Guide to successful collaboration (part 2: Common Ground)

Last week I wrote about how brands can empower consumers with collaborative tools – from basic social media engagement leading up to entire collaborative systems. But empowerment is really only half of the story for a collaborative brand. The other part is Common Ground.

Collaboration is simply put people and brands working together to achieve a shared goal. This means that a positive collaborative relationship can only exist if people have affinity for a brand (think of passion brands like Apple, Nike and Harley-Davidson), or when people share an interest with a brand. For instance, few people have affinity for GE, but many people have affinity for the environment. So brand and consumers can still find each other in GE:Ecomagination. 

Simply put, it’s not enough for brands to provide collaborative tools. They also need people who want to use these tools, for which you need Common Ground. 

Empowerment and Common Ground are the two main dimensions that describe a collaborative relationship. There are basically 4 types of collaborative relationships (and many sub-types that I won’t go into now):


1. Pretenders

Many brands are jumping on the collaborative bandwagon with social media initiatives or creative competitions. For instance, 3M Submit Your Idea or Nokia Tune Remake. But there’s no collaborative relationship if people don’t know about the Empowerment tools, or don’t care about them. These brands have started their collaborative journey; next step is to either increase relevance of their tools or to better promote them. 

2. Potentials

These are brands that people want to collaborate with, but the brands don’t yet offer the tools to do so - at the risk of losing opportunity or goodwill. It’s not a bad position to start from; next step is to start developing collaborative tools and put people’s energy to use. Harley-Davidson and DC Shoes are great examples here.

3. Newbies

In this case there’s hardly an existing relationship; both Empowerment and Common Ground are at a low level. This can be the case with existing brands that are out of touch or with entirely new brands and startups. Next step for existing brands is to become genuinely interested in what people are passionate about – otherwise they may soon become irrelevant. New brands and startups have the opportunity to build a brand from scratch and work with consumers to figure out what the brand will become, simultaneously building Empowerment and Common Ground. (crowdsourced children’s stories) is an example of a completely new idea that has the potential to grow with its consumers from day 1. AirBnB is an example of a startup that went this route already. By involving consumers early on AirBnB was pushed beyond what the founders initially envisioned the brand to be, with an active community as a result.

4. Collaborators

There are many possible scenario’s here, with the most iconic relationship type being the collaborative system where reciprocity can come from anywhere in the ecosystem. Not many brands have achieved this status yet, but many are well on their way such as Threadless, AirBnB and American Express OPEN. A typical next step for Collaborators is to increase engagement with all people (not just innovators and creators), consumer segments and other stakeholders. Other typical next steps include expanding the collaboration arena (e.g. beyond digital into physical spaces) and turning one-off collaborative initiatives into an integral part of a brand’s product offering and communication.