profanity, certainly not enough for Edgerton and Misa to be labelled the thinking man's eminem, but enough for the Rap not to be fully integrated into the media plan. But it is the whiff of subversiveness which makes brand evangelists such damn good influencers particularly among the new consumer class.
Motorola's Goh says those belonging to Generation Y are keen to acquire new information or devices, create and share both positive and not so positive feedback.
"They want to be heard and to share their personal experiences real-time. I would like to think that brand evangelists are the fruits of our marketing labour," she says.
Unilever's Bremner agreed, saying he believed loyal consumer and brand evangelists were created from outstanding marketing.
"The activities of brands are now more transparent to all on a much wider geographic basis than ever before. If a brand communicates or promotes itself in a way which jars with its personality in say Italy then consumers in Indonesia could well take offence. Integrity of all brand activity and a consistency of message becomes ever more critical," he says.
Change the world or go home
Brand evangelists, particularly the ones who are most effective and most influential aren't the ones who can provide feedback either directly or indirectly through what ever media they choose to broadcast on.
Formerly an advertising copywriter, cartoonist and blogger, Hugh MacLeod is something of a veteran influencer in the blogging space, having started his signature blog gapingvoid.com in 2001. MacLeod began by sharing his cartoons drawn on the back of business cards' and steadily amassed a cult following, for his dry humour much of which takes a friendly dry witted swipe at the online technology orgy that people live their lives in.
It was his illustrated experienced with Microsoft that give a somewhat startling insight into just how powerful and useful brand evangelists, particularly the smart ones, can be. A self admitted fan of Microsoft, but certainly not their unconditional lover, MacLeod once spotted as an influencer, even earned himself individual support attention after posting on gapingvoid.com a cartoon with the threat that Microsoft was about to lose a brand evangelist "me". MacLeod happily reported the next day that he had received a personal phone call after his blog post was past around the virtual water cooler at Microsoft and an employee decided to act.
"Microsoft has always been a large and culturally significant company for as long as I can remember. When you're a blogger you always see a lot of talk about them, because their position is so prominent. So I'd always follow them," said MacLeod on his fascination with Microsoft.
A little creature he created in October 2006, ‘The Blue Monster' soon became Microsoft's internal mascot.
He and another prominent blogger, Robert Scoble of scobleizer.com - then technical evangelist at Microsoft and now MD of Fast Company.tv - were reading each other's blogs and sharing thoughts. MacLeod then met up with other ‘Microsoftees', at what he says are ‘geek dinners' - small social gatherings of like-minded folk with a deep interest in tech.
"The Blue Monster idea came about from conversations I had with them- it became apparent that the reason they were working there wasn't money, but the chance to work on "the really big toys" and have a chance to ‘Change the world'."
MacLeod says that he did not have many expectations when he first came up with the concept of the Blue Monster.
" You never know where these ideas are going to end up. They soon take on a life of their own. But I thought it was a fun idea and, if it got any traction, it could certainly end up doing interesting things."And soon he was hired by Microsoft on consulting gigs. But he insists that his attitude towards the company remains the same and candidly says, "Once they start paying you, you do tend to be more circumspect about what you say. More a question of good manners than fear of losing the pay cheque".
After two years since its incubation, MacLeod feels that the ‘The Blue Monster' is now big enough both internally and externally and does not require much of his input.
"It has a life of its own now, which I suppose is the whole point," he says.
Marketing asked him where he now stood in the whole equation with regards to his relationship with Microsoft.
"I remain a semi-independent evangelist, yes. I think I'm more useful to Microsoft if I keep my independence. I think companies work best with folk like me if they start cheap, keep things fluid and try not to get too fixated on "Desired Outcomes". Rather, see it as a journey."
The Blue Monster phenomena illustrates the complexity of brand evangelists and highlight both the strengths and weaknesses. Brand cheerleaders need to remain independent or they can lose altitude as high flying influencers and you need to listen to the good along with the bad. The Blue Monster is a blend of criticism, opportunity and challenge and Microsoft made it an internal mascot or what MacLeod describes as a social object to rally the troops around.
MacLeod's basic mantra about blog marketing and advocacy is: "Blogs are a good way to make things happen indirectly", a point he says "is lost on many corporate types".
Many companies could have seen the original Blue Monster cartoon as a criticism and even a threat, but instead of seeing it as a loss of face incident Microsoft saw it as an opportunity and took it in the spirit it was meant in.
Keep your friends close and your evangelists closer
Prior to joining Adidas as brand manager, athlete Janice Lee-Fang had friends who were working within the organisation for years and through them had sustained exposure to the Adidas brand.
"Over the years, I was seeded products to try out on an ad hoc basis but we started to work together in a more concrete relationship, I was only happy to go along with it all. The products I was given to try out
helped me push my limits athletically and inspired me to train even harder, as well as to strive for bigger goals," Lee-Fang said.
Prior to joining the sporting company, Lee-Fang was one its official spokesperson for a year. She also appeared in an ad campaign for Adidas last year with her husband, former national bowler, Andrew Fang.
"I was honoured when I was asked to be a spokesperson. The great thing was that I didn't feel like just a face representing a brand. The marketing folk with whom I liaised with wanted to hear what I had to say about the products they were handling, be it positive or negative feedback. This made the brand feel very real to me as well, and I grew to love it even more," she says.
When Adidas was looking was looking to beef up its marketing head count she was made an offer, both Adidas and Lee-Fang saw it as a natural fit - someone who's head was firmly in the customers' head space and clearly a fan of the brand through experience not just spin.
Asked if being on the company's payroll has affected her perception of the brand, she replied, "Work is work. I think there are aspects of any job that you will not like but at the end of the day, a job is a job. But job or not, my opinion of the brand or its products have not changed. Believing in the brand definitely helps me get through the tougher work days. I still love the fact that we help athletes and ordinary people achieve their own impossibles. It definitely helps me in achieving mine."
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Wendy Kaufman: Portrait of an evangelist
When she was a wee lass Wendy Kaufman sent her first and only fanmail to Greg Brady (actor: Barry Williams). She was disappointed when she did not receive a return mail from her idol. That experience set her the trajectory that would see her become a poster child for brand evangelists and fan mailers everywhere.
Kaufman's best friend's dad was Arnie Greenberg, one of the three founders of Snapple. As a consumer, she loved the drink and was elated to join the company, in the orders department, in April 1991, where she stayed for a year and a half. She was soon concerned about a pile of fan-mail sitting in a neglected corner of the office, reminded of her own fan mail misadventures, on her own initiative, she requested to take the mail back home to answer herself after office hours.
Kirshenbaum & Bond was Snapple's newly appointed ad agency and when they wanted to find a spokesperson to face the brand when they discovered the existence of Kaufman and her moonlighting ways - "Wendy the Snapple Lady" was born.
"One day I just stood in the midst of the busy-ness and because I could publicly relate to the fan mails that poured in, I announced to the floor that I was creating a new position for myself in the company ‘director of public relations'. After the ad campaign ran on TV, radio and print, I got a substantial raise and the company gave me a larger team to help answer queries and handle media relations," Kaufman told Marketing from her New York base.
It's a modern marketing fairytale of a company doing good. Unfortunately it doesn't end like this.
In 1994, when the company was bought over by Quaker Oats, Kaurfman was fired. The subsequent acquisition by Triarc Brands in 1997 gave her back her job. After all the upheavals and departure,
Kaufman thought she was there to stay, until one afternoon over lunch on 5 March this year with her boss at Cadbury-Schweppes, who bought the beverage company in 2000, he presented her the fact that the company was up for a de-merger and to cut costs it needed to terminate her existing contract.
He placed another offer on the table she felt she couldn't accept, and her relationship with the brand and company she loved ended abruptly, again.
"I just wished that the management had handled the situation in a more decent manner," Kaufman said wistfully.
She continued in all earnestness, "I love Snapple. Even if I did work for them or not. Even if this situation happened or not. It inherently has not changed my perception for the brand. I will still love Snapple."
When asked if she had other brands she loved and would she ever consider working with professionally, Kaufman gamely replied, "Of course. I love Dunkin' Donuts and Cheese Doodles" she says adding, "I'll take up the offer if they are fun foods and do let me know if they ever contact you."
Q&A with David Shaw, Lenovo's director, brand marketing & marketing communications, APAC
Does Lenovo identify people that are brand advocates/evangelists? If yes what methods are used to identify them? And what is the brand's definition of them?
A brand advocate is a champion for the brand, who can speak about the brand with honesty, integrity and empathy. In a sense, everyone who works at Lenovo is potentially a brand advocate.
Over the years the ThinkPad brand has amassed a number of its own advocates, who are neither employees of Lenovo nor people engaged by our company in any brand programs. Theirs is an enthusiasm for the product that stems from their recognition of the products' quality and an appreciation for its pioneering technology. Take, for example, Jacob Almagor, a ThinkPad enthusiast who lives in Australia. He owns 35!
Has Lenovo harnessed the power of their Brand advocates, if yes what has been done?
Within the organisation, we have taken small steps on our journey to identify, equip and support our brand advocates. The team with the charter for brand-building is also responsible for seeing that time is committed to developing these advocates and sharing best practices to continue to facilitate success.
Finding the right people with the requisite knowledge and communication skills is key. Enabling them to tell a compelling story is equally important.
Our CEO Bill Amelio or our AP President David Miller travel with pouches of trackpoint covers which they give to people they meet in their travels, who they see using our notebooks. ThinkPad users working away at their notebooks in airports have been stunned to have both Amelio and Miller approach them and thank them for using our products with a gift of new trackpoint covers.
What are the potential dangers of Brand evangelism and what problems do you think it will face?
We've been fortunate that within our organisation and externally we have people who are passionate about our brand. Not everyone is a brand advocate though. That takes a certain inclination which doesn't come naturally to everyone. Brand advocates can be made, but first they need to be born. The key is identifying these people, and then enabling them to succeed.
Internal brand evangelism is critical to set the stage and create an environment in which brand advocates are encouraged to ‘out' themselves. But first you must have a brand they really believe in - one that clearly lives its values and whose values are reflected as much internally as they are in the products that the company goes to market with.
Externally, if a brand has a compelling story, if it is magnetic enough, then it will attract advocates in a natural way, who then become powerful story-tellers on the brand's behalf. If we behave with integrity, with authenticity, I believe we can make lasting friendships.
- The Economist Newspaper
- Cadbury Schweppes
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