When the brand is you: two companies that made our individuality their success

A brand can become an empowering entity for people to rally behind, much the same way music genres can be. Brands, like bands, can have fans and loyalists and become part of people’s lives and even identities.

As a creative director I’ve been feeling nostalgic, perhaps spurred by entering the second half of my thirties or by the resurfacing of ‘90s trends, and I’m reflecting on the brands that shaped my adolescence. Two come to mind—sneaker giant Converse and premium pop supplier Jones Soda—and I’ve realized they share something in common: they enable the individuality and self-expression of their users. They capitalize on the imagery their own users generate to build the brand’s character.

Let’s unpack that, because it’s a type of inclusivity that is a powerful model for brand building today (coincidentally, one of my day-to-day responsibilities as an agency creative).

The Converse brand, for starters, has been able to transcend all generations and culture. From being the most popular basketball shoe in the 1930s to becoming the go-to apparel for countless music subcultures, the brand’s inclusivity has been a key driver in its success over the years.

I have a vivid memory of when I received my first pair of Converse All-Stars. It was my 15th birthday. I was sitting on the floor opening gifts next to my twin brother. In fact, it was my brother who gave me my soon-to-be favorite shoe. I remember the fresh smell of rubber and how I couldn’t wait to give them their first scuff. When I put them on, I felt an overwhelming sense of self expression, while simultaneously feeling like I was part of the “club.” The shoes felt like a blank canvas (coincidentally, they were canvas). I could style them however I wanted. And somehow, they looked better the dirtier they got. I had never seen a Converse commercial or ad campaign, yet my emotional connection with the brand was completely in sync with the message they were conveying to the market because I had seen them on peers (and rock stars) that I admired. That’s how you know a brand has become more than words and has become an icon. You just feel it.

But looking back at the brand’s history, it seems to me it took an eye-opening bankruptcy in 2001, when Converse was struggling to keep up with other athletic shoes brands and their new innovations, for the company to truly recognize their biggest asset was the individuality of their consumers. They were so focused on being an athletic shoe brand they had become blind to the wide variety of audiences that were loyal to them.

Nike purchased Converse in 2003 and started to leverage that loyalty, allowing customers to take ownership of the brand. (Funnily enough, Converse was trying to compete with brands like Nike; being bought by a competitor opened the door for them to focus and differentiate the brand more effectively.)

One of their first initiatives was a crowdsourced, product-inspired ad campaign where they asked fans nationwide to craft a 25-second film inspired by Converse. Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, the agency that developed the campaign, called it “Brand Democracy.” The campaign allowed Converse to become a patron of the arts and gave their customers creative freedom to tell their own story about Converse by just being themselves.

Almost 10 years later they continued that legacy through the “Made by You” campaign celebrating 100 years of Converse All-Stars and the people who made “Chucks” their own. While the campaign celebrates the anniversary of the sneaker itself, it is ultimately a tribute to the fans and their creative self-expression. It showcased art installations around the world of customized sneakers worn by Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, your everyday wearer and so many more. This campaign also leveraged social media hashtag #ChuckTaylor, enabling any customer to express themselves, bridging the gap between individuality, the brand and its community.

As a teenager stomping around in my “Chucks” you might have also seen me drinking a Jones Soda. I was drawn to the random photographs featured on the bottles. I never had the heart to get rid of the empty bottles and ended up establishing a gallery of Jones Sodas on my bookshelf. Jones Soda may not be as dominant as Converse, but they share a similar approach with user-generated content that embraced the artistic freedom I was looking for.

Jones Soda is a premium soda made with pure cane sugar, known for its bold colors, unique flavors and artful photographs submitted by their customers, which are then featured on the labels. They were like Instagram for soda bottles. I always dreamed of getting a photograph featured. They were advocates for the arts. And they always selected photos that felt authentic and a little edgy which, like Converse, allowed the consumers to own the brand.

Their model remains the same today, and their gallery of online photography submissions is never-ending. One expansion they have made since my teen years is the ability to create custom bottles. People can easily upload their photos and produce a bottle in the flavor of their choice.

One thing to note: Jones Soda is at a crossroads. With people shifting to be more health conscious and starting to be more mindful of their sugar intake, Jones Soda likely needs to expand their current offering beyond just cream soda (and one sugar-free option) if they are going to survive. It’s important to continually assess your consumer wants and needs and adapt when necessary.

At the time of my adolescence, when I was enjoying these brands, their marketing strategies never crossed my mind. It’s not until now, after some self-reflection, that I’m truly appreciating their effective use of user-generated content. They were leveraging it decades ago, before it became part of every marketing strategy today, and were extremely successful with it.

User-generated content gives consumers the opportunity to be part of the brand and its story. It allows them to set the dialogue. The content is more relatable because people see themselves in the users creating the content. It’s also more trustworthy in the authentic nature of the content because it is unfiltered and not overly marketed.

UGC has decades of proven success. I’ll leave you with a question—how will you let your customers own your brand?

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