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Michael Wylie-Harris

Talking co-creation, with academic Yvonne Richardson

yvon richardson

Yvonne Richardson is a marketing consultant and senior lecturer on Fashion Marketing and Branding at
Nottingham Trent University, with a specialisation in consumer behaviour and innovation. Her multi-disciplinary background includes more than 20 years of experience in brand marketing and planning with senior positions held within prominent blue chip international companies within the beauty and healthcare industries.

On winning brand loyalty with Generation Z…
“More than their predecessors, this younger generation desires opportunities to interact with brands and wants brands to allow them to influence their products. They are the content creation generation. Thinking about what this generation want most – they want honesty, personalisation and involvement. Giving them an opportunity to get involved via co-creation, you meet their intrinsic needs to stamp their mark on brands, make a real difference and actually customise their experience. The upside of this for brands is that you get their attention and if done well, their loyalty.”


On the potential pitfalls of doing co-creation badly…
“I think there is a danger of co-creation being abused and brands jumping on the band-wagon. Co-creation is about letting in the right people for the right challenge. In the area of innovation for example, you need to target the right co-creators rather than taking a blanket approach. All consumers are not equal when it comes to innovation and tapping into the ideas of Mr and Mrs average may lack richness and originality. In the early stages of innovation, tapping into early adopter and innovators will be more effective in generating new and original ideas.”

On the ‘UGC bandwagon’…
“Another watch-out is brands jumping on the bandwagon and just curating user generated content (UGC) and hashtag campaigns to create buzz. Where these activities fall short is that they don’t truly satisfy millennials’ and Gen Z’s desire to actually create. This is a generation who are incredibly marketing savvy and hard to please. They want to know what’s in it for them, they want to feel special and get recognition. The message to brands here is exploit this generation at your peril!”


On the challenges of connecting to ‘Generation Me’…
“Today’s consumers are bombarded with more commercial messages than ever and have learned to filter these messages by using ad blockers, etc. Research suggests that these digital natives don’t like being advertised to explicitly; that they don’t like the pushy and inauthentic nature of a lot of traditional advertising. From a brand perspective one of the challenges this creates therefore is how to connect with this group and cut through the clutter. Another stereotype often levied at this ‘younger generation’ is that they are ‘generation me’, fuelled by social media and the numerous opportunities it creates for self-promotion and reflection. This is a generation that has grown up used to having their voices heard. Whilst not all millennial stereotypes hold up to closer examination, this generation really did grow up being told they were special and their opinions matter.”

“Thinking about what this generation want most –
they want honesty, personalisation and involvement.”

Meet the co-creation pioneers

Budweiser advertisement

Meet the brands that are bringing customer voice into their operations to create products, services, content and campaigns that are more reflective of what their customers actually want. We’d like to introduce, the co-creation pioneers…

Heineken: The nightclub of the future

The Dutch beer company Heineken wanted to connect to its customers through a pioneering pop-up nightclub space that reflected the wants and needs of its audiences. Through a global insight project that connected to communities from 12 cities around the world, Heineken worked with 120 club-goers as a springboard for idea generation and design inspiration – and created an internally crowd-sourced design team out of young designers who uploaded their portfolios via social media.

The pop-up concept club travelled the world. It gained mass global coverage including 533 news pieces and four million online views, and resulted in a 40% sales increase for Heineken in best practice markets.

Heineken advertisement

DHL: Customer-led innovation

Through a series of insight workshops, parcel delivery giants DHL realised that its customers wanted the brand to rethink its supply chains, and that this would improve business performance. Understanding that innovation should be customer focused, the company built international innovation centres in Singapore and Germany where targeted customer groups could collaborate with DHL employees in order to share ideas and co-create solutions. From over 6,000 employee customer engagements taking place in DHL, numerous innovations and changes to process have been developed including AR glasses that have improved warehouse picking efficiency by 25%, robotics applications and a drone delivery project. Since launching the project, DHL’s entire approach to service development has become much more transparent, collaborative and customer-centric, and as a result more efficient, innovative and successful.

dhl advertisement

Starbucks: Crowdsourcing idea generation

The US coffee company Starbucks has been co-creating for nearly ten years now. With the tagline ‘Share. Vote. Discuss. See.’, My Starbucks Idea has crowdsourced over 190,000 product, service and in-store innovations since 2008 – with almost 300 being implemented by the brand. Without My Starbucks Idea, we wouldn’t have Cake Pops, Hazelnut Macchiato, and free Wi-Fi, to name but a few innovations generated by the initiative.

budweiser advertisement

GE: Co-creation for open innovation

Electrics company GE has launched its own open innovation platform called Fuse, in order to source ideas and co-create innovations in direct collaboration with not just its customers, but with other start-ups. Through the Fuse project, anybody can sign up to join a community of engineers, coders or developers and take part in incentivised challenges that drive idea generation and innovation. GE are pioneers of open innovation and a new approach to company culture that is much more about collaboration and transparency. Through Fuse they will often share information about the internal workings of their products with outside communities, but their ethos of co-creation prevents them from being nervous about this – preferring to see the positive side of enhanced innovation through the power of the community.

general electrics advertisement

LEGO: Customers at the heart of a brand

In recent years, co-creation has been a big part of the success of Danish toy company LEGO, with its IDEAS community that allows customers to co-create new designs. The website was set up for LEGO enthusiasts who can both create, vote and give feedback on new projects – with projects that receive over 10,000 votes going into a review phase by senior LEGO employees. If the product is approved, the creator will receive 1% of the net sales of that product.

Consumer insights are now a core part of a LEGO strategy that enables staff to make consumer-led decisions. The LEGO Friends play set was designed through the process of co-creation, and came from the insight that young girls prefer designs with bright colours and environments that have emotional connection. The company conducted 13 research studies over a four-year period, which involved their target market creating new products in collaboration with designers. The insight lead to one of the biggest commercial successes in LEGO history, with a new product range that attracted new customers that they had previously not been able to connect with.

lego advertisement

Budweiser: Project 12 Beer

Budweiser’s Project 12 Beer asked consumers to vote on their favourite concoction, from 12 flavours created by the brand’s team of in-house brewmasters, at numerous in-person local events such as music festivals – with brewmasters being on-hand to receive direct feedback from consumers. More than 25,000 consumers gave their opinions and the drink that garnered the most favourable attention was a golden amber lager called Black Crown. Such was the success of the project that Budweiser launched Project 12 again the following year, with beer flavours being designed and launched in collaboration with customers.

starbucks advertisement

Giffgaff: A brand built on collaboration

Giffgaff began with transparency, democracy and co-creation at its core. Allowing its customers to participate in both a proprietor network forum and a broader social media strategy to provide feedback on product features and support, it’s a brand that’s effectively run by its audience – with customer ideas leading directly to new product development and innovation, and the customer community even dictating pricing structures. The product and service development process not only includes customers, but rewards them for their contribution.

Gifgaf advertisement

Jameson: First Shot film competition

While Jameson’s First Shot isn’t a direct example of co-creation, it does show a brand that empowers communities to create content. Now in its sixth year, the First Shot competition asks film makers to take part in a short film contest, with the support of the brand – with winners getting the chance to work with professional Hollywood film crews and actors, and access to wider opportunities within the industry. The competition generates a wealth of user-generated content that is forever linked to Jameson and a great PR story around a brand that supports creative communities.

jameson first

Talking co-creation, with futurist Peter Firth

Peter Firth

Peter Firth is a consumer trends editor and brand consultant who has worked for the likes of M&S, Estee Lauder, Microsoft and Harrods. A regular commentator on television and in the national media, he has appeared on the BBC World Service, Bloomberg TV and in the pages of the Sunday Times Style, City AM and The Guardian.

On the rise of co-creation…
“Co-creation is already becoming the ‘norm’. A marketing manager is unlikely to understand as much about his or her audience as the audience themselves. Inviting members of a specific movement, social group or target audience in to work with the brand will always yield good results if the brand is willing to listen, and is coming from a place of integrity. If it is done well, there is no doubt that it closes the gap between the brand and the customer.”


On working with influencers…
“Brands are co-opting the talents, reach and influence of their audience in order to speak more appropriately to those that they want to connect with and sell to. I think that we are seeing this come to the fore significantly in brands that engage with the youth and Gen Z segments. A lot of work has been done in recent years of course with ‘influencer’ marketing. There are also compelling stories that brands can tell if they have been able to give a young struggling creative a leg up or more profile in a specific industry.”

On connecting to millennials…
“In today’s pious millennial collective consciousness we all like to think we are doing things for the cause, the spirit, the passion, rather than the money or status. Therefore you are dealing with people who don’t view themselves as consumers. They like to think of themselves as participants rather than recipients.”


On the power of peer-to-peer marketing…
“Who are people more likely to listen to: Unilever or Beyonce? People believe in other people more than they do in companies. If you look at how customer complaints are almost totally played out online and in the pubic sphere now through Twitter etc, the power balance is shifting in favour of consumers, as their voices are louder and more networked.”

“A marketing manager is unlikely to understand as
much about his or her audience as the audience themselves.”

Purpose power: Why mission-led brands are growing 50% faster than their rivals

The players, the sceptics, and why brands looking to put meaning behind the messaging must collaborate with audiences and pick their purpose accordingly…  

Once upon a time, the only thing people expected from brands was products and services they loved: Clothes that fitted. Phones that worked. Food with nice packaging. Basically, stuff.

Not so anymore. In today’s unsettled times, young audiences invest in brands that have a conscience. Brands with morals. Brands that care. They expect brands to give a sh*t. They want brands to listen to what they care about. And care about it too. In short, in 2017 brands without a moral purpose are dead in the water.

Since the phenomenal success of Tom’s Shoes’ ‘Buy a Pair, Give a Pair’ campaign, marketing managers have cottoned on to the fact that ‘purpose’ is a whole new channel through which to engage. The result is that brands have become like super heroes: Nobly fighting injustices, standing up for what’s right and bravely protecting those in peril. ‘Doing good’ has become the new norm, and instilling a moral or social purpose into operations – investing in causes and shaping marketing campaigns around changing the world for the better – is big business.

But is it enough? In a new world where brands are like political parties – being judged just as much on their policies as their products – is jumping on a moral bandwagon still going to cut it? The progressive brands are those that properly engage with their audiences, discover the issues that affect their worlds, and take pertinent actions that really resonate.

The players

When it comes to moral purpose, everyone’s at it. Since Unilever CEO Paul Polman spoke out in 2011 about the importance of mission-led brands (“Winning alone is not enough, it’s about winning with purpose…”), the Anglo-Dutch consumer giant has been firmly committed to driving change. And it’s worked. Marketing Week reported that Unilever’s ‘Sustainable Living’ brands (including Ben & Jerry’s and Dove), grew 50% faster than the rest of its business last year – with these brands now accounting for 60% of total sales growth. Unilever has also released data to say 33% of adults would buy a product from a brand because they believe it is doing social or environmental good – equating to an opportunity of $817bn. Juicy!

And with a report by Mediacom telling us that 40% of consumers have either abandoned or never tried a brand because of its values or behaviours, it’s no wonder that all the major names are bidding to become players in this space. While retail giants like Tesco and M&S are tackling food waste, smaller fashion brands like Vitae and Roma Boots are supplying school uniforms to children in Africa and donating a pair of wellies to those in need for every pair sold (sound familiar?).

The sceptics

As ever, people are sceptical to the melee of moral messages. Do the marketeers at the heart of these social purpose campaigns have dollar signs in their eyes? Do brands really care? Or is it a fad, full of hollow sentiment, aimed at engaging millennials. According to a report by the Endelman Trust, 65% of young consumers think companies overstate their environmental credentials, while 45% are sceptical about the causes brands support.

It’s hardly a surprise that millennials and gen Z aren’t taken in – hook, line and sinker – by moral marketing. This sceptical, media-savvy, empowered and super-informed generation are the very people at the heart of pushing brands to be more ethical, so it stands to be reason they’d be the ones to also demand there is some integrity, authenticity and real action behind the messaging.

Co-created purpose 

According to a Fit for Purpose report by the London agency, Radley Yelder, which detailed 2016’s top 100 purpose-focused brands, 83% of mission-led organisations instil a strong sense of collaboration into their operations – either with competitors, employees or their customers.

When Tesco launched its food waste campaign, its chief executive Dave Lewis told Marketing Week how the company’s new ethical focus was principally driven by customer expectation. With customers at the heart of the purpose drive, it makes sense that brands should involve them in the purpose process – informing their campaigns with detailed insight, and allowing their audiences to co-create those campaigns with them. If a brand really wants to address the most relevant causes that resonate with its customers, it needs to understand what those causes are, how audiences feel about them, and the best ways to involve people in taking action. See our Purpose Power toolkit below for the best ways to engage your customers around the causes that have meaning for them.

Purpose power toolkit: 

Five ways to engage your customers by co-creating your brand mission…

  1. Back insight-driven causes. Ask your customers about the global issues that they really care about in order to inform your social purpose campaigns. Supporting causes that resonate with your audience will drive larger engagement.
  2. Co-create your campaigns. Involve your customer communities in the creation of your campaigns, with real people’s opinions and co-created content. Audience collaboration drives meaning and authenticity
  3. Take action. As more and more brands put social purpose at the heart of their marketing, millennials are becoming increasingly sceptical of empty promises. Messaging is not enough, brands must take tangible action to follow up on the slogans.
  4. Involve your community. Social purpose campaigns that give customer communities the opportunity to really get involved with the good work that is being done, are all the more powerful, tangible and authentic.
  5. Measure your results. Campaigns that are backed by real results drive more meaning with customers. A campaign should be designed so that the data relating to its beneficiaries can easily be captured and communicated. The number of people helped by a brand campaign is a powerful message.

CX marks the spot: How to retain 42% more customers by co-creating your customer experience

If you work in branding, the word ‘experiential’ has probably become firmly rooted in your everyday vernacular over the past five or so years. As consumers increasingly make judgements on products and services based on the experiences they offer, we have seen the emergence of an ‘experience economy’, where more and more brands are putting CX at the forefront of their thinking.

Heightened expectation

According to a Walker study, by the year 2020 customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator. The reality is that modern consumers really do think about the experiences they are having. They expect more. They want digital experiences that are smooth and intuitive. Physical experiences that are tangible and emotive. They want retail experiences, travel experiences, dining experiences. They want all manner of brand experiences that leave them satisfied, preened and pleasured. In every way possible. So, what does this mean for brands? Ultimately, it means the bar is raised. It’s means thinking about the user-journey. It means putting yourself in the customer’s shoes and really considering how your brand makes them feel. It means insight, feedback and data. It means a Customer Experience, or CX department.

Positive sharers

According to research firm ThinkJar, 13% of unsatisfied customers tell 15 or more people that they are unhappy. On the other hand, 72% of happy customers will share a positive experience with 6 or more people. Furthermore, 67% of customers cite poor experiences as a reason for not re-ordering a product, while only 1 in 26 actually complain. These stats point to two things: one, it’s hard to know how many unsatisfied customers you actually have; and two, improving your CX and motivating your customers is sure to bare fruit in terms of brand advocates and word-of-mouth marketing.

Why improve?

Despite the heightened focus on customer experience, a Forrester report states that between 2016 and 2017 no industry has made significant improvements in their CX efforts. Further to this,  the 2017 US Customer Experience Index gives no brands a score that rates in the excellent category. So, while brands are undoubtedly shifting their focus towards CX, user-journeys and UX, it seems they are still falling short. An Accenture report found that 89% of customers are still frustrated at having to repeat their issues to multiple representatives, while 87% of respondents felt brands need to put more effort into providing a more consistent experience. On the flip side,  Walker tells us that 86% of customers will pay more for a better customer experience, and that improvements to UX result in 33% more satisfied customers and a 42% customer retention rate.

The next step

In order to cash in, and create experiences that resonate with this new wave of CX-driven consumers, brands must change the way they look at customer experience all together. To truly understand the user-journey and find solutions that have meaning for real customers, brands need to collaborate with their audiences and co-create their products and services together.

Global delivery company DHL, used a combination of customer workshops and online communities to gather feedback and co-create solutions in order to improve their CX. A number of innovative solutions emerged from these workshops and online communities, resulting in customer satisfaction scores rising to 80%, according to Forbes. Similarly, online furniture company launched an online talent lab in which it collaborated with up and coming designers and invited its customers to vote on their favourites. The company also has an online community called Made Unboxed that allows customers to make recommendations to its designers about the things that have inspired them. The way empowers its customers to interact with the brand and dictate their own brand experiences is a refreshing example of co-created CX, and a sure-fire way to guarantee customer satisfaction.

CX success

Research firm Gartner predicts that by 2020, more than 50% of organisations will redirect their investments to customer experience innovations, meaning mobile and digital experiences becoming more intuitive, more ubiquitous and even more ingrained in all brand communications and customer interactions. With mobile searches already generating 27.8 billion more queries than desktop searches, it’s clear that the smart brands must adapt their mobile and digital touch points, user journeys and customer experiences in order to meet the expectations of modern consumers.

CX Toolkit: Five steps to co-create your CX and ensure customer satisfaction…

  • Involve your audiences in constant conversations, gaining insights, feedback and ideas relating to their experiences of engaging with your brand.
  • Empower your customers be part of the decision-making process, allowing them to shape and co-create their own experiences.
  • Leverage technology that facilitates fluid and ongoing audience collaboration, giving your customers the access they need to give feedback on their brand experiences wherever and whenever they want.
  • Communicate the importance of co-created experiences in your messaging, shouting about how you place customer input and feedback at the heart of helping to shape your CX.
  • Be transparent, inviting your audience into the heart of your brand by being honest and open about how you formulate your CX. Transparency builds authenticity and trust.

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Interaction. Not interruption: The death of traditional advertising?

Are advertisers getting desperate? It certainly seems so. The deluge of ‘wacky’, disruptive characters that have come to dominate modern advertising is beginning to point towards an industry that’s running out of ideas… 

In 2015, profit margins at the top 50

ad agencies were at their lowest

for seven years.

Aggressive disruption 

It seems you can’t move these days for eccentric ad characters screaming ‘look at me’ in increasingly ‘madcap’ ways. There’s a man sitting on top of a fibre glass hippo, who tells you – in self-aware deadpan – that he’s a man sitting on top of a fibre glass hippo (TopCashback). There’s the ridiculous American car rental guy at Enterprise. There’s the annoying ‘Love Mondays’ Matt Berry impersonator at Reed. And, of course, there’s the Welsh Pavarotti at Go Compare.

At a time when more and more brands are dramatically cutting what they perceive as ineffective ad spend, it seems that creatives are reverting to desperate tactics as they vie for audiences’ rapidly dwindling attention. The result is a sea of same. After the success of Go Compare and (meerkats), a formula has been established. How do I get cut though? It’s obvious, isn’t it? Invent a zany character. But as we’re bombarded (and bored) by more and more of these irritants, the question must be asked: Are we actually engaged by this shameless strategy of aggressive disruption? Or just annoyed? 

Ad blockers 

Millennials and gen Z are all but lost to TV advertisers. With 200 million people currently using ad-blockers (a figure that’s rising), trust in brands is at an all time low. Young audiences simply don’t want to be reached by advertisers – unless it’s on their terms – and being force-fed disruptive, patronising characters will surely only push them further away.  

With ITV’s ad revenue declining by eight per cent year-on-year in the last six months, and giants like Procter and Gamble cutting their ad spend by more than $1 billion since 2013, it seems that brands are struggling to cope with digital transformation, reviewing their ad and marketing budgets and asking themselves the question: Is our advertising just not working anymore? 

So, what’s the way forward? How do brands achieve cut-through in the modern era? Aside from a zebra in a fez, playing the mandolin while telling me I need to buy more car insurance. For many, the next phase of consumer communication lies in interaction, not interruption. More and more brands are building their own online communities in order to directly engage customer networks in the conversations that matter for them.

Digital revolution 

With Forrester telling us that 87% of companies agree online communities drive better customer engagements, it’s clear the tide is turning. Brands have lost faith in traditional advertising as a means by which to connect, engage, drive awareness and sales. Instead, they are reaching out to consumers on a far more conversational level: asking them what they think of their products and services and inviting them to collaborate on content. 

The last fifteen years have seen a digital revolution, facilitated by enhancements in tech – with people taking back the power from big institutions. Just as MySpace empowered musicians to market their own music in the early naughties – putting thousands out of work at the major record labels – other social media platforms are encouraging user-generated content and the rise of influencers, meaning ad agency messages are increasingly being ignored by younger audiences. 

With Nielsen telling us that a staggering 77% of modern consumers are more likely to buy through peer recommendations, the message is clear for brands: connect directly with consumers, collaborate on campaigns, drive word-of-mouth and user-generated content. 

In 2015, profit margins at the top 50 ad agencies were at their lowest for seven years. A clear indication that agencies must look towards new solutions if they’re to sidestep the fate of the record labels that failed to react to MySpace, these are nothing if not uncertain times for advertising. The industry might not be dead quite yet, but it’s certainly in need of a renaissance.

Toolkit: How to interact. Not interrupt… 

  • Build private communities and engage with your customers direct.
  • Collaborate with audiences on campaigns and content. 
  • Encourage two-way conversations, finding out what resonates with your audience and how they see your brand.
  • Utilise social reach, activating campaigns through your audiences’ own social channels.
  • Understand the power of influencers, picking the right ones to champion your brand. 

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How to increase engagement by 20%: The power of online communities

These days, social media accounts are no longer good enough for brands looking to nurture meaningful connections with their audiences. Facebook and Instagram might still be relevant platforms to launch competitions, activate campaigns, and facilitate a certain level of interaction with your followers; but for brands looking for a deeper level of discourse with their audiences, establishing their own private, branded community is increasingly a far more fruitful option.

“Leader Networks tells us that 86 per cent

of marketeers agree online communities

benefit core business operations.”

A 2016 report by Forrester says 87 per cent of companies think that online communities drive better customer engagement, while Leader Networks tells us that 86 per cent of marketeers agree online communities benefit core business operations. In a world where data drives everything, the smart brands are seeking deeper levels of information, insight and feedback from their customers in order to dictate every decision they make. And when faced with a new generation of cynical, media savvy consumers who are evading or simply ignoring traditional advertising messages, more and more brands are establishing their own online networks just to connect with their increasingly illusive customers.

Walled garden communities, away from the public forum of social media, give both brand and audience the chance to speak off the record (see our piece on Social Listening). When a brand has its own private online community it can find out what its customers really think about their campaigns, about the decisions they’re making and about the issues of the day. Conversely, consumers feel like they’re part of an exclusive club, like they’re really being involved with the brand they love and that they’re having an actual say in shaping the products and services that they’re using.

And then there’s content. Brands using online communities can gather all important user-generated content, drive peer-to-peer validation on that content within a private community and encourage their network to activate their ideas on their own social media pages – driving authenticity and trust among modern consumers. A 2017 survey by marketing firm Parature states that 90 per cent of modern consumers expect brands to offer a form of self-service portal or online community – reaffirming not only that modern audiences respond to opportunities to create content, give feedback and engage in conversations, but that they demand it.

There’s no doubt the brands that are utilising online communities are those that are increasing revenue, improving market share, connecting with their consumers and driving customer satisfaction. According to Hubspot, 80% of marketers indicate that building brand communities has increased traffic, while a 2016 report by the University of Michigan states that customers spend 19% more after joining a company’s online community. A Forrester report tells us that insight-driven businesses will grow from $333 billion in revenue in 2015 to $1.2 trillion in 2020 — a growth rate of eight times the average – and leading brands such as sports broadcaster ESPN and hardware specialists DEWALT have publicly reported massive savings and record profits since launching their own insight communities.

It looks certain that we are entering a world where any brand worth its salt will need its own online community. In order to get the most out of your customers, nurture a modern, democratic relationship with them, drive trust and authenticity and find out exactly what they want, your brand can’t be limited by the constraints of social media, it must establish its own community.


Here’s five ways to utilise an online community in order to optimise customer satisfaction and drive profits:

  • Engage your community in constant two-way conversations, gaining insights, feedback and ideas relating to every product and service you launch – and involving them at the every stage of the decision-making process.
  • Utilise the power of peer-to-peer. Create opportunities for your audiences to comment on, validate and share each other’s ideas. An endorsement by a real person is far more powerful than a brand or celebrity promotion.
  • Encourage people to be active in your online community by offering them incentives, awards and prizes for participating.
  • Collaborate with your audience on content. Set challenges and briefs that invite your online community members to submit ideas and content that might then be used in campaigns and for online branded content.
  • Be honest. Use your community as a place to be open and transparent about the inner workings of the brand – the decisions you make and the way you operate. Transparency builds authenticity and trust.

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Cannes Lions: Putting people at the heart of your brand

We’ve just returned from the ‘64th International Festival of Creativity’ that was Cannes Lions 2017. It’s usual celebration of the best the advertising world has offered up over the past 12 months, combined with discussion around the issues at the heart of the industry (all set amidst the glitzy, sun drenched backdrop of the Côte d’Azur), Cannes was a veritable melee of buzzwords like ‘authenticity’, ‘purpose brands’, ‘data’ and ‘tech for good’.

“Brands must embrace the spirit 

of collaboration, community and co-creation

in order to stay relevant.”

People not profits 

It seems that when it came to speculation around the direction in which marketing is headed, the smart money was on putting people before profits. While the last ten years has seen a collective realisation among brands that they need a story, they need to care, and they need to have a conscience, what emerged at this year’s Cannes is that actually involving customers in your campaigns is the new way to truly resonate with modern audiences. The brands that empowered their audiences to be part of content creation were those that stood out, with the campaigns that involved and celebrated the people they seek to serve being those that stole the show.


Burger Kind

With this in mind, the campaigns that really caught our eye were those that understood and utilised the power of user-generated content, word-of-mouth advertising and organic social media activation. Burger King’s ‘McWhopper’ was a stoke of genius, inviting McDonald’s to put their differences to one side for World Peace Day and create a burger together. The campaign went viral on social media when – after McDonald’s failed to respond – people began inventing and creating their own McWhoppers and other ideas for collaborative burgers, under the McWhopper hashtag. Burger King really found a way to collaborate with their audiences, allowing them to co-create content alongside the brand in a fun, original and engaging way – and encouraged them to activate the campaign from their own social media accounts. Very clever.

How to suc-Swede

Similarly, The Swedish Tourist Board’s ‘The Swedish Number’, encouraged people from all over the world to ‘call Sweden’ – being connected to a random number where they could chat to a member of the Swedish public about anything that might be on their mind. By allowing people to just chat freely, then encouraging them to share their stories on social media, the campaign was essentially creating almost limitless user-generated, word-of-mouth content, free from any brain-washing brand messaging, slogans or advertising agency content; while at the same time subtly celebrating the open and inclusive nature of Sweden. Beautiful.

Embracing tech

As expected, tech and data played a big part at this year’s Cannes, as advertising continues to (perhaps begrudgingly) embrace new ways to understand, connect with and engage audiences who are increasingly hard to reach through traditional means. Snapchat seemed to have colonised the event, while Facebook, Instagram, Google and Pinterest were predictably prevalent – their presence serving as a heavy handed reminder that the industry must embrace these technologies as wholeheartedly as consumers have if it wants to remain relevant. We saw new technologies like Voice and Virtual Reality (VR) becoming increasingly prevalent around the festival. And with Deutsche Bank predicting that by 2020, there will be 120 million people using VR headsets, its no surprise that brands are jumping on this bandwagon as a new and innovative way of engaging consumers.

Big Data

Another word, or acronym, on everyone’s lips was DT. No, not Design Technology (for anyone at secondary school in the 90s), but Data Technology. Alibaba’s Chris Tung told us: “In our world we no longer talk about IT, we talk about DT: data technology. IT helps you to manage technology but DT helps you see the future by analysing the data you have.” The CMO of the online shopping platform that hosts over 500 million active shoppers in China (200 million every day) continued, “People think we’re an e-commerce company but really, it’s a data company,” highlighting how marketing is all about the power and potential of data in the post-tech era. It is of course data that increasingly informs every decision a brand’s marketing department makes, allowing it to understand people – their habits, behaviours, wants and needs – in order to predict their actions and engage them in a seemingly more personal, more meaningful way.


Brave new world

These ideas, themes and tech trends were at the heart of Cannes, and at the forefront of an industry that has in turn began to understand that what we are seeing is the death of traditional advertising as we know it; realising that modern audiences are better reached through more innovative, interactive and democratic channels. Finally, it seems the message that marketing must shift the balance of power, putting audiences in charge, seems to be seeping through – and that brands must embrace the spirit of collaboration, community and co-creation in order to stay relevant.


Five steps to connecting with modern audiences by putting people at the heat of your brand:

  1. Involve your audience: Create campaigns that are interactive and invite your audiences to take part, create content and share that content through their own social media channels.
  2. Be open and interactive: Invite your audience in, letting them be part of the brand and allowing them to shape the content and campaigns you create.
  3. Encourage conversations: Ask questions of your customers. Run things by them and get their opinions and feedback on everything you do. Don’t talk at them, talk to them and remember to listen.
  4. Build communities: Customers are most engaged when they exist within communities of people who can validate, share and comment on the ideas and content they create.
  5. Reflect your audience: Listen to what your audience tells you and reflect its opinions and feedback in the products and services you create. By doing this, you will create a brand that really resonates with modern consumers.

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How to drive citizen engagement through

Citizen engagement should be integral to how any government department defines strategy and approaches policy-making. By placing engagement at the heart of everything it does, a government body – or, more broadly, a political party – will drive authenticity, transparency and accountability, build stronger connections to voters and instil a sense of trust in the public at large.

“Real citizen engagement has the power

to break down the divide between

governments and the public.”


At its best, citizen engagement should mean really giving the people a say in how the decisions that will directly affect them are made. Political successes are, ultimately, about one simple thing: trust. Which party, which department, which politician, does the public trust to steer the country in the right direction. Which party is the one that really listens to the public, engages with them and reflects their wants and needs in its policies and decision making.  

A 2009 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) states: “Good decision-making requires the knowledge, experiences, views and values of the public. Implementing difficult decisions depends on citizens’ consent and support. Unless citizens understand and are engaged in the decision themselves, trust is easily lost.”

Ultimately, government departments should be creating policy in collaboration with the citizens they seek to serve. All political parties say they are the party that listens, the party that cares, the party ‘of the people’: to co-create policy directly with their voters is the ultimate gesture of this. 

A 2017 Open Government guide to citizen engagement tells us: “People around the world consistently indicate that they are not content simply to engage with government through periodic elections. But they are discouraged by the real and perceived control of public decisions and decision-makers by small political and economic elites. It is important that citizen engagement is well designed and properly resourced, and that it is born from a genuine desire to involve the public and take their input into account. Good citizen engagement can support the effective functioning of democracy, the legitimacy of government, the successful implementation of policy and the achievement of social outcomes.”

Empowering citizens merely to have a voice, though, is not enough. To properly connect to the public, government departments should engage people in a constant dialogue – involving them at every stage of the decision making process. Government departments  need to employ systems that facilitate citizen input in policy-making, empowering them to co-create campaigns and policy that properly reflect the needs of real people. This more open, democratic and inclusive approach would give people the opportunity and the ability to have their say, while also allowing governments to connect to groups that are traditionally harder to reach. 

When Bulbshare worked with Public Health England (PHE) on its Rise Above initiative, we invited a community of young people to co-create a campaign and website alongside the government organisation in order to generate authentic and credible insight and creative content. Using Bulbshare as a tool to connect to a network of 11 to 16-year-olds, PHE created website content and a series of films in direct collaboration with young citizens – who were sharing ideas and content around issues they were close to such as online bullying, exam stress and first time sex, which ultimately led to influencing policy implementation at a national level. 

If this kind of collaborative process was to become the norm for how government departments built campaigns and policy, we would have a far more inclusive political system and governments that better reflected the needs and opinions of the people the seek to serve.  

Five steps to building citizen engagement

Real citizen engagement, through systems such as Bulbshare, has the power to break down the divide between governments and the public, encouraging them to work together and allowing local communities to drive the processes and influence the decisions that shape their lives. Here’s five ways in which government departments can make sure they are doing the right things to drive citizen engagement:

  • Engage with the right communities that will be directly affected by the policies in question. In order to create policies that really resonate with the public, you should seek out targeted communities whose lives will be truly affected. It stands to reason that these will be the people who will have something relevant to say around those issues. 
  • Connect to those in society who are traditionally ignored. Marginalised groups who don’t usually engage with the traditional channels by which government departments communicate with citizens are exactly those whose voices should be heard.
  • Build a mechanic to facilitate engagement. Making use of the right technology – platforms that facilitate targeted community engagement for instant feedback, ongoing two-way conversations and audience generated content – can make citizen engagement a quick and easy process. 
  • Test initiatives within your online communities, gaining validation and insights. Any policy, initiative or idea should be tested within your citizen community in order to gain insight and feedback on its popularity. 
  • Act on feedback and implement citizen ideas into policy. If the insight, feedback and content generated from your engagement mechanic is actually taken onboard, people will see that you are serious about listening to citizens and democratising the way you run your department. 

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Why micro-influencers could generate a 40% purchase rate for your brand

It was recently reported that Christiano Ronaldo was paid half a billion dollars by Nike for a ‘lifetime of tweets’. For Nike, the Portuguese superstar is clearly perceived as a worthwhile asset to their marketing plan. And the sports giants have the budget to bring him onboard. But for more and more brands, celebrity endorsements are being eschewed, in favour of partnerships with a growing army of social media middle-weights, known as micro-influencers.  

All the stats enforce the fact that younger audiences are ignoring traditional advertising in favour of peer-to-peer recommendations and word-of-mouth (WOM) marketing: 64% of marketers agree that WOM marketing is more effective than traditional means; 82% use it to increase their brand awareness; consumers sharing a brand’s message generated more than double the sales that resulted from paid advertising (McKinsey)… The list goes on. So, in an age where consumers are more resistant to advertising than ever before, it stands to reason that attitudes towards celebrity endorsements should follow suit. 

“A recent survey by marketing platform Markely 

suggested that the more followers an influencer has

the less engaged those followers are.”


Younger audiences that seek trust, believability and authenticity are less likely to be swayed by the recommendations of a celebrity whom they know has been paid an astronomical fee for that endorsement – and possibly doesn’t have any real, proven connection to the brand or product – than they are a recommendation by someone they feel has an authentic connection to the brand they’re promoting. What does James Cordon know about car insurance? And does Jean-Claude Van Damme really drink American beer? Probably not. 

This is where the micro-influencer comes in. A recent survey by marketing platform Markely suggested that the more followers an influencer has, the less engaged those followers are. They carried out a survey of 2 million Instagram influencers and found that those with 10,000 to 100,000 followers had a like rate of 2.4%, those with followers of 1,000 to 10,000 received a like rate of 4%, and those with under 1,000 followers received an 8% like rate. Less is more, it seems. 

When influencers have a strong but relatively small following, that following tends to be more loyal, more engaged and therefore more ‘influenced’ by what they post. While a celebrity will obviously command a mass awareness of millions, those people don’t necessarily engage with what they say, or belong to the right group that a specific brand wants to target. But when someone engages with a micro-influencer, with a following of less than 1000, they feel close to that person, follow all their posts, share the same tastes and opinions and therefore trust in what they say. 

In an era when media savvy, young audiences are becoming increasingly sceptical towards brand promises, the best way to reach out to them is through someone they trust. Welcome to the age of the micro-influencer. 

Your micro-influencer toolkit

Young audiences on social media are more steered by influencers than anything else: 40% of Twitter users say they’ve made a purchase as a direct result of a Tweet from an influencer, while 70% of teenage YouTube subscribers say they relate to YouTubers more than to traditional celebrities (Google). So then, it’s just a matter of working out which influencers are the right ones to partner with. Here’s our guide to choosing the right micro-influencer for your brand.

  • Build a relationship with 10 or 20 micro-influencers. You don’t need to have an army of influencers, just choose the right ones and build a small, manageable network with whom you can have regular contact and a meaningful relationship. 
  • Make sure they really resonate with your brand. Celebrity influence is widespread but non-targeted – the whole point of a micro-influencer is that they are relevant for your brand and your audience. 
  • Make sure your micro-influencer represents and reflects your audience. Your micro-influencer should look like your audience, be the same age and come from the same social background. Otherwise, they won’t have relevance and won’t resonate with your customers. 
  • Choose an influencer who actually cares. You need someone who means it, is actually behind your brand and not just doing it for the money. Someone who has a knowledge of your company and believes in your products will have much more meaning and influence for your audience. 
  • Understand your audience, and understand who has meaning for them. You’ll only know which is the right influencer to target, by really knowing your audience. Research where they go to consume content and who they follow in order to pick out your micro-influencer. 

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The path to authenticity: How to truly connect with modern audiences

Authenticity continues to be a marketing buzzword – and the holy grail for brands looking to connect with generation Z. But as this group of entrepreneurial, digitally-empowered consumers – more adept at self-promotion than most people in a brand’s marketing department – grows increasingly cynical towards brands, what does it mean to be truly authentic? Being transparent, ‘caring’, showing your process, being straight-talking, down to earth, ‘all about provenance’… These kinds of brand messages have become a sea of same in a post-truth age where brands are more desperate than ever before to convince consumers that actually – despite what you might think – they do have a soul.

“What has more meaning these days

is bringing consumers inside the brand.”

Simon Sinek’s Start With Why TEDx video is getting old now. Sinek attributed Apple’s success to how the tech company believed in what it was doing – and everyone jumped on board. He argued the reason Apple was such a beacon of everything that was right in the world, was because it wasn’t just clear on what it did as a company, but that it believed wholeheartedly in why it was doing it. This became the magic bullet for success and a shortcut to brand authenticity: believe in what you’re doing, have a cause, have a system of values that inform everything you do, and people will have no choice but to trust your brand. People will think you’re authentic.

Every brand manager saw Sinek’s film in a marketing meeting at some point or another over the past eight years (yes, it went live in 2009), and everyone thought maybe their brand should ‘believe’ in something too. We all suddenly decided it was a good idea to know why we do what we do. If it works for Apple, it should work for us too, right? But when everyone is doing it, it begins to lose its meaning. When brands say ‘We believe’ (and they all do), there is obviously a sense of genuine sentiment about it; but when everyone believes, when everyone stands for something, it’s perfectly natural for consumers to be cynical. It’s perfectly natural to say, ‘Oh, here we go… Yet another brand telling us, ‘we believe’. Whatever.’

What has more meaning these days – what actually has resonance with modern, media savvy audiences – is bringing consumers inside the brand. Being transparent enough to really show your process, by involving your customers in it. And being genuine enough to ask consumers what they actually think about what you’re doing – and really listening to their answers. In the participation era, the smart brands are those that are empowering their consumers to collaborate with them, help shape the decisions they make and have a real say in the products and services they create. To be truly authentic is to be collaborative, democratic, open. To treat your consumers as colleagues rather than customers, involving them in constant two-way conversations about brand decisions and allowing them to co-create content alongside your brand.

A recent report from Iris identified ‘participation brands’ as those that involve their consumers in their creative and marketing processes, saying that these brands ‘outperform the market, drive advocacy and command a premium’. While in 2017, Forrester tells us that ‘more than one third of businesses will restructure to shift to customer-obsessed operations’. These reports point towards a future where brands will be forced to collaborate with their consumers. A future where for brands that connect directly to their audiences and involve them in their processes will be those that achieve success through true authenticity.

And with audience collaboration comes the ultimate goal for brands seeking authenticity: word-of-mouth and peer-to-peer recommendations. Consumers that feel like they’re really part of a brand are far more likely to be vocal about it, recommend it to friends and family and shout about it on social media. If you’ve created content for a brand, or had a real say in how that brand behaves, you’ll want to show your support and share relevant content online and through social media. And with Olapic’s Global Consumer Report 2016 revealing that 56% of consumers are more likely to buy a product after seeing it featured in a user-generated image, it’s not surprising that more and more brands seek peer-to-peer recommendations above anything else.

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