The Nova Theory of Customer Relationships

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What’s this weird picture up here?

I had a great discussion a couple of days ago with Lois Kelly. Lois Kelly is a thinker, blogger, author and consultant who works in the area of online community as well. She’s written a book called “Beyond Buzz” which was just awarded a gold prize in the 2008 Axiom Business Book Awards in the Advertising/Marketing/Public Relations category. She also and has her own excellent blog called bloghound.

We were talking about the changed in customer relationships that have happened over the last decade or so, as technology has empowered more and more consumers, allowed them to organize with one another, and given them a voice where the didn’t have one before. I started free-associating and I came up with the metaphor that consumers were like business’s “mute slaves” for decades. Obedient and silent recipients of marketing. And then, gradually, but apparently suddenly from the company’s managers point of view, they were overcoming their muteness, starting to talk back, to resist, to assert their power.

And that’s sort of scary to most marketing and brand managers who really don’t know how to handle these changes, under what Lois aptly called their “command-and-control” mode of interaction.

After the conversation, I was thinking about that classic movie, Planet of the Apes. The feral woman that Charlton Heston encounters, and who later becomes his bunkmate is named “Nova.” As in ready to go nova. Ready to burst. She’s wild-haired and matted, mute: an obvious animal. Heston/Taylor keeps trying to civilize her, teach her to speak, starting with her own name.

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In the second movie, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, his linguistic lessons finally pay off and Nova finds her vocal chords. Of course this is a very symbolic act. The whole idea of finding voice is all about organizing, overcoming oppression, becoming resistant as a group of community. The great social theorist Albert O. Hirschman even used the term “voice” to refer to a special kind of social resistance.

Consumers as company’s long-time mute slaves. For a long time companies just put out their products, moved their advertising through the mass market, got them on the shelves and the consumers obediently bought the goods. They behaved. They were at a comfortable distance. When we wanted to hear them, we paid them a few bucks, brought them into a focus group, hid behind the one-way glass and they obediently spoke.

“Talk, Nova, talk.”

Then we could turn off the volume, walk out of the room, and the voice was gone. Nice, neat, clean. But now they were actually teaching each other to speak, they were sharpening their tools and skills, they were making fun of our brands, they were making their own parody ads, they were finding our emails, they were reaching out to us, starting to knock on our doors. It’s not Planet of the Apes. Oh no. Oh no, it’s Night of the Living Dead. Our brains, they’re out to ear our brains.

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So much of what is happening with many companies sordid attempts to cope with newly empowered consumers fits into this strange metaphor. Companies are using legal means to try to gag consumers, to put the muffle back on, to shut them up, get them to stop, turn them back into the obedient slaves of the good old days. Remove the threat. Stop the conversation. Make them listen. Make them behave.

So maybe that mute slave metaphor has some deeper roots to it after all. Or maybe I was just watching too much weird stuff about Eliot Spitzer. Who knows?

Harry Potter and the Prosumer Prosecution Predicament

jk_rowling_colors.jpgRob Boostrom, a Ph.D. Student at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale sent me this news flash about the way Joanne “J.K.” Rowling is interacting with some of the Harry Potter fans who have made her a British billionaire richer than the Queen. And this one has lessons to behoove all marketers, methinks.

The story, from Yahoo’s OMG entertainment news site, is titled “JK Rowling bashes ‘Harry Potter Lexicon.” Harry Potter author Joanne Rowling has filed a lawsuit in Manhattan against a fan named Steven Vander Ark, for trying to publish an unauthorized reference work entitled the Harry Potter Lexicon.

Mr. Ark is what I’ve termed a “superfan” in my thesis dissertation work. He is the editor of a web-site, also called the Harry Potter Lexicon, which contains fan-created essays and encyclopedic material on the Potter universe. Check it out. It contains lists of spells and potions found in the books, a catalog of magical creatures, and a listing of the different people mentioned in the wizarding world. In short, the fans have gone through the different books in the series and cataloged the material, presenting it in a new way. And this is one of many such sites that do things like this.

Rowling has accepted the fan-based web sites, but-in old school fashion-does not want the work published on paper. Even by a small Muskegon, MI-based published called RDR Books. RDR Books’ website contains lots of very interesting material on the lawsuit.

One of the main bases of the lawsuit, according to the OMG article, is that Rowling “intends to publish her own definitive Harry Potter encyclopedia.” So the main reason here seems to be that J. K. Rowling wants to publish her own book, apparently to make even more money. A lot of the community comments on this new story (there were a whopping 3679 this morning) are about how greedy Joanne seems to be. “Doesn’t she have enough money?” Those sorts of comments. Then there are those who defend her, citing her legendary rags-to-riches story” “You go, girl. Protect what’s yours,” they say.

Her statements are indeed interesting and paradoxical. She says that failing to accept her position to restrict fan’s freedom to publish derivative works will lead, in the end, to less freedom for fans to work with material online: “a severe alteration of author-fan relations.” Hmmm. That must be much worse than suing them for publishing a few fan-like books.

The attorney for RDR Books, Lizbeth Hasse, said last week that Rowling is seeking a monopoly over the work, which is not part of copyright law. She called the lexicon-making activity of the fans ” a very legitimate literary activity, like a reference book or a guide to literature.” Apparently, Joanne Rowling thanked Steven Vander Ark, and has praised the online lexicon.

Ms. Hasse is certainly correct that there is a long history of fans working through authors’ material and collecting it in a way that is “fan-friendly.” That’s a very fannish activity. I wrote about such fan activity in my thesis, in which I relate this activity to “Superfans.” I again quote from Kozinets (1997):

bjo_trimble.jpg“Bjo Trimble exemplifies a superfan. Bjo (pronounced “bee-JOE”) was one of the original series’ fans responsible for the letter writing campaign that saved the show from early cancellation and resulted in the third season of Star Trek (a decisive season in Star Trek history because, without it, there would not have been sufficient episodes for syndication).”

With some help from Gene Roddenberry, Bjo and other fans organized and implemented the successful and very famous campaign and, in many Star Trek culture members’ perception, started the age of television activism, a media-related form of consumerism. She also wrote one of the first, and still one of the best, fan reference works on the original Star Trek series, the Star Trek Concordance, which was professionally published and gained mass distribution and collectible status.

startrekconcordance_1.jpgThe Star Trek Concordance was the Harry Potter Lexicon of its day. It collected the episodes, credits, cast, and plot summaries of the Star Trek television shows-all of the 79 original episodes, plus the 21 animated episodes. The concept for the book was based on a privately printed fandom publication established by Dorothy Jones Heydt in 1968. Trimble worked on the book extensively and it was first published professionally by Ballantine Books in 1976. Later, the book was endorsed by Paramount Pictures.

The big difference in these cases was that Gene Roddenberry was the quintessential community manager. Her knew how to work with–not against–his creation’s enthusiastic fans, to share his creation, to use fandom to spread influence and build allies. Roddenberry and the fans were  on the same side. I can’t imagine Gene Roddenberry (to fans, he is always referred to as “Gene”) suing Bjo Trimble for writing the Star Trek Concordance instead of him. In fact, I’m sure he thanked her for it.

Bjo Trimble was also one of the founders of the first and longest-lived consortium of Star Trek fan clubs, the Star Trek Welcommittee. “Among active members of the Star Trek culture, Bjo Trimble is a star. She had her own set of roles that complimented and enhanced Gene’s. Her ability to bring active fans together and draw them to Star Trek conventions is comparable to the drawing power of an actor from one of the television series. She is thus a frequent guest at cons. In convention brochures, she is described as a “superfan.” In one of the Star Trek conventions on whose planning committee I worked, Bjo was considered as a fan guest because she was not only a star, but still considered “one of us” (Kozinets 1997).

In my Ph.D. dissertation, my behavioral observations of fan activity revealed a category of fan not accounted for in past written accounts of the types of fans. To quote the unpublished thesis:

This type of fan was the “superfan,” a person who had risen from the ranks of fandom to become a celebrity, someone famous for being a fan, someone paradoxically who was “one of us” and yet now elevated and apart from common fandom. The mixed emotions that can come from such transcendence of “common fandom” seem evident in a conversation I had with Wilfred, a fellow FanTrek member, when we were minding fan club tables together at a fan-run convention.

“It’s funny,” Wilfred said, rubbing his eyeglasses on his yellow sweater. “A couple of friends of mine, old friends, were guests of honour at [something] con in Niagara Falls, New York [just recently]. They were sitting at an autograph table, with a lineup of people getting autographs. And I wondered if I should have asked them for their autograph.” He laughed, a boyish, high-pitched little giggle (Convention Fieldnotes, 10.28.1995).

This is a high-status category of fan, where the average Joe Shmoe consumer turns into a “superfan.” The person is valued as equivalent to celebrities, as valuable producers of material for further consumption. These superfan and the “Trekkie” fan classifications seem to transcend descriptive delineation by providing cultural archetypes of sacred achievement and profane degeneration -the angels and demons of the Star Trek fan community.” From the elevated producer-consumer to the denigrated, passive über-consumer-these categories defined fandom relative to levels of active ascendancy or torpid thralldom.

Is Steven Vander Ark a “Superfan”? Does he have drawing power? Linking power? Community power? Would he be a guest at a Harry Potter Convention (and there have been many thus far)? 

I’ve been writing and thinking about prosumers for all of my academic career. “Prosumers” are those groups of productive-consumers that Marshall McLuhan first theorized about in the 1960s, and Alvin Toffler named in the 1980s in his book “The Third Wave.” We’ve know they exist for a long time, but there are very few thinkers (until recently) who have thought about them and their social and business implications. Two brilliant exceptions-both of them at MIT-are Eric von Hippel, with his essential work on lead users, and Henry Jenkins with his pioneering work on fan culture.

It seems to me that after flirting with this topic for about a quarter of a century, we are finally starting to take prosumers and the prosuming that they do seriously. But we lack a vocabulary for what is going on. We lack frameworks to put it in. We lack theories to help make sense of it. So much of what is being written is description without theory or organization.

During the late 1990s, we were seeing a lot of this “sue the fans” activity. I wrote about it in several places. Grant McCracken wrote about it in his masterful classic “Plenitude” (a book everyone interested in popular culture and consumption should read). Henry Jenkins has been writing about it and still is. Stephen Brown has noted it in his work on the Harry Potter phenomenon.

This recent lawsuit is a sign that businesses (and Rowling is, in this case, without a doubt, acting as Rowling, Inc.) still don’t know how to deal with active, creative, participative fans. According to Stephen Brown of the University of Ulster (and a one-man publishing empire himself), there has been a long-standing “uneasy” relationship between Harry Potter fans and Rowling (Brown 2007; in the Consumer Tribes volume).

“[Rowling’s] legal representatives have been quick to quash any infringement of copyright law. School plays based on the boy wizard are forbidden, Tributes websites have received threatening cease-and-desist letters. Legitimate schools of witchcraft have been shut down by order of Warner Bros. Books about the phenomenon have been removed from sale….” (Brown 2007, p. 185).

Indeed, Prof. Brown, who has written a wonderful book on the marketing of the Harry Potter phenomenon entitled “Wizard! Harry Potter’s Brand Magic” (Brown 2005) characterizes the three “phases of development” of Rowling’s relationship with her fan community. It began with “enthusiasm” and a reciprocal relationship. It later developed into “exasperation” as she became frustrated with and tired of all the attention. Finally it developed into “exploitation” and she discovered how to direct and use the fan community to achieve her own ends.

The idea of exploitation doesn’t leave much room for superfans. Superfans are powerful. Superfans are builders, creators, doers. Superfans are connectors. Superfans are a challenge to creator’s “official” legally-entrenched power. They are out to produce, as we noted in the Consumer Tribes volume. They are entrepreneurial. They are members of inno-tribes, creative groupings. They are pushing at the boundaries of our current system, opening up gaps for new institutional arrangements in which consumers have the power to do much more than traditionally consume.

Here’s what is interesting for our greater understanding and theory development.

“The consumption of the superfan has likely now become professional -since they are being paid by fans to be up-to-date, the avocation has become vocation. Superfans attend conventions in order to promote their newest book, to sell, sign and personalize, as well as to teach and commune with other members, sharing in the experience in a way that real “stars” -outsiders, actors, distant phenomena-will not, and perhaps can not. Superfans are famous for being fans, for their distinction in consumption practice, their cultural competence, their ability to act as communication channels and sources. The endlessly devoted consumer becomes the endlessly invoked producer, the subject of advertising now its object, the market self made self-marketer. At the superfan level, consumption has been replaced by production: the cycle is somehow at this stage satisfyingly complete” (Kozinets 1997).

We don’t really know what superfans are, or what they can be.

• Are they only there to be exploited and used for our own gain?
• Are they WOM & PR promotion machines—for good and for bad?
• Are they a breeding ground for community-building activities?
• Are they ambassadors?
• Are they partners who have financial and legal rights?
• Are they managers in training?
• Do they have any rights, any claims to the brands, symbols, and myths that they purchase and play with?
• What are the tradeoffs involved in dealing with them?

These issues are ones that many brand managers are increasingly facing. Both as an opportunity and as a threat. And not just in the media industries. Some very interesting books have been written recently that begin to grapple with these issues and how to address them. Three that I like are The Culting of Brands by Douglas Atkin, Citizen Consumers by Ben O’Connell and Jackie Huba, and Brand Hijack by Alex Wipperfürth.

When someone creates a video parody of your ad-what do you do? When someone creates a blog or a web-site that uses your brand in a negative way, steals your music, insults your trademarks, inverts your characters, what do you do? A video of the Jolly Green Giant trying to pick up Betty Crocker in a singles bar appears on YouTube: what do you do? A ripped mashup rap song about your brand starts gaining massive play. Kids start teaching each other how to turn cans of WD-40 into deadly weapons: what do you do?

This isn’t just about the straightforward use of your branded material. This isn’t just about taking your brand and making classifications or books out of it. Superfans, superconsumers, active innovating prosumers are everywhere. Building alliances. Building knowledge. And every quarter they are growing in power. The possibilities are nearly endless…

There are lots of ways to deal with them.

And not all of them involve legal prosecution.

REFERENCES

Atkin, Douglas (2004), The Culting of Brands: When Customers Become True Believers, New York: Portfolio.

Brown, Stephen (2005), Wizard! Harry Potter’s Brand Magic. London: Cyan.

Brown, Stephen (2007), “Harry Potter and the Fandom Menace” in Cova, Bernard, Robert V. Kozinets, and Avi Shankar Consumer Tribes, Oxford and Burlington, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann, 177-192.

Kozinets, Robert V. 1997. To boldly go: A hypermodern ethnography of Star Trek fans’ culture and communities consumption. Ph.D. dissertation, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

McConnell, B. and J. Huba. 2006. Citizen marketers: when people are the message. Chicago, IL: Kaplan.

McCracken, Grant (1997), Plenitude, Toronto, Canada: Periph.: Fluide.

Wipperfürth, Alex (2005), Brand Hijack, New York, NY: Portfolio.

QMR Review of Consumer Tribes book

An early concept for the Tribes book cover

In a blatant act of self-promotion, today I’ve decided to post a book review of my co-edited volume “Consumer Tribes” from the international and interdisciplinary marketing journal Qualitative Marketing Research. To attempt to make up for the distasteful, unseemly, and downright rude self-interest of the post, I’m also posting some “highly collectible” alternate book covers that didn’t make it into the publication stream. I hope you enjoy looking at them.

Oh, and I’ll add an offer to the table. If you are interested in writing a blog review of the Consumer Tribes book, let me know. I have five copies of the book that I can send out as promotional copies. I’d be happy to send free review copies to the first five bloggers who contact me interested in writing a review of the book.

Many thanks to my colleague Professor Paul Henry of the University of Sydney for this wonderful book review. In actuality, this review isn’t so much a review of the book as it is, but an extension and development of a number of ideas. The review is a sort of distillation and application, more attuned to marketing and brand management than most of the book’s chapters. It draws quite heavily on the first chapter of the book, and references a lot of the other chapters sites as examples, but what it is doing is arguing for the relevance of the book and its topic not for academics so much as for practitioners, for marketers themselves. I thus thought it would be of particular interest to those of you who are practicing marketers.

Book Review: Consumer Tribes
Edited by Bernard Cova, Robert Kozinets, and Avi Shankar
Publisher Name: Elsevier
Place of Publication: Oxford
Publication Year: 2007
From: Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal
Volume 11 Number 1 2008 pp. 113-115
Copyright (c) Emerald Group Publishing Limited ISSN 1352-2752

The idea of Consumer Tribes has become a hot topic amongst both academics and practitioners. No wonder this is the case, because traditional thinking around market segmentation is looking decidedly tied. This book draws on cutting-edge research from around the world to bring the tribal concept to life across a great variety of social and product setting ranging from Harry Potter fans, Royal heritage seekers, Swedish Goth culture, Italian metrosexuals and pipe smokers, through to Star Trek and Tom Petty fans, Hummer owners, Harley bike riders, surfers and films; to name a few.

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Cova and Cova (2002) drew on Maffesoli (1996) to introduce the idea to marketers that modern consumer society can be thought of in tribal terms. The core point is that need for community and social connectedness has become the priority over that of material consumption objects. The reasons for this relates to the familiar things many of us find missing in our everyday lives. For example, fragmentation of society and value placed on individualism combined with technology and time pressure have left many feeling socially isolated and disconnected.

We are after all tribal creatures. Tribal belonging is a core source of meaning. Tribal rituals perpetuate social bonding and the myths and stories about who we are and where we fit, sustain our sense of esteem.

Thus, the word tribe is used to emphasize the yearning for old style values such as sense of local identification that fosters re-enchantment with the world. Tribes are held together by shared emotions and passions amongst networks of people that often cannot be neatly stereotyped in demographics terms. The binding source is shared passions, not demographic labels such age, gender, and social class.

Smart marketers can take advantage of this yearning for communal identity by fostering and supporting communities of product users. However, they do need to understand that tribal members do not simply conform to marketer actions. They often shape product meanings and roles in relatively independent ways that marketers may not necessary anticipate. Consumers become producers. The tribal approach is different to the traditional idea of market segmentation where consumers are targeted in an individuated manner.

Consideration of consumer-consumer linkages takes priority over marketer-consumer linkages. This is because it is the human connections that provide the core source of emotional value; products simply facilitate.

Tribal is also different from traditional segmentation in that people can be in many tribes, and that tribes themselves are dynamic and fluid. The traditional idea in market segmentation is one of marketers acting on the consumer, rather than fitting in with tribal interactions. This is a challenging mind-shift for marketers looking for short-term results.

Take the case of the Paris association formed to administer the mass night tours through the city by roller skating fans that has seen up 25,000 skaters on a given night. These tours started out organically by a few skaters getting together. It was never about products per se. As it grew marketers tried to sponsor the event, yet the community rejected these overtures insisting that any marketer involvement be on the tribe’s terms, which was most importantly about retaining the tribe’s independence from the commercial.

Tribes are not primarily about the buying decisions made by individual consumers. Rather, in-tune marketers seek to understand the potential for collective action such as appropriating and adapting products in ways that are not marketer-driven. For example, the resurgence of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer in 2002 owes little to the marketing done by the company. It was adopted by alternative circles as a brand that was so out it was in. People in the know began consuming without being targeted by the company. The beer’s success is routed in rejection of aggressive marketing. Other tribes are more actively marketer-fostered. Salomon in entering the snowboard category went to great lengths to understand the ritual and practices of the tribe. They started at the micro-community level involving a small group of snowboarders in product design and testing. They embedded themselves in the culture, creating events and finding ways to the support the shared passion of tribe. They triumphed in a competitive market over the likes of Nike, Fila, and Rossignal.

The term tribe is closely aligned to another hot marketing term – brand community. These often consist of more formal organizational structures and as the name implies revolve around a specific brand. An example is The Hummer Club Inc. in the USA for owners of the General Motors (GM) vehicle. Although accredited by GM, this is a private non-profit organization. Interestingly, in-group bonds partly derive from vocal negative reactions to the “gas-guzzling monster” from non-owners.

Another example is the “My Nutella” community. This product category is different to sporting goods for youth culture or very expensive vehicles for the wealthy. Nutella is an everyday grocery product that has managed to attract a passionate following. The marketer has capitalized on this following by setting up a web site that fosters natural interaction amongst passionate consumers.

Identification and affiliative motivations stemming from group membership is an important mechanism for tribal creation. However, another feature is that given these tribes are not usually controlled by marketers is that they do not always act right. There are the extreme anti-corporate activities exemplified in the likes of Adbusters producing “sub-vertising.” Then there are the Harry Potter tribes writing their own stories – hundreds of thousands – and distributing them across the web. Actions like this can make the copyright owner uneasy.

You have to think hard before taking your most loyal customers to court. Thus, the most passionate consumers are often also the most fragile and require careful handing. There are many other examples of consumers playing around with products and even holding on to the product even when the marketer discontinues support (e.g. the Apple Newton community). The suggestion is that marketers risk stifling the shared passion through attempts to curb these activities. Hence, the imperative is to understand this flow of creative activity and foster it in productive ways. It means a rebalancing of power relations, often through consumer’s use of new technology, between consumers and producers. This constitutes a new reality for marketers.

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It is important to emphasize that tribes are not necessarily centered on a particular brand or product as is typically associated with the notion of brand community. A tribe will often appropriate and adapt a range of products. Pabst beer was appropriated by bicycle couriers, along with their obvious set of bicycle-related needs. In-line skating and snowboarding participation is much more than just purchase of rollerblades or snowboards. There is whole constellation of other products and brands that tribal rituals prescribe.

Another even broader example is that of the Italian Metrosexual tribe. This tribe has appropriated a great range of aesthetic products and activities ranging across skin and hair care, fashion labels, modes behaviour and social participation. Given this, it is critical for marketers to flip their thinking from a consumer-product centricity to a social relations perspective … which just happens to involve a range of supporting products.

This book argues for a “true shift in the underpinnings of marketing,” where marketers partner with tribal networks in ways where consumers “teach marketers,” rather than the traditional approach where marketers “study consumers.” Another suggestion is that marketers may not necessarily have to send out completely formed messages to the marketplace. Given the potential for potent creative activity within a tribe, leaving gaps and disconnects opens the possibility for consumers to assert their own productive urges and fosters interplay amongst the network. This may act as a significant mechanism in which ownership is organically nurtured (rather than communicated and injected) throughout the tribe. It also leaves room for possibility of mystery and fantasy in one’s life.

Tribes personalize, authenticate and enrich members’ lives. This is far more potent than a marketer-directed brand image message.