Spreading the Buzz about Munich’s HYVE

Holy Digital Schnitzel and Bavarian Blog Pretzels, Batman, did you know that some of the most advanced netnographic work on the planet is being done in a cool little buzzing office located in an exciting university-embedded area of downtown Munich? Well. I sure didn’t.

At least, not until I met up with Professor Johann Füller and Hans Gebauer at the Associaton for Consumer Research conference in Memphis, Tennessee in October of last year. These two fine gentlemen introduced themselves and proceeded to tell me that Johann and his partners had built a marketing research and consumer insight business that was using netnography. Cool. They were maintaining the cultural quality of online community communications in their analysis. Kool 2.0. They were calling it “netnography.” The real name. Not some new name. Very kewl. And they were actually crediting me in their brochures and communications for inventing the technique. Well, that’s just super-über ultra fine.

There are so many companies out there today, and I won’t name names, and I genuinely hope to hear from them and invite them into the discussion, that don’t (or cant’t?) do what HYVE does even on this most fundamental level:

  • 1. Do a faithfully cultural analysis of online data,
  • 2. use legitimate procedures, doing due diligence in terms of finding existing research methods already developed, and
  • 3. give credit where credit is due.

That has disappointed me, because I know netnography has enormous potential to help bring the voice of customers and their communities into every aspect of marketing and management. Increasingly, I’ve been doing this work myself, giving presentations, teaching students the basics of the technqieus, recruiting Ph.D. student, and trying to spread the word about netnography.So it was a wonderful happy day when I got a chance to meet these kindred spirits at HYVE. Yesterday, I was treated to a full day of presentations from this business that sells innovation based on sophisticated netnographic inquiry, selling insight, design, and hardcore communal intelligence. Johann, Miki, Micheal, Hans, Gregor, Julia, and the rest of the HYVE welcomed me like I was an old friend, and showed me some of the work they do.

They’ve got lots of great details on their snappy web-site, which you can reach by clicking here. As you see on that site, they’ve got an A-list of happy clients, including Adidas, BMW, Miele, Gore, Vodafone, Swarovski, Audi, and many others.

I can’t reveal the exact details of a lot of what they showed me, but I do want to convey the spirit of their enterprise. Most of the studies they showed me were inquiries that took an extensive view of the online communities on the Internet, did comprehensive overviewing of the online communityscape, picked relevant areas to focus upon, and then got to work. The team of professional netnographers downloaded extensively, coded appropriately and propitiously, and did solid grounded theory development with the input of members of the guiding research team. They tested and compared findings and theories. Then they developed conclusions. This was academic-solid research. But….

As I do with my clients, they were doing it in the service of applied practical marketing and brand management questions. A variety of different questions. The kinds of questions I like to handle, including:

  • What sorts of opportunities/what white space of gaps exist for new products or services in this particular market category or industry?
  • What are the brand discourses held by online communities regarding my brand?
  • What are the global or social or consumption-oriented trends facing us in this particular area?
  • How is this particular marketing campaign or WOM marketing effort working out? What are the implications and what should we do?

Their analysis looked solid to me, and they also are able, thanks to the talents of their design team, to extend their research conclusions into innovative ideas that helped companies to realize the potential of their findings. This is an innovative approach to innovation that has yielded some outstanding new products.

I’m excited about HYVE and the work they are doing. I should state right up front that I have no financial stake in the business, although I think that the potential for us to collaborate in the future is very exciting. What stokes my professorial fire is that they are using netnographic techniques in ways that are faithful to the method and its legitimate standards. Professor Johann Füller is a brilliant scientist is running an honorable market research shop that remains faithful to academic principles of methodological rigor, research quality, and building on the extant body of scientific knowledge.

It was also a wonderful social occasion as, despite the fact that we had been separated by an ocean and different cultures, we were instantly on the same page, sharing ideas and high-level opinions about online communities, consumer-generated media, and netnography. I felt very much at home. Here’s a picture of me with some of the HYVE gang, who, as you can see, are a very handsome bunch.

rvk_and_hyve.jpg

Johann even virtually introduced me to one of his mentors, Eric von Hippel, the celebrated MIT Professor who invented Lead User Analysis, whose work has been enormously influential to me in my development of netnography. The group at HYVE even asked me to sign their wall for posterity. It took a little prompting, but I did it. Here’s a picture of the result.

signature_wall_at_hyve_2.jpg

So I thank the great people at HYVE for treating me royally and, maybe even more importantly, for treating the technique of netnography with the class and careful concern it merits. I look forward to continuing our fascinating discussions and to building on the strong base of research community we’ve begun. Prost!

Now, to top it all off, on my plane ride home from Munich (via Zurich), I had the pleasure of sitting next to Shae-Lynn Bourne, a very famous Canadian ice dancer who has competed in 3 Olympics. We had a great chat over the 7 hours of our flight together, and it was a real honor and pleasure to meet her. She put up with all my naive questions about what she did, educating me about what it was like to be at the pinnacle of athletic achievement, and her whole interesting life, and she was just all around incredibly nice, interested, and sweet. After a mad dash through Zurich airport after a late arrival and a very tight connection (I almost missed my plane home), it was a great way to return from a wonderful time in Munich. I hope to be back to visit again soon. And I hope to have the pleasure of seeing Shae-Lynn perform sometime soon, hopefully in Toronto so that I can bring my family.

If you really want my opinion, she was robbed: she should have won Gold in 1998!

User-Generated Branding in Munich

LMU InteriorNow that’s what a grand old University should look like. I’m currently in Munich for a Best Brands College event organized by Professor Anton Meyer of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität at München’s Institut für Marketing. It was a truly engaging event that started yesterday and went on today.

I got a chance to see the kind of work that some of Prof. Meyer’s Ph.D. students are doing here–Silke Bartsch, Ben Brudler, Florian Jodl, Alexandra Illek, Markus Rosier, Nina Specht, and Sina Fichtel–and I’m genuinely impressed.

This is a different model of scholarship, where the students are deeply involved in the business world, working with companies on their project, yet applying cutting edge technique to business problems. It isn’t so much about theory development per se, but theory in the service of particular practical problems. It’s refreshingly differently from the kind of scholarship that often goes on in North American b-schools, which is theoretically interesting and academically useful, but often has its flaws when it comes time to explaining and justifying itself to the business world. Of course, that’s not all-important, but any means, but it does mean something to me. There is all sort of debate on this question of relevance. Me, I’m in the camp of staying relevant to the business world. But that can, in practice, be a fine line to walk.

I saw real multidisciplinarity in the student projects that were presented. Although Prof. Meyer supervises 12 Ph.D. students by himself (whoah…that’s very different from the collaborative North American system, too), they deployed a wide range to techniques and methods, from psych questionnaires (using impressive video stimuli) to causal equation modeling of mass survey data from real managers in real companies, to netnography and critical incident studies of students’ servicescape experiences, to sophisticated collage methods.

This was a real eye opener, and I’m going to share some of the ideas I gathered from some of the projects with you in a future blog posting. The Ph.D. students here are Munich’s LMU university Marketing department are smart, they are talented, they learn rigorous techniques under Herr. Prof. Meyer’s tutelage, and then they go forth into the work world (lots into consulting), about 95% of them or more. That’s different. Doesn’t happen in the North American system very much, where we train Ph.D.s as professors. They’re also a very nice bunch to hang out with and I’ve enjoyed spending time getting to know them a little.

The Best Brands College was an event held for business practitioners, and I delivered the keynote today on “User-Generated Branding.” My core contention was that user-generated branding is happening whether companies want it to or not. It’s not really their decision. Not under their control. And that had some real interesting implications.

One of the presenters had a perspective of “How do I make money in this new space of online community generated advertising and WOM? Maybe there’s no money there. Maybe it’s all hype.”

I think that this perspective misses the point. I actually remember hearing that the Internet was a fad in earlier years, and was going to fade away. My friend Ingeborg Kleppe of NHH in Bergen had the presence of mind to keep some newspaper clippings that asserted that the Internet would be essentially over by the late 1990s. Seems sort of ridiculous in retrospect that people actually believed this. I love remembering those frustrating times. And if anyone says or writes that online communities won’t have major implications for business and marketing in the coming years, I just can’t help but think of those early predictions of the Internet. The same short sighted thinking.”How will anyone make money off of all those free web-pages? Big deal.”

The key proposition in my talk was that this is actually a change in society that is bigger than the short-term planning horizons of companies. Of course, there are companies that will make money by understanding the phenomenon and the trends and working with them rather than against them (can anyone say Google?). I have no doubt of that. But there are no magic bullets, no one-size-fits-all solutions. How could there be? What works for one brand might not work for another, for various reasons. And in fact, there are probably as many threats and challenges that this phenomenon poses to brand managers as there are opportunities for them. But can we really afford to ignore that complex change in reality?

What is required is a more subtle and holistic understanding (sometimes this is a difficult thing for anyone to do, not least of all managers who are constantly pressured in a variety of ways). An actual shift in perspective towards the lived communal experiences that are increasingly desired and common. And that’s not going to be easy. It’s not easy. And it’s not going to get any easier.

But consumer-generated branding happens. Whether you want it to, or not. We may as well get used to that, and start figuring out what it means to our entire view of what we do as marketers (maybe as members of a changing society, too). It’s important. And not just because it is or isn’t going to make us more money or not.