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The blog text was created as part of the master level course 'Advanced Perspectives in Brand Co-creation' in autumn 2020.
As the theory of branding evolves, brands are no longer understood as trademarks. According Martin Kornberger, author of Brand Society, Brands can be seen as platforms: “They are an invitation to participate, to actively construct meaning. Brands need interaction and engagement, otherwise they remain empty”. Kornberger’s analogy shows that co-creation lies at the heart of today’s branding, which generates benefits for all and creates value for stakeholders through an active, creative and social process based on collaboration between organizations and participants.
As the advance of technology has led to a hyper-connected world, brand co-creation becomes more efficient and versatile. Consumers’ easy access to information and each other allows more stakeholders to co-create the brand meaning and brand experiences, which we call blurring the branding boundaries. The broad availability of the connected network also allows existing brands to expand their geographic reach and societal roles, which we call broadening the branding boundaries. At the Web 2.0 era, branding in a hyper-connected world presents a unique challenge that requires brands to reassess their approach in co-creation.
To explore the hyper-connectivity in branding, the brand co-creation on Youtube might be the perfect embodiment of the phenomenon. As one of the most visited website on the internet, Youtube is not only known as a corporate brand but also a platform where users can develop personal brands. When launched in June 2005, Youtube provided a very simple interface that users could upload, publish and view videos, and stood out from similar service providers in a short time span due to its fast growth. Offering the solution of removing the technical barriers to video sharing online, Youtube was once an ad-free environment designed for amateur-produced videos. After being acquired by Google in October 2006, Youtube adopted an e-commerce model and achieved more growth because of viral videos such as Charlie Bit My Fingers. Youtube’s fruitful commercialization attracts customers from big media Industry, i.e. Disney, which began to see Youtube as a new channel of distribution that provides interactivity-based advertisement rather than a rival that threatens the media industry. Since then Youtube has become a platform brand that hosts a complex ecosystem where corporate brands, personal brands and individual users part-take the co-creation.
So how does brand co-creation look like on Youtube? In 2010, Youtube redesigned its video page: many tools and options were removed or hidden (which you scroll out by clicking), the “Broadcast Yourself” tagline was removed from the logo, and the 5 stars rating system were changed to the like or dislike system etc. The efforts were made to have users watch more videos by removing the clutters that compete for users’ attentions, which highly increased the site’s viewing. Through expanding the network of people, devices and organizations, Youtube provides stakeholders the ubiquitous access to information and products, allowing all entities continuous access to each other regardless of time or location. A straightforward example can be users’ activities in the comment section. The comment function allows content creators to interact directly with the viewers and also allow viewers to interact with each other anytime and anywhere.
Besides technology, the transparency of the platform is another crucial element that helps build a friendly environment for stakeholder co-creation. The head of Search and Discovery at YouTube, Cristos Goodrow, commented that the openness of the platform has positive influences on the society in different ways. Users can publish their content without being reviewed by Youtube to decide whether it’s worthy of publication. They can reach to a wide audience and develop a career by doing so. In a sense, the platform provides job opportunities and content creators are treated as business partners by Youtube. In the places where literacy is low, Youtube can serve as a mean that broadcasts knowledge as people can understand the content without having the ability to read. In addition, by maintaining an environment where stakeholders feel comfortable to express themselves freely, Youtube also becomes an outlet where creators that own personal brands can play the multiple societal roles in branding, i.e. arbiters of controversy or catalysts of communities.
Through this process, the branded entities incorporate knowledge and skills of others into their brands. In fact, the significance of co-creation goes beyond stakeholders’ interactions on the platform. The stakeholders also contribute to developing Youtube’s product. Specifically, users contribute to the algorithm, which determines the quality of Youtube’s personalization service, by simply using the website. Cristos Goodrow commented the so called algorithm is “a bunch of codes that are married to users’ behaviours,” and “if there are no people coming to Youtube tomorrow, the algorithm wouldn’t work anymore.”
To a certain extent, Youtube has fostered a transparent and trustful environment that encourages brand co-creation, which is proven to benefit the platform itself and create value for all stakeholders by its success and popularity. Naturally, Youtube encounters bigger branding challenges as the company continues to scale and more players join the game. Researchers suggest one important issue is the conflicts between user-generated content (UGC) and the big media industry.
As mentioned, media industry is interested in investing in Youtube as user participation creates loyal audience. However, user participation creates an unpredictable market that is not commercial-friendly, which Youtube resolves by intensifying its commercialization. For example, adding ads to the videos. Nevertheless, commercialization is incompatible with UGC culture that accounts for the domain portion of the platform. In a long run, UGC culture will no longer reflect the Youtube slogan,”Broadcast Yourself.”
The challenge for Youtube to balance in between profits and brand authenticity can be approached by co-creation perspective. To manage the brand, they can start creating a strong brand by reassessing their unique identity, which will provide cohesion when engaging the co-creation process with stakeholders. The takeaway for both Youtube and the media industry is that brands are constantly developing, so they should let go of the control and embrace the dynamic market.
Text by Hsin-Ying Tsai, a master level student at Oulu Business School
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