Brands are increasingly turning to crowdsourcing, but, like any new practice, there are risks and rewards-consider yourself warned.

by John Miziolek

Crowdsourcing is gaining traction. In fact, it’s probably one of the hottest topics around the water cooler these days. Brand owners are looking for ways to gain deeper insights and create stronger connections with consumers-and what better way than to actually bring them in the fold? Or so the thinking goes.

Crowdsourcing is the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by staff or a contractor, to a large group of people or community. Originally developed for scientific R&D projects, it has now made its way to branding and design.

Is this the new way of doing business? Are the days of traditional consumer marketing gone? What kind of lessons can be learned from the early adopters of crowdsourcing?

The Chiquita brand asked consumers to submit design ideas for the stickers on its bananas.Certain components, like the color scheme,shape and size of the sticker, had to remainthe same, but the Chiquita banana girl couldn't appear in the design.

One of the more interesting examples comes from the Chiquita brand, which asked consumers to submit design ideas for the stickers on its bananas. Yes, the little blue sticker that goes almost unnoticed on the breakfast table drove a viral online frenzy-but it’s important to understand why.

Chiquita’s crowdsourcing effort worked well because the best 18 designs were voted on by consumers (more than 100,000 voted). The winning designs then made it onto millions of bananas-giving participants a wide-reaching platform for their art.

Chiquita was clever, however, about what brand elements could change and what needed to stay. Certain components, like the color scheme, shape and size of the sticker, had to remain the same, but the Chiquita banana girl couldn’t appear in the design. This limited how far consumers could “take” their submissions and, ultimately, kept stewardship in the hands of the brand.

That brings up a key question: Is crowdsourcing meant to create buzz or is it a way to drive strategic brand development? 

Mountain Dew's DEWmocracy campaign put consumers in charge of creating new beverage flavors, naming them and developing packaging and ads to market them.<

Well, the answer likely lies somewhere in the middle. Consider the case of Mountain Dew, in which the brand’s DEWmocracy campaign gave consumers complete creative control over product development. The brand worked with 4,000 of its most loyal fans to come up with and name new beverage flavors and packaging designs to market them. Voting was then open to everyone through social media and other efforts.

While this campaign was not meant to direct overall Mountain Dew brand strategy, it engaged consumers in a well-structured process that sent a message that their input matters.

The practice of crowdsourcing doesn’t always go so smoothly, however. Jim Beam hosted an effort called “The Remake Contest.” The idea was to sign up, shoot a commercial and submit the video for review. But the brand found that only 300 participants registered to take part, even though the company made it easy to participate and offered $25,000 in cash. Are 300 consumers enough of a "crowd?" Is the average Jim Beam drinker (skewing 35 and older) the right demographic for a crowdsourcing effort?

This forces a key point: One must carefully consider how appropriate crowdsourcing is for a brand. Like any new form of business, there are risks and rewards.

The Pros

+ If you build it (right), they will come. The level of consumer engagement can be extremely high.

+ It’s all about preference and taste. Insights are directly linked to the brand experience. Consumers can help guide product development.

+ Go green. Brand owners can save money; there typically aren’t financial incentives for participating. Small companies with limited budgets can get a lot of free insights and, in some cases, creative development.

+ Turn up the volume. The number of submissions is usually very high compared to the number of concepts turned out by an agency.

+ It’s all about the now. Since their input is used, consumers might consider the brand more relevant.

The Cons

+ Quantity versus quality. Sifting through a mass of ideas can take more time than engaging an agency in developing a solution. Also, if a brief is not written in "consumer-speak," it runs the risk of delivering unusable ideas.

+ Size matters. The size of the community that participates may represent only a small portion of the brand’s base. Therefore, feedback needs to be filtered appropriately.

+ Once you’re in, you’re in. Consumers could revolt if the campaign was pulled or the brand didn’t follow through. Watch out for "mob-mentality."

+ Old fuddy-duddy. Unless a brand’s agency partners champion crowdsourcing, they may be unable to support the effort. An external partner could, in theory, translate the results to other elements of the brand.

+ Show me a demo. Crowdsourcing is not  effective for every brand. The demographic makeup would likely determine levels of interest and participation.

+ Three-legged stool. Although the external cost of crowdsourcing is usually minimal, the internal budget can be significantly higher depending on the breadth of the campaign. Proper staffing and management can easily chew through a chunk of a marketing budget.

There’s no question that crowdsourcing is new and exciting, offering brand owners powerful opportunities to engage consumers. It is a robust tool that, when integrated properly, can develop a direct, emotional bond with consumers-and it adds another component to the branding mix. 

But the trick is not to over-rely on this new tool. Balance and strategy are still the keys to managing a brand; and the overall strategic direction must be managed and directed by the brand professionals. 

After all, as Seth Godin said, “We don’t want to buy what we invent. We want to be entertained, impressed, amazed, surprised and led. That’s what we pay them for.”  

John Miziolek is a brand strategist at Reset Branding Inc. Reach him at