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Opportunities for Brands in the Collaborative Economy

Posted by: Davis Ward on October 09, 2013

Collaborative Economy Summit

What a difference a decade makes.

In the early aughts, we supersized our meals, flaunted proudly gas-guzzling Hummers, built garish McMansions in sprawling suburban lots.

Today we fetishize local produce, put our names on waiting lists for Priuses, and are moving back to the more sustainable, communal lifestyle of the city.

After a decade that saw 9/11, protracted war, the rise of social media and the near-collapse of the world economy, perhaps it is unsurprising that we have come to rely a bit less on once-proud institutions and more on ourselves – and each other.

But the collaborative economy – the blanket buzzword for peer-to-peer and crowd-powered services like Uber, TaskRabbit and AirBNB – is nothing new.

That was a key message at the Collaborative Economy Summit last week in New York, agencies Sparks & Honey and Tribal Worldwide hosted, with Interbrand New York Senior Director Christina Stanfield participating as a panelist.

Many of the jobs these companies solve, helping a homeowner hire a trustworthy electrician, for example, were once performed by the next-door neighbor, the community newspaper, the village bazaar. And, as Stanfield pointed out, the sharing economy speaks to human nature to share and deal directly with one another. What is new about these services is the extent to which the Internet, and particularly the mobile Internet revolution, has enabled those once localized or person-to-person exchanges to scale en masse.

How much scale are we talking about?

Take fundraising. Crowd-funding services like Kickstarter raised $2.7 billion in 2012 in the US alone.

Take cars. Private cars sit idle 95% of the time, representing a huge opportunity for P2P car-sharing.

Take contracting. There are 80 million power drills in America that are used an average of 13 minutes over their lifespans.

And according to The Economist, the consumer peer-to-peer rental market is worth $26 billion.

So, whether because of the rise of mobility, the Great Recession, or a movement toward a DIY, back-to-basics ethic, the sharing economy is a mega-trend with which marketers and brands must contend.

What does it mean for your brand and business? How should it impact your notion of marketing? How do you sell to a growing number of people who don’t want the burden of owning things?

Embrace losing control

As detailed in The New Rules of Brand Leadership in our recently launched report, Best Global Brands 2013, today’s leaders have embraced a more collaborative, bottoms-up approach. Brands cannot control every conversation about them, nor can they ignore them. Leading brands understand that people want to make the brands they interact with their own, sometimes totems of their identity.

It’s not about arguing with disgruntled customers in an online community or churning out heavy-handed tweets incessantly. It’s about embracing your consumers are partners – sometimes for far more than just promotion of your brand. Take WikiSpeed, a company that, with use of Agile project management and sourcing expertise from around the world, can manufacture car parts – and working cars – with incredible efficiency.

Recognize that, in today’s social media landscape and collaborative economy, your audiences and consumers are more powerful brand managers and media planners than anyone within the walls of your organization. Which means you also need to…

Focus on what your brand does more than what it says

Given the power of people over brands in the sharing economy, brand managers should focus on providing hallmark experiences, simultaneously delivering upon the brand’s purpose while delighting customers, to galvanize promoters. Brand managers should shift toward spending as much, if not more, time on product development and experience innovation as on creative reviews and marketing budgets.

Consumers are empowered with more information than ever before. The best campaigns can no longer compensate for sub-par products and experiences.

Understand the best digital experiences are the most human

Mary Meeker, a partner at the storied venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, calls Millennials the “Asset-light” generation. They use ZipCar rather than buy a car. They stream Spotify rather than buy albums. They’ll rely on AirBNB or CouchSurfing to save money on a hotel.

While brilliant apps and constant connectivity make these services possible, at a basic level they just address underlying human needs – transport, entertainment, lodging - more efficiently and conveniently. Even tech hardware makers – a decade ago constantly falling back on RAM/CPU/GPU speed and hard drive space – have mostly embraced a “good enough” approach to computing, focusing on software and the user experience on design that gets out of the way rather than draws attention to itself.

We now have the ability to connect consumers with producers across the globe quickly and — with mobile internet penetration leapfrogging fixed internet —local precision. Ultimately, the extent to which the sharing economy gradually displaces more traditional models will depend more on culture than on technology.

For all their growth and success, companies like Uber and AirBNB, and the collectivist, collaborative economy ethos, haven’t yet taken firm hold outside of coastal, progressive urban centers like Portland, San Francisco and Brooklyn. And it’s still more unclear if the sharing economy ethos is a permanent shift in behaviors after a traumatic recession, or if an eventually booming economy will send us back to conspicuous consumption and our McMansions.

Davis Ward is an Associate Director, Strategy at Interbrand New York.

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