The 3 Cs of Participation Marketing

Engage with your customers and your colleagues as citizens to inspire brand loyalty

It may sound crazy, but a single tweet brought the NBA into a raging protest movement in Hong Kong. How? It’s simple—its customers are more than fans who buy jerseys. Its employees are more than people who manage rosters. They are all engaged citizens whose values, beliefs and interests extend beyond the basketball court.

Brand marketers should take notice. Today’s consumers aren’t just people with money to spend. They are world citizens who have no issue using social media to advocate for—or against—a brand. Your colleagues are the same—they will use their virtual voices to validate or undermine your brand’s mission and message if it goes against their values.

Simply put, there is no more powerful force for change—good or bad—than real people using their voices, wallets, networks and time to support or oppose a brand or issue.

It’s not about B2C anymore—it’s about the three Cs of participation: customers, citizens and colleagues. If you want to create participation that drives sales, long-term loyalty and sustained relevance and growth, you have to understand all three and how they relate to each other.

Turn customers into activists

Participation starts with rethinking what you know about your customers. Today’s customers are more discerning than ever before. They’re less inclined to trust online reviews and more likely to listen to close friends and rely on real-life social networks for verifiable product recommendations. They want to make purchases from brands that support the causes they care about.

Only by embracing that mindset can brands turn customers into advocates and advocates into brand activists.

To that end, marketers must understand their customers as citizens. The world has become stratified politically and brands that attempt to walk the tightrope between political identities will face customers willing to shift their loyalties and press politically agnostic brands about where they stand.

Patagonia is a great example of a company that understands the marketing value of purpose-driven environmental activism. Its Bears Ears campaign takes a hardline stance against the president’s environmental policies, and while it may lose a few customers in the process, the campaign succeeds in inspiring fierce loyalty in its core advocates.

But you don’t need Patagonia’s 40-year history of activism to rally customers to a cause. What matters is authenticity.

Take the pet-loving owners of Bissell, the vacuum manufacturer (and an ICF Next client), for example. As it so happens the company’s core product is an important weapon in any pet-owners arsenal. So Bissell took up the mantle of pet adoption by establishing the Bissell Pet Foundation and making a donation for every pet-product purchase. Today, if you buy one of the brand’s ICONpet cordless vacuums (designed for pet homes, of course), they’ll cover the cost of a pet adoption fee at a Bissell Pet Foundation Empty the Shelters event.

Making this campaign a success required a profound understanding of what moves Bissell’s customers as citizens on a visceral, rather than economic, level. The brand found an authentic purpose meaningful to both the company’s founders and its customers that tied directly to its product. It doesn’t get more authentic than that.

Colleagues must embody brand values

Last but not least, brand marketers need to consider their colleagues. They are the living embodiment of the brand and a primary channel for transmitting values to customers.

Colleagues can become your fiercest activists, but they won’t default to that role. They must be engaged, inspired and activated. This is equally true for huge companies like Starbucks and Costco, where employee buy-in isn’t just lip-service but foundational to the business itself, and for smaller brands like Lululemon, Tom’s and Warby Parker where colleagues happily espouse the virtues of their employers because they believe leadership cares about them and shares their values.

Customers, citizens and colleagues are the holy trinity of participation marketing. But is two out of three good enough?

An answer can be found in Kickstarter’s move to shut down a nascent unionization movement among its employees. The company had built a rabid fanbase that loved its product and progressive values. But by taking their colleagues for granted, leadership offended their citizen-customers.

It might seem overwhelming to divide your attention between three different constituencies, especially after listening to years of marketing sermons about the need for a singular focus on the customer.

But this is the world we live in today. In the participation age, our job as marketers is to build engagement that compels action, inspires loyalty and delivers powerful outcomes. To do that, we’ve got to move beyond B2C to the three Cs of participation.

Bryan Specht helped design and grow ICF Next’s creative engagement services, including global branding and reputation, content and social media, and stakeholder engagement. Now he’s all about making sure that ICF Next continues to stand apart in bringing the best of innovation and integrated capability to its clients.