Co-creation is the future for brands. As audiences increasingly seek two-way conversations, collaboration and the opportunity to create their own content, brands must adapt to survive. The smart ones are those that are prepared to shift the balance of power: democratise, give audiences a say, realise they need to put consumers at the heart of their brand. The brands that will own the future, are those that co-create.

In an age when audiences are increasingly cynical towards brands, trust, authenticity and transparency are all key. Co-creation is the most direct way of achieving this. For a more savvy, entrepreneurial generation of consumers – with the technology at their fingertips to connect to brands when and where they want to – the brands to trust, the brands to love, the brands to recommend to friends are those that treat them not as customers, but as colleagues and collaborators. People no longer respond to being told what to buy. They want to be involved, they want to feel like they are part of the process, they want to shape the way their brands behave.

“Co-creation is all about one, very simple idea:

that working together is better.”

A new era

This is the era of co-creation. Marketing messages that merely seek to ‘broadcast’ rather than engage with their audience are falling on deaf ears (or worse still – at least for the brand – are being blocked entirely by increasingly sophisticated ad-blockers). Where once, the core brand marketing objective was one of interruption, it’s now premised on interaction. Indeed, some of our most successful brands have rejected the idea that there are consumers that need to be interrupted at all.

Airbnb describes its customers as a ‘community’; its business model premised on creating value by connecting people on a global scale. For Uber, its model not only moves people from A to B without owning any cars, it also drives customer-centric innovation and improvements to its services through user ratings and driver reviews. This is breeding an evangelical zeal in its users which goes way beyond the word of mouth advocacy that most brands dream of.  As Ubers CEO Travis Kalanick put it: “Our virality is almost unprecedented. For every 7 rides we do, our users’ big mouths generate a new rider.”

But with deeper, more authentic relationships with your audience, so too comes a rising threshold of expectation as to how you as a brand behave. These expectations are either left unmet and risk undermining your brand (see Uber pay disputes) or when expectations are met, help elevate a brand’s status to newfound heights in the hearts and minds of its audience.

But what exactly is co-creation? Co-creation is all about one, very simple idea: that working together is better. Not exactly rocket science. The thought that when we collaborate, when we listen to each other, when we embody a community spirit, we’ll create something far better than if we don’t listen, if we work in silos, if we resist the collaborative process.It goes beyond asymmetrical relationships where a brand sits on the one side and the user or customer on the other. It’s about acknowledging that all parties bring different expertise to the process, and that these different forms of expertise are of equal value and fundamental to this collaboration.

When co-creation goes beyond the stakeholders in your office and brings in your customers to problem solve and create new products and services, that’s where the magic happens. Blurring the lines between creator and consumer, turning customers into creative partners and empowering people to influence the decisions brands make, doesn’t just lead to customer-centric products and services, it also has the potential to transform brands into a force for good in the world. And as they begin to understand the power of listening to their audiences, we’ll increasingly see brands that care, brands with a conscience and brands with a level of transparency that was previously unheard of.

The remarkable shift that Paul Paulman has taken across the portfolio of Unilever brands is a case in point and one that signifies that this isn’t just a periphery fad – he’s made it central to the brand story of a corporate giant. Better still, it’s contributing to the bottom line. According to the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) annual progress report, about half of Unilever’s growth in 2015 came from its sustainable living brands, which grew 30 percent faster than the rest of the company’s business. 

The recent Iris Participation brand index report also recognised that those companies putting “customer participation” at the core of their brand offer are not only increasing workforce retention, they’re also outperforming competitors with a return four times higher than that of the bottom 20 brands.” See:


As ever, technology has also been a driving force behind the growth of co-creation. The advent of big data, alongside the evolution of social media and mobile technology has enabled new levels of brand-consumer connectivity and inspired heightened audience expectation around how brands behave. While social media has allowed consumers to have two-way conversations with brands, publicly endorse the brands they love and create and share their own content, it has also opened the door to brands seeing their audiences as friends, fans and collaborators – rather than just customers. It is this cultural shift that’s revolutionised the relationship between brand and consumer, giving rise to audience collaboration, brand democracies and co-created content. And as mobile technology continues to evolve, more and more platforms will emerge that will make co-creation a daily event for audiences.

Take the LEGO Ideas Community for example. This creates a space for LEGO fans to submit new LEGO creations that are voted on, reviewed by LEGO, and if approved, sold and marketed worldwide. Original creators also receive a percentage of the sales. Similarly, the MyStarbucks Idea community has created over 300 implemented innovations and more than 150,000 ideas from customers and members that includes free Wi-Fi at Starbucks and skinny drinks. Lego and Starbucks represent a new breed of company that has embraced the existence of bespoke co-creation platforms as a vehicle for launching products, services and campaigns that are led by their audience. This will spell a new era for the way brands approach their creative process, making it far more collaborative, far more transparent, far more democratic.

People power 

Co-creation tech is already a thing. Technology that allows brands to connect with their audiences on-the-move, gaining valuable consumer insights and feedback, creative ideas and user-generated content. These platforms create closed communities of specific consumer groups, then let brands share questions, ideas and briefs to a specific community, getting targeted responses from people they value and trust. While this kind of activity has existed for a long time via brand’s websites and social media pages, a new wave of co-creation technology marks a transformative shift in how brands can connect with their audience.   

Much of this growth is fuelled by traditional innovation cycles failing to deliver results in an increasingly hyper-competitive and convergent market place where customers expect personalised experiences, not one size fits all. The ‘build it and they will come’ mantra of the consumer age is being replaced by a new philosophy that believes the most fertile ground for product and service innovation instead lies in the intersection between customers, brands and the various stakeholders that surround them.

The existence of bespoke brand specific co-creation platforms is fuelling this shift and ensuring that before brands launch any products, service or campaign, they will go straight to their own audience communities to ask their opinion or gain creative ideas. This will spell a new era for the way brands approach their creative process, making it more agile and responsive to the demands of the consumer.

The age of the content curator

Co-creation doesn’t end with brands. It is changing the way media channels and entertainment companies look at themselves, too. Audiences are no longer happy to be spoon fed content; they want to curate their own schedule from the wealth of online content at their fingertips, the bustling landscape of places to go for it, and technology that lets you watch anything, whenever and wherever you want.

The reality for broadcasters is that we don’t go to content anymore, it comes to us – either through word of mouth, peer recommendation or thanks to algorithms that fill our social feeds and drive our auto-play suggestions. The ever transient audience no longer has a loyalty to the ‘publisher’, the TV channel.  We’re indifferent as to where Games of Thrones is hosted – be it SKY Atlantic or Amazon Prime – which channel we tune in to is increasingly irrelevant.  The ease and immediacy of migrating from one platform to the next means our loyalty lies not with anyone channel but to the content we consume and our relationship to the shows community of loyal viewers. Its unsurprising therefore that Netflix has built such a strong online community grounded in discovery based on shared interests.  Curation, peer recommendation and word of mouth will win every time.

Generation co-creation

Added to this is the advent of the YouTuber generation: an army of bedroom content creators with enormous audience reach and influence who are changing the way broadcasters see their audiences. The apex of a generation that is empowered by social media to broadcast themselves, create video content and share it among their friends and followers, YouTubers force media channels to see their audiences as collaborators more than ever before. With their own online channels commanding millions of views daily, they have become as influential as traditional media channels and are increasingly being used by brands and broadcasters as a means of gaining influence and creating content.

As active, creative audiences with the ability to make and distribute their own content change the way we consume our media, traditional broadcasters must look to their audiences for inspiration. Established media channels must realise they no longer own the broadcast space and – just like brands – look towards a more collaborative future with audience co-creation at its core.

A case in point is Snapchat and their latest venture with Snap Spectacles. The premise of Snap Spectacles unlike Google Glass’ is principally as a creation device – for audiences to make and share video between themselves on the move. Unlike Google Glass with its focus on consumption, its Snaps ability to allow audiences to be part of the story, to go beyond passively observing and instead to create that is the key drivers of this smart technology. Might this be the key to ensuring Snap’s fortunes don’t go the way of Google Glass? With 150 million users already loyal to Snap, Mediakix forecasts sales of 11 million units by 2020, if they get just a one percent adoption rate this year, it might give us a clue.

The future for brands

So then, how should brands most effectively ride the co-creation wave? At its best, co-creation has the power to transform the way audiences perceive the brands and organisations they care about, building trust and authenticity, and closing the gap between consumers and brands. In order to build a true affinity with its audience, then, co-creation should become a key part of an organisations DNA and brand strategy. Future-facing brands that realise this are in constant conversation with their consumers, gaining feedback and insights about every new product or service they launch.  There are clear commercial benefits, and the brands that understand co-creation are those that will flourish – while those that don’t will be left behind, and find it hard to survive in the future. Beyond commercial gain, brands that collaborate have the power to create social change too, creating a more fluid and agile relationship with a more engaged, active and fulfilled audience.

By embracing co-creation, brands, organisations and media channels will see the benefits of getting their consumers on board. Here’s five ways to be truly collaborative:

  • Involve your audiences in a constant conversation, gaining insights, feedback and ideas relating to every product and service you launch – and engaging them at the every stage of the decision-making process.
  • Realise the power of peer-to-peer. Create opportunities for your audiences to comment on and validate each other’s ideas and your offering.
  • Utilise technology that facilitates audience collaboration and co-creation. Social media is no longer the only platform on which to connect with consumers; co-creation specific tech is out there.
  • Set challenges to your audience communities and create campaigns that invite collaboration. Encourage your audiences to get onboard, submitting creative ideas and responses.
  • Be transparent. Invite your audience into the heart of your brand by being honest and open about the decisions you make and the way you operate. Transparency builds authenticity and trust.

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Matt Hay

Author Matt Hay

Passionate about co-creation and bridging the gap between brands and institutions on the one hand; and consumers / citizens on the other.

More posts by Matt Hay

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