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Brands are made in public; fans are made in ecosystems

By Mike White | Founder



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May 9, 2023 | 9 min read

Mike White of Lively encourages brands to trade Big Tech platforms for the opportunity to scale content and build community through their own brand ecosystems.

Aerial view of herd of sheep in field

Fans are more powerful than ad impressions, says Mike White of Lively / Kristaps Ungurs

When consumers wear, use, or otherwise endorse brands, they adopt the carefully crafted aspirational brand identity. Strong brands are those that repeatedly message their respective differentiators in various contexts, from billboards and magazine ads to programmatic and social media ads.

The creation of a brand in these simple terms is key to traditional advertising. Unambiguous brand messaging is easy for audiences to consume, and repetitive messaging builds awareness. This is an essential step in educating audiences on the product the brand represents. In short: brands are made in public.

Brand love is not enough

But building brand awareness is only the first part of the equation, particularly as competition rises and consumer loyalty is increasingly beholden to the brand’s ability to innovate, stay relevant, and personalize messaging based on individual needs and contexts.

Getting humans to solidify relationships with the brand involves getting human with consumers, and giving them an environment and touchpoints with the brand’s ethos while building connections with one another and personalizing their interactions.

In short, while brands are made in public, fans are made in communities. To capture the idea of communities across digital and physical brand touchpoints, we at Lively call that collection of touchpoints ecosystems.

Power of community

Humans are complex creatures, but we tend to behave in predictable ways when we’re in groups. There are different rules for engagement when we’re interacting with friends, colleagues and peers that are far more driven by our need for connection than consumer transactions.

In communities, value takes on a different meaning. Our relationships with brands and to each other are informed by our history and interactions. New opportunities to build trust and meaning emerge in social environments and in today’s tech-charged world, those environments span multiple kinds of screens, as well as in-person events. Communities also create in-group status, signaling exclusivity, familiarity, and loyalty.

Data has emerged as a key ingredient to building powerful and differentiated brand communities because they inform the creation of personalized and value-driven experiences. And the case for aggregating first party data has never been stronger - or more complicated.

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Brand-owned ecosystems

Since Google introduced search and codified our ad-supported internet and YouTube and Meta redefined the rules of algorithmic advertising on social media, brands have been strengthening these Big Tech platforms through their audiences.

Not only do brands fund a good deal of the content monetized by major platforms, but they also pay to distribute that content in the form of paid search, programmatic and display advertising.

For the last few decades, advertisers accepted the paradigm as a necessary barrier to entry and most relegated the platforming of their audiences to the walled gardens of Big Tech. But the trade-off of valuable and actionable audience data was enough to justify the model.

Change on the horizon

Looking ahead, a new regulatory landscape that focuses on data privacy, as well as the impending deprecation of the third-party cookie on Chrome, threatens ‘business as usual’.

Consumers are increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo, becoming more discerning about how they’re advertised to, and there’s a marked sensitivity to algorithmic advertising and disingenuous marketing tactics.

71% of UK consumers are likely to discontinue business with brands that break their trust, and only 41% trust social media platforms. We saw the impact of the shift when advertisers pulled ad dollars out of Twitter en masse for brand safety concerns.

Many large brands have been briefed on the problem, but few are looking at the opportunity. Instead of Big Tech platforms, brands have an opportunity to invest in owned media ecosystems.

We’ve noticed a new interest in investing in building and advertising to owned audiences in ways that showcase relevancy and create opportunities for engagement. We’ve dubbed this ‘experiential media’. It allows brands to get in front of fans in provocative ways, across contexts, time and space.

So, with a greater proportion of ad dollars investing in this area, how do advertisers ensure ROI? It’s all about how you craft your branded ecosystem.

What is an ecosystem?

A branded ecosystem is a series of channels and platforms that span out-of-home (OOH), digital and social media, but crucially engage high-value audiences in a gated community to build a co-created world between fan and brand. These ecosystems are meaningful for a number of reasons.

If created correctly, the brand will capture first-party data: actionable information about real people, curated transparently, without the corruption of bots.

The power of a fan is far greater than an ad impression. Fans are brand ambassadors, and the word-of-mouth marketing they offer is exponentially more effective at engaging new audiences than traditional digital ads.

Plus, when you create a community of ambassadors, you have immediately strengthened the lifetime value of the relationship and you have a two-way channel to the people who know you best - at scale.

The role of innovation

It’s no small task and not a novel concept. Consumers are happy to trade their data, so long as the trade is transparent and the result is value creation.

We’re seeing an appetite for this in the platforms and behaviors that are emerging. On Discord, people are self-selecting into fan communities that create deep engagement with brands.

Tapping into these organic community-building formulas is key to realizing meaningful branded ecosystems. The driving factors of success across emerging communities? Novelty, exclusivity, and gamification. The way to get there? Tech.

The brands that will win with future consumers are those that are creative in their utilization of technology, in order to build meaningful ecosystems. Emerging technologies like generative AI and augmented reality have a role to play in bringing branded worlds to life.

Thanks to technology, the creative playing field has never offered more possibility or promise. The imagination of today’s brand leaders will define tomorrow’s relationships between brand and culture.

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