In the heady days of the dot-com boom I moved to New York to run the Enron business at Ogilvy. Yes, you can blame the entire global meltdown on me. As I struggled to make sense of this new type of business, I drew heavily on two books that now hold real sentimental value for me.

One was “Leading the Revolution” by Gary Hamel. The other was “Eating the Big Fish” by Adam Morgan. I was particularly taken by Adam Morgan’s view of how feisty upstart brands could shatter convention, commonsense and unseat market leaders. The entire Challenger brand ethos struck a very deep nerve with me.

The point being, we all know a (very small) selection of brands that occupy this type of mythical place in the brand marketers lexicon. The brands we all adore and covet.

Brands driven by a deeper sense of purpose and attitude than the one’s they leave in their wake.

Which brings me to another lens I’ve been thinking about recently.

The notion of Citizen Brands.

What’s a Citizen brand?

Citizen brands are one’s that forego the notion of brand ownership and brand evolution as something strictly controlled by a central group. They provide their customers or followers with the tools to merge, meld and build the brand experience in their own way. The customer – or Citizen – is the one in control, not the organization.

I’m mindful that there are other interpretations, and books, on the notion of Citizen brands. Many of those place emphasis on “good” citizenship, which naturally manifests as societally-aware and societally-driven brand engagements. I can’t dispute that idea.

My view is perhaps simpler.

Citizen brands are one’s that empower the customer to make the brand theirs entirely. As such, they are completely democratic.

And, just as the combination of smartphones, Twitter and blogs gave rise to the phenomenon of Citizen Journalists, I believe we’re seeing an equal, and inexorable, rise of Citizen brands.

Utility, Openess & Facilitation

All brands deliver value in some manner. They fulfill a need, a want, a desire. Citizen brands deliver it with a certain unique flavor.

They are inherently open. These brands expect – and even rely – on their followers to help construct, define or redefine the brand in the way that best suits the Citizen’s they serve. That can mean everything from open API’s, collaborating on access to data to having the users be the actual architects of the brand experience. Wikipedia and Reditt are perhaps my most obvious examples of this phenomenon. Interestingly the public sector is championing this new openness. Many government organizations are seeing benefit – and revenue – from making huge data sets available to the general public to mold, assimilate and build into new services. That thinking from the public sector was unheard of five years ago.

They deliver high levels of utility for their customers and followers. The value of their brand delivery relies heavily on providing tools and applications to solve problems for their followers. From something as simple as redefining the ordering of car and taxi services, brands like Uber and HailO have taken this approach. The retail space is particularly energized by this thinking. More and more retailers are realizing that customers are looking for tools to make their shopping easier, faster and cheaper from price comparison apps like Red Laser to personal favourites of mine, like Starbucks mobile app which contains a personal wallet, list of favourites, couponing and commerce all in one easy place.

They serve as facilitators. If democratization is at the heart of citizen brands, then providing channels to facilitate interactions between citizens is where they shine. Certainly meta-trends like collaborative consumption have provided more opportunity for these brands to flourish but I look at examples like AirBnB, AutoShare, and even old stalwarts like eBay, as examples of this type of facilitation ethos. Again, by facilitating versus trying to own the transactions, these Citizen brands are letting the customers ultimately define the brand experience. That’s a pretty brave and courageous model IMHO.

Does this notion of Citizen brands ring true with you? Is this the way brands have always acted, or has technology – and a new type of hyper-expectant customer – required brands to relinquish the control they used to have?

In recent weeks I’ve been introduced to a bunch of folks who’ve also built upon the notion of Challenger brands and extended it into a pretty unique POV.  Canadian agency Cult believes that certain brands have the ability to do more than merely attract regular customers. They actually build cadres of deeply committed followers. There is certainly something very visceral about being able to nurture that kind of customer devotion IMHO.

In a Canadian first, Cult has actually gone further than just talk about these new-fashioned cult brands.  They’ve actually pulled together an enviable collection of these “cult” brands and cult brand leaders for a pretty unique conference called The Gathering. For two days in February, brand leaders from Red Bull, WestJet, TSN and the NHL are going to debate and discuss how you build a cult brand. If you’re a brand leader, I sense the conference is going to be pretty damn sexy.

Ultimately, whether you call them Challengers, Citizen or Cult brands, I believe all marketers today have to create a different relationship with their customers. Hyper-connected, entitled and highly expectant customers are no longer prepared to let any brand leader get away with same ol’ same ol’.

Look at brands like Harley, GoPro and Red Bull, they certainly don’t appear to operate by those same ol’ rules.

More importantly, the devotion, loyalty and sales results those brands command suggests they’re doing something right.

The Gathering is happening in Banff February 19th and 20th. I’ll see you there and we can discuss your views on Challenger, Citizen and Cult brands over a single malt. That’s my kind of debate.

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