Which Big Brands Are Courting the Maker Movement, and Why

From Levi’s to Home Depot

Quirky offers brand partners three benefits, argues Bret Kovacs, its head of brand partnerships. “First, we are faster; we bring new products to market in months instead of years. Second, our products come with homegrown stories and personalities,” thanks to the real-life makers behind the inventions, says Kovacs. The third, and likely most important, benefit is that potential customers have heavily tweaked the merchandise before it ever hits the shelves. Anywhere from a few hundred to 2,000 Quirky members offer input on each item—from voting on the initial idea to brainstorming on the packaging to dreaming up the product’s name and marketing slogan. For instance, about 2,400 Quirky “influencers” contributed to launching the egg holder. “That’s like 2,400 CEOs who can say, ‘I helped make that,’” he adds. 

Photo: Sasha Maslov

Are some big marketers threatened by the Quirky process? “We are redefining the way consumer products will be developed in the future. Large, forward-thinking companies want to join forces and be part of it,” explains Kovacs.

Nevertheless, major brands enamored with the maker movement need to be careful about an identity disconnect, say experts. “If the marketer understands the core story of the maker and connects that story back to its own brand narrative, then the partnership is brand-enhancing,” says Ty Montague, co-CEO of brand consultancy co:collective and author of True Story. “But if the consumer can’t understand the connection, then the partnership seems like the flavor of the month.” For GE, “innovation is the company’s lifeblood, so partnering with makers seems to be a great way to bring innovation to market efficiently.” Levi’s also gets Montague’s thumbs up: “The maker connection clicks with the company’s efforts to focus on its authenticity and its roots to working clothes.”

And a bad fit? “A brand such as McDonald’s that is built around mass production and the notion that one-size-fits-all, which is the antithesis of the maker ethos,” he concludes.

Sharing your marketing spotlight with makers is one thing. Incorporating the maker culture into your brand can yield even better returns—if it’s the right fit. Liquid Wrench, which has been selling spray lubricants to home DIYers since 1941, decided to embrace the maker movement last year to reach a new generation of hobbyists and amateur mechanics. In May, Liquid Wrench launched its Tinkernation online community and was a sponsor at the 2013 World Maker Faire in Queens, N.Y.

By year-end, it saw a dramatic 250 percent increase in overall social media engagement, including the number of brand mentions, Twitter replies and retweets, says Chris Ott, Liquid Wrench category marketing manager. Annual sales also inched up 4 percent in 2013 over the previous year. “Celebrating the successes of makers and helping them connect with each other has clearly helped expand our audience,” Ott says. His company plans to extend its sponsorship program to other maker gatherings this year.

About 75,000 people went to the World Maker Faire last year, at least a third more than the prior year. About 100 regional Maker Faires attracting more than 530,000 participants were also held around the world last year. Add to that dozens of independently produced mini faires popping up all over the country from Anchorage to Nashville. This year, national Maker Faires are slated for the San Francisco Bay Area, Kansas City and Detroit between May and July, with the World Maker Faire in New York on Sept. 20. 

Photo: Sasha Maslov

Who are these modern-day Edison wannabes? Based on the 50,000 who make up, almost half are female and most have families, says Ott. Their incomes and ages vary, but “they all like to create stuff from everything they get their hands on: boxes, Styrofoam, old machine parts. Plus, they tend to be frugal and they want their children to learn to be self-sustainable,” he says.

Beyond the marketing and branding implications of makers, some evangelists, such as Mark Hatch, author of The Maker Movement Manifesto, believe that personal manufacturing will upend mass-market manufacturing, leading to a new industrial revolution.

It seems a far-fetched notion that people like Alice Saunders could ever disrupt how the clothing and appliance companies do their business. But then again, that’s probably what Budweiser thought about those pesky microbrewers a decade ago—before Bud started losing market share to them.

To gauge how much the maker phenomenon might hurt the manufacturing world, researchers point to a few indicators. Most important is the trust, or lack of it, that mass marketers command from consumers. According to JWT research conducted in 2012, 55 percent of U.S. adults say they would put their trust in individuals over corporations any day, and that swells to 63 percent among millennials (18-34). “People, especially younger adults, are more likely to trust neighbors, friends and peers than institutions, and smart brands are looking for ways to leverage that,” says Ann Mack, JWT’s director of trendspotting.

Second is the issue of speed. Andrew Taylor, managing director of global innovation at Boston Consulting, reports that big brands are looking more aggressively at external entities for the innovations they need. “It is absolutely faster and more efficient to go outside than to depend only on internal R&D to drive innovation,” says Taylor. 

Photo: Sasha Maslov

But maker partnerships aren’t for every company, particularly mass-production outfits. And when they can be crafted, they’re usually co-branded. “The small entity must keep a separate and distinct identity; the big corporation is just there to help,” Taylor says. “It all goes [very] wrong if the makers are absorbed into the big brand.”

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