Dealing with Unintentional Crowd-Sourcing

As marketers, we carefully construct strategic marketing plans and campaigns to position our brands and target specific consumer groups.  However, there can be surprises or unexpected responses that can either elevate or destroy your business.  What should you do when the public (or a segment thereof) takes control of your brand?  I guess a good term for this could be “unintentional crowd-sourcing.”

A number of brands have gone through this experience and benefitted immensely.  Timberland, the 41-year-old brand of tough and functional footwear for hikers, outdoors aficionados and tradesmen was unexpectedly adopted as the unofficial boot of the hip-hop culture in the early 1990s.  By the time Tupac Shakur wore his “Super Boot” in the film Juice and fellow NYC-based rapper and then-buddy Notorious B.I.G. name-dropped the brand throughout his 1994 debut Ready to Die, it was clear that hip-hop was having a major influence on Timberland.

While there was a risk that the urban, street culture take-over could alienate the loyal Timberland customer base, the brand did not change its marketing approach, choosing to remain true to the philosophy of authenticity that made it great.

“We look at it as almost one core consumer. We build the best boots you can make. That’s part of our history; we always wanted to build more boots than you’ll ever need. And if it sells in the city, great; if it’s sold to a guy in northern New Hampshire, that’s great, too,” says Ken Beaulieu, director of classic footwear at Timberland. “To us, it’s more about the product first and the consumers will follow. They look for us for true authentic stuff.”

Several decades and explosive growth (from $200 million to well north of $1 billion) later, Timberland remains wildly popular among two seemingly diametrically opposite demographics that have both shown immense loyalty to the brand: the urban customer and the classic outdoorsman.

Another shoe company that was adopted as the top footwear option by a specific segment is Red Wing Shoes.  For more than a century Red Wing has been selling high-quality footwear specifically designed for the demanding work of industries such as mining, logging and farming.  In the late 1990s while on a business trip to the UK, Red Wing CEO Bill Sweasy was invited to visit “one of our biggest fans,” Eric Clapton. Apparently, Red Wings were Clapton’s shoe of choice for many years.  The mutual appreciation resulted in Red Wing forming a sponsorship deal for Clapton’s 2001 tour.

At roughly the same time, many indie musicians began wearing Red Wings.  Now Red Wings are arguably the premier shoe of the hipster crowd. I’d venture to guess that a count of shoes worn in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn would result in Red Wing being the hands-down winner.  Interestingly, Red Wing has not actively pushed this trend; they have remained authentic to their brand story and simply let the audience find them. This recently produced video featuring indie music favorite and Wisconsin native Justin Vernon of the band Bon Iver is about as hard as they’ve promoted themselves to this segment.

Arguably the brand that has become the most synonymous with the hipster/indie music scene is Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR). This old, cheap, “sub-premium” beer of the working class (originally brewed in Milwaukee) is the long-reigning nectar of the hipster gods.  While PBR does sponsor smaller and trendy events and organizations, it purposefully avoids any aggressive marketing efforts – as this would be seen as very uncool among the hipster crowd.  However, it should be noted that PBR originally did have a strategy to capture the young, urban, trend-setter segment and chose to sponsor and support bike messengers back in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

So, what is the best path to follow when your brand goes off into a new and unplanned direction?  The answer is very clear – stay true to your brand.  Don’t pander, don’t change your tone of voice or core consumer and don’t alienate your original constituencies.  Just ride the wave, support distribution channels, be authentic – and watch the sales roll in.