Beating the brandals
Companies need to turn consumers' willingness to interfere with brand communications to their own advantage
From Financial Times - 07/12/2004 (642 words)
By BEN RICHARDS and FARIS YAKOB
A few years ago, a Microsoft poster near Liverpool Street station that originally read "Suddenly Everything Clicks" was altered to read "Suddenly Everything Sucks".
The term "brandalism" has been used to describe this behaviour. It represents a consumer backlash against corporations who present a brand image that they don't live up to in their behaviour.
In the US last year, Casey Neistat, a New York artist angered by Apple's battery replacement policy for the iPod, defaced every iPod billboard he could find in Manhattan with the words "iPod's unreplaceable battery lasts only 18 months" and placed a film of his antics on the internet. A million web users clicked on to his site. It was not long before Apple called Neistat to inform him that they had started a new battery replacement programme.
What this "brandal" demonstrated was the power of the individual to force brands to sit up and listen. There are three trends that give the consumer the power to brandalise. First, through the internet, people can communicate with millions of fellow-consumers at almost no cost. Second, there is a growing distrust of big corporations, especially among young consumers. The anti-globalisation movement, and books such as No Logo, have popularised the perception that a brand is often little more than a pretty face for a grubby global corporation. Third, the increasing cynicism among consumers toward advertising.
Brandals have targeted corporate giants such as Nike and McDonald's, while organisations such as Adbusters, the anti-ad website, encourage consumers to generate spoof ads and post their efforts on the web.
On the face of it, all this seems worrying for brands. However, brandalism actually stems from people's willingness to interact with branded communications, and it's important to realise that this presents fascinating opportunities for companies and brands.
This opportunity is "open source communication": where consumers work with an advertiser to create a piece of communication. Brands are taking advantage of increasingly sophisticated forms of open source communication, allowing consumers to contribute to communications and become part of the brand. Open source is the opposite of brandalism. It's a way of making the company's values appear deeper and more genuine. When this happens, brand ceases to be image. It becomes behaviour. A simplistic execution of this might be a poster which has a gap for consumers to fill in themselves.
Another example is Hewlett-Packard's "Hype Gallery", which launched in a gallery in Shoreditch at the start of this year. HP wanted to bolster the creative credentials of its imaging and printing technology among digital artists. While HP could have just produced an ad campaign in some specialist magazines, it realised that the creative community would not respond positively. So HP invented a new medium: The Hype Gallery - an on- and offline exhibition where digital artists could exhibit their work for nothing. Understanding the climate of corporate mistrust, the request for submissions to the gallery made no mention of Hewlett-Packard and imposed no restrictions, except that the letters H and P appear in the title of the artwork. Did the artists feel hoodwinked when they discovered that Hype was a Hewlett Packard hidden persuader? No, because it was an equal exchange. HP had provided a platform for unknown artists and the artists provided the creative work.
Other major brands in the US, including Mercedes, KFC and Coors have recognised the value of open source by allowing consumers to participate actively in the creation of their advertising.
The Roman philosopher Seneca noticed that at the heart of every frustration lies a basic structure: the collision of a wish or promise with an unyielding reality. Brandalism is an expression of a consumer's frustration that a brand's promise has no relationship with its behaviour. Companies that fail to live up to their brand risk a backlash. Beware. There are plenty of brandals out there.
Ben Richards and Faris Yakob are strategists at Naked Communications
Copyright 2004 The Financial Times Limited
Date: 07/12/2004 Publication: Financial Times