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The Brand’s New Open Architecture

2012 July 25

On November 4, 2010, Microsoft launched Kinect, a motion-sensing device for their Xbox video game console. It quickly became the best selling electronic device in history, moving 8 million units in less than two months.

Then hackers started fooling around with the device using it to do things Microsoft never intended.  This kind of transgression would usually elicit in nasty “cease and desist” letters and hefty lawyers fees, but this time Microsoft did something different.

They released a software development kit (SDK) to help outsiders modify their product and created an accelerator that offered seed money, office space and training to promising young innovators.  Clearly, something important has changed.  Brands are no longer mere corporate assets, but have become open platforms for collaboration and creativity.

Brand Image and the Big Idea in the Age of Mass Media

After World War II, most of the globe went through several decades of seemingly boundless economic expansion.  Consumers had ever more money to spend and business expanded to meet the demand.  It was the dawn of the branding age and marketers strove to make their products popular with a populace hungry to join the consumer culture.

It was also an era of mass media.  There was a limited amount of TV stations and programming was geared to mass audiences.  Popular broadcasts could reach more than 50% of the population, so if you put an ad on the air you could reach just about everyone with a few spots.

The “big idea” was king.  Advertising pioneers such as David Ogilvy and Leo Burnett developed powerful brand images that transformed the landscape of commerce.  Great creative work combined with mass audiences proved to be a powerful combination.

Brands soon evolved into consumer icons and created enormous profits for the companies that owned them.  Not surprisingly, corporations became very protective of their brand images, controlling them tightly and protecting them fiercely.

Communication Planning and the Quest for ROI

With the 1970’s came the Arab oil embargo and difficult economic times.  Financial accountability became central to marketing strategy.  Consequently, marketers began to pay more attention to cost efficiency and cost per Gross Rating Point (GRP) became the coin of the realm,

Then, in the 80’s and 90’s, cable and satellite technology transformed the media landscape and fragmented audiences.  No longer could you be sure that your target consumer would see your message.  The “big idea” became secondary to effective media selection and targeting

In the new environment, media agencies prospered and communications planning was born. The principal strategic question became “where is our consumer and how can we engage them.” When you can’t reach everyone, reaching the right person in the right way becomes of paramount importance.

How Facebook Became the World’s Biggest Website

Technology, of course, would change the game again, but it wasn’t immediately obvious exactly how that would happen.  For its first decade, digital was mainstream media’s poor cousin, offering fairly lame consumer experience monetized by banner ads that weren’t especially effective.  Marketers watched closely, but mostly kept their budgets in TV.

A harbinger of change came in 2005, when News Corp bought MySpace, the leader in the exciting new category of social media, in which users, not professionals, produce content. At the time, the $580m investment seemed pretty smart.  With News Corp’s corporate heft and business acumen behind them, MySpace seemed poised to dominate.

Then came something unexpected.  MySpace competitor Facebook made the unusual move of opening up its site to outside developers through application programming interfaces (API’s).  Those developers, in turn, built clever new applications that improved the site and increased revenues.

With one brilliant stroke, Facebook became more than just a website or even a brand, it became a platform.  By May 2009 Facebook passed MySpace on its way to becoming the most popular Web destination in the world.  In 2011, News Corp sold MySpace for a reported $35 million, a loss of more than 90% of their investment.

From the World Wide Web to the Web of Things

When Tim Berners-Lee first developed the World Wide Web in 1989, he conceived a vast connection machine that would allow people to communicate on a universal platform.  A decade later, he felt he had not gone far enough and so he created a second Web, which he called the Semantic Web, in order to let machines communicate seamlessly as well.

Just like his first creation, this new Web of Things, is starting to take hold and manifest itself in four new areas that touch consumers lives:

Smartphones:  At the center of the Web of Things is our smartphones, which is not only a communication device, but a sensor platform.  In effect, we are using them as “universal remote controls” for our digital environment.

Smart Homes: New super-efficient chips are putting connectivity everywhere and our home appliances will be as much a part of the Web of Things as our tablets or smartphones.  There are already a number of products that allow us to control aspects of our home (e.g. security, lighting) remotely.

Smart Cars: Our cars are becoming an integral part of the new Web of Things as well. Ford’s Sync and Toyota’s Entune, which are already installed in production units, connect with both the web and with smartphones.

In Japan, McDonald’s is experimenting with a system that will allow for downloading menus and in-car ordering.  Ford is reaching out to medical device makers to collaborate on apps that help diabetics monitor glucose levels (a serious problem behind the wheel) and monitor allergens in the air for asthmatics.

Smart Retail: Probably most pervasive trend is the digitization of the retail environment. From in-store apps to recommendation engines to elaborate in-store augmented reality displays and a rapidly evolving mobile payments environment, brands are learning how to interface with every aspect of the shopping experience digitally.

Now many suggest that Apple will integrate near field communications (NFC) chips into their new iPhone, which will allow consumers to effortlessly make payments and interact with digital retail environments without cumbersome QR codes.

The New Consumer Conversation

What this all amounts to is a new form of conversation that brands are having with consumers.  Marketers have long known the importance of listening to consumers and being responsive to their desires and needs.  However, up till now, they had only crude methods such as surveys and focus groups available to them.

Consumers are now providing a wealth of information to marketers in real time.  Their comments on social media can be aggregated and then analyzed using sophisticated new natural language processing algorithms.  At the same time, their smartphones are communicating with other machines around them, offering a wealth of new data.

Make no mistake, these are conversations and in more than an abstract, philosophical sense.  In 2003, Google asserted in a civil suit that its search results are a form of free speech and won a favorable opinion.  Today, a vast array of recommendation engines is affecting what we watch, buy and do based on machines talking to other machines.

These new types of conversations don’t replace the ones that came before, but augment and extend them, allowing brands to identify, evaluate and act on changes in the marketplace with speed and effectiveness unthinkable in previous decades.

The Brand as an Open API

Digital technology is forcing marketers to rethink their historical approach.  No longer are they providing Pavlovian stimuli in the hopes of a profitable consumer response, but are instead looking at their brands as platforms and ecosystems, with the consumer playing an active part.

These days marketers need to think beyond simple metrics such as GRP’s and CTR’s, but also in terms of collaborative technologies like SDK’s and API’s.  New platforms like Innocentive and Kickstarter are enabling companies to source, test and fund new innovations by utilizing the vast collective intelligence in the marketplace.

In this new semantic economy, scale of a particular enterprise is nothing compared to the potential scale of connections to a multitude of collaborating, co-creating entities, be they 3rd party developers, hackers or even everyday customers.

Brands are no longer images or even ideas, they are platforms and, increasingly, the most successful ones have open architectures that not only allow, but encourage active consumer participation.

– Greg

Note:  An earlier version of this post was published in a Brand and Reputation Management supplement to The Times of London.

7 Responses leave one →
  1. July 30, 2012


    Great read. Very impressive description of passage from brand’s concept as “big idea” and “targeting communications” on the “market” to the new concept – the brand as an open ecosystem for creative communities.

    Thank you for very interesting review of changes that already happened: new business models, new hi-tech and hi-hume technologies and new (virtual) markets.

    Also we should take into account one important thing – when information becomes the main factor of production (as capital was the last 300 years) we should resolve the issue with private property on information and value exchange of information. In this case we need new “digital FRS” for information management : )))


  2. July 30, 2012

    Thanks Sergei,

    I like the idea of information being the new capital. Smart!

    – Greg

  3. August 12, 2012

    The ‘open’ brand is very much where I agree that brands can really move forwards. Digital, and very much social media, has changed the rules for brands moving the relationship from telling to sharing.

    The idea that a brand can be truly created or developed by people without a pre-decided direction from a company is extremely interesting. However, in my professional experience getting large companies to work this way would be very difficult. Tech startups seem to understand this model well but whether it is understood by, or even right for, other business is another matter.

    This is an area of branding I have been thinking about and would love to know your thoughts on this post of mine.

  4. August 12, 2012

    Thanks Paul. I do think we have to be careful to make the distinction between open brands that facilitate collaboration and trying to build a brand with no agenda. In fact, I think it’s very important to be clear on the brands purpose from the start.

    To lead, you must have followers and they need to know what they’re following.

    – Greg

  5. August 12, 2012

    Agreed. A brand with no agenda is obviously quite pointless. The question is how involved can all stakeholders be involved in creating that agenda. Is it a truly co-created brand if people are simply “following”?

  6. August 12, 2012

    Again, I think it depends on the mission. Facebook is a great example. It opened up it’s architecture and that let others collaborate, but they couldn’t redesign the site. Same goes for Ford’s Sync.

    However, I do think the principle applies outside technology as well. A hospital, for instance, wouldn’t want people coming off the street to direct surgery. However, they often institute programs that let people in the community improve the overall experience, which is completely consistent with the mission of healing.

    – Greg

  7. rohit permalink
    January 28, 2015

    Nice comment

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