Hasbro Gives Control of Its Brand to Customers

Brand strategy is evolving as control shifts from companies to customers. Are companies ready to participate in, not control, this new era of branding?

Branding is defined as the practice of creating a name, symbol, or design that identifies and differentiates a product from other products. Most companies traditionally have used advertising, sponsorships, and other mass communication outlets as their primary branding platforms. But to truly differentiate, more brands are incorporating the customer experience into their branding efforts, particularly online.

Hasbro, for example, is transforming itself from a toy and game company to a "branded play company," according to President and CEO Brian Goldner. Many of Hasbro's more than 1,500 brands, including Monopoly, G.I. Joe, and Transformers, are already well-known to consumers. But Goldner wants to grow even more. "We are driving our brands to understand how consumers behave," he told the audience at last week's World Business Forum in New York. The company created a new mantra for its brand strategy: "re-imagine, reinvent, reignite."

He points to Monopoly as one example. "We bring to bear all the forms and formats that a Monopoly user would be interested in," Goldner says. The 75-year-old board game has added mobile apps, electronic versions, video games, online games, a customizable version, and continues its game partnership with McDonalds. "The more they play our games in all these other spaces, the more they come back to our [board] games. It does not cannibalize." As a result, Monopoly's brand grew by 12 percent from 2005 to 2009. He adds that each Hasbro brand has its own customer experience strategy relevant to its consumer base.

Goldner also touted a partnership with Discovery Channel to launch an online community called the Hub this week that features top brands. Its goal is to mix cartoons, game shows, user-generated content, and other information with online and television delivery platforms to enhance Hasbro's brands. "That allows us to create immersive brand experiences for consumers of all ages with any brand, anytime."

Hasbro's decision to extend its brand strategy is in line with how many companies are rethinking branding today, says Stephanie Fierman, managing director of consultancy Marketing Mojo. Companies must allow the brand to be defined by the customer, she says. Companies now participate in, not control, the direction of the brand.

"In the past, brands pulled the strings - they had all the information that was to be had, and so they were able to manage consumer expectations and impressions," Fierman says. "Today, any one individual has a megaphone that reaches literally millions of people in real time. The message is whatever each person wishes it to be."

Brands are no longer the shouters, Fierman says. They've got to be the listeners. "For brands that embrace a conversational relationship with the market, this can be an exciting experience that ultimately creates even more respect and love for a brand. But for marketers who are accustomed to maintaining a tight rein, there are fundamental challenges ahead."

The engaged customer
Customers want to be involved in the direction a brand takes. A recent Alterian report, Your Brand: At Risk or Ready for Growth, surveyed 2,000 consumers in the U.S. and U.K. It found that 75 percent of individuals believe there would be a positive impact from companies taking more time to find out about their needs and interests. In addition, 82 percent of those surveyed are willing to get involved in product and service development with a brand, and the same percentage says such involvement would make them more likely to promote the company to others.

"Brands have to recognize when, where, why, and how to engage with customers," says Mike Fisher, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Alterian. "Never before have we been able to engage with consumers, respond to them, and elicit their feedback [in the way we can now]."

Fisher says advertising creates social and emotional connection, and brands then need to take that awareness to the next level with engagement. "Branding requires coordination and timing across all channels," he says. "It will be less about promotion, and more about engagement. There will be more socialization of the brand. The challenge is how do companies embrace, monitor, and measure that engagement."

Corensic builds trust and credibility
Software company Corensic has built its branding strategy around building trust and credibility with prospects online. The company makes products for software developers to identify bugs in their software. "Developers don't buy products, they want relationships," says Prashant Sridharan, senior director of marketing for Corensic. "We need to convey credibility and knowledge so they see us as a resource."

Instead of only advertising or mass emailing to a list of leads, Sridharan took to the online world and engaged with potential customers via message boards and forums. Its employees answer questions and make themselves available to prospects looking for more information. "Developers are very passionate about self-education," he says. "If we can get their attention, that's the first step." From the forums, prospects are directed to Corensic's website, which publishes detailed information about not only its products, but about software development resources in general. It provides white papers, webinars, and other information in a passive way in an attempt to define its brand as a trusted advisor.

Working with Optify, Corensic gets lead intelligence about who's coming to its website from where, what they're looking at, how much time they're spending on the site, and what content resonates most with prospects. "We can make decisions about what works best," Sridharan says. For example, he discovered that very high-level technical developers were coming from the forums to download a specific white paper, but not from its Google ads. He canceled his Google campaigns and saw no negative impact on site traffic or conversions. Also, he tracks referral sites and changes focus on different forums depending on how well they drive traffic.

Since launching its new product in June, Corensic has seen an increase in organic traffic by 300 percent, and an increase in overall traffic by 50 percent.

Fierman of Mojo Marketing says that more companies will embrace alternative branding initiatives that involve customers. And it's a change that will be beneficial for all.

"I'm hopeful about the future," she says. "My own professional community is full of marketers who understand that a brand is no longer corporate IP that needs to be policed and protected: it's a living organism. Instead of being talked at, consumers want to talk with a brand, and see the very human passion behind what you sell. That can be scary, but it's also pretty darn exciting."