Why brands should embrace their inner Kanye

Leo Rayman, chief executive officer at Grey London and chairman of the IPA Strategy Group, looks at the secrets behind the successes of the brands making a real dent on culture.

A couple of months ago, whilst on location in Italy filming the second season of their Netflix show, Aziz Ansari and Eric Wareheim filmed a spoof music video for Kanye West’s new song ‘Famous’. Kanye enjoyed it so much that he officially endorsed it.

Not long after, he launched a pop-up store selling merch for his new album. A couple of young enterprising designers created some bootleg merch and sold it to the crowds outside the store. Kanye loved it so much that he endorsed it and started selling certain pieces instore.

Most recently he has announced Adidas + Kanye West, which is being called ‘the most significant partnership ever created between a non-athlete and an athletic brand’.

What is interesting about these examples is that Kanye’s brand is effortlessly fluid, existing across multiple genres, appealing to various audiences and embracing third party contributions. Just as we’re seeing many other aspects of culture becoming ‘fluid’ such as gender or sexuality, so we’re starting to see those who take a fluid approach to branding come out on top.

Here at Grey we talk about openness rather than fluidity, but they’re essentially the same. It’s about embracing opportunity whatever that looks like. It’s not about one way of doing things; it’s about doing things in the way that works best for each brand. No hierarchy, ego, or that old-school advertising ball and chain, sign off. Because we believe that none of us are as smart as all of us.

What these open brands share is a commitment to putting their brand story before their product story.

Take for example Star Wars. The films tell one story from a fictional universe. Yet right from the beginning George Lucas set about expanding the universe through licensing deals for comics, books, animated series, toys and computer games. He didn’t do this for fun either – while the films have grossed around $8.8bn for 20th Century Fox, the expanded universe has grossed over $24.2bn for George. It’s about creating ideas that are compelling enough to exist across different shapes and media.

Continuity was key to managing this expanded universe and Star Wars has ‘The Holocron’: a database that ensures that everything created adheres to the laws of the law of the Star Wars universe. Think of it as a hybrid between brand guidelines and an API. Third parties can access the core attributes of the world and build on them.

Part of Twitter’s success was the way in which it grew its ecosystem through an open API. It gave third parties access to core attributes and functionality so they could build around it. By 2011 there were over 1 million third party applications using the API. Tweetdeck was one of those apps and just like Kanye, Twitter liked it enough it acquired it.

So how might brands benefit from this openness? Critically the thing to do is start thinking of your product as merch for your brand story.

Imagine a client comes to you wanting help to sell their princess doll. You’d research the audience, think about the benefits and try and wrap some creative around it probably involving Snapchat. Yet, however smart your team is they’re probably never going to sell as many as Frozen did with its Elsa and Anna dolls. To date Frozen has made around $1.5bn in merchandise, as much as it made at the box office. Now it might be difficult to persuade your client to stump up $150m for your brand film, but that’s not to say that you can’t build that story over time.

Agencies are great at coming up with pithy, short ways to capture attention related to a product truth. But what we’re not great at doing is building a credible sustainable brand universe that has multiple ways of experiencing it.

That’s why at Grey we try to hire people from far beyond the borders of advertising, from journalists to scriptwriters, animators to technologists. Because when it comes to mental availability in the modern age, the larger and more fluid your brand universe is, the better you can tell your story across a fragmented media environment.

Leo Rayman is chief executive of Grey London

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