Guest Column by Chintamani Rao: No safety in numbers with Crowdsourcing

12 Jun,2013

By Chintamani Rao


‘Unilever to boost reliance on crowdsourcing with eYeka’ – News item


“[Lowe] have created a very strong creative vehicle that’s extremely well defined and portable. But their work has created a problem for them, because it makes Peperami the obvious candidate for crowdsourcing.” That’s how a Unilever London spokesperson explained it when, two years ago, the company fired the advertising agency on Peperami, in favour of crowdsourcing.


Some compliment! Can you see the agency head calling in the Peperami team? “Folks, I’ve just returned from lunch with John Client. Peperami is tracking superbly on every parameter. You’ve created one of those rare great brand properties that will stay with the brand for many, many years. Unilever have paid you the ultimate compliment: we’re fired. From now the public will make the ads.


“Jean, pop the bubbly. I’m proud of you guys. You are our A Team, and here’s an A Team challenge for you. I am assigning you to our biggest Unilever brand: get fired on it within the year. A special Christmas bonus if you make it. Cheers, and more power to your elbow.”


If the idea itself is strange, the outcome is bizarre. Unilever received 1,185 entries and selected not one but two submissions (Both of which came from laid-off advertising professionals: a copywriter from London and a former creative director from Germany. So much for the crowd.), and announced that they would combine the two ideas to make the new campaign. “We’re certain the two ideas will be a successful campaign,” said the Peperami marketing manager. That, from the company which taught us that every advertisement must be based on a “Single Selling Idea” – the first of the ten Unilever Principles of Great Advertising.


Whether Unilever’s winning Advertiser of the Year at Cannes that year was because of Peperami or despite it we don’t know.


Meanwhile, Kraft Foods in Australia crowdsourced the name for the new cheese variant of its iconic bread spread Vegemite, and chose – hold your breath – iSnack 2.0.


“The name Vegemite iSnack 2.0 was chosen based on its personal call to action, relevance to snacking (I snack, get it?), and clear identification of a new and different Vegemite (2.0, wow!) to the original,” said a Kraft spokesperson. “We believe these three components completely encapsulate the new brand.” Consumers didn’t, apparently. Following a furore, Kraft rather tamely put out a list for people to choose from, and equally tamely changed the name to a blase Vegemite Cheesybite.


Around the same time Frito-Lay in India sought ideas for new flavours of chips. To the credit of Frito-Lay it must be said that they weren’t chintzy – on the contrary, they generously spent more than they might have had they done conventional market research instead. For four shortlisted flavours they awarded a prize of Rs 5 lakh each – a total of Rs 20 lakh or over US$ 40,000, way more than Unilever London paid to get a new idea for Peperami. The prize for the ultimate winner was Rs 50 lakh (over US$ 100,000) and 1 percent of sales revenue.


Frito-Lay were truly generous, but in any event, what they did was essentially to solicit consumer opinion on a new product, which might otherwise have been done by conventional market research. But meanwhile other marketers like GE, General Mills, Pepsi, Dell and Starbucks have been seeking everything from product and service ideas to, reportedly, inputs on agency selection and media placement.


Crowdsourcing shops have come up which will brief the crowd and filter the solutions, as Idea Bounty did for Peperami. That’s awfully interesting. Suppose one day Lowe had told Unilever London, “You’ll be delighted to know we’ve increased the creative strength on your business. We’ve fired your entire creative team. Now, instead of being limited to a handful of people under our roof, we’ll put our briefs on your brands out on the Internet and get ideas from hundreds, if not thousands.” Might they have saved the Peperami account? I don’t know about you, but I can’t see a delighted client congratulating the agency on its farsighted initiative.


Now Unilever has taken a big step in the direction of crowdsourcing, saying, “A key role for us as marketers is to create magic and to excite people with innovative ideas.” I always thought a key role for marketers and related professionals was to actually develop the ideas that create the magic, but perhaps I’m wrong.


Proponents of crowdsourcing cite the ‘wisdom of crowds’, propounded by Surowiecki in his book of the same name. “I don’t think people realize how powerful the crowd can be when engaged on working on a good idea,” says one. Perhaps, but this is not the crowd working on a good idea; it is a multitude of individuals independently developing ideas. They’re not building on each other’s thoughts; there’s no cross-fertilization of thinking.


Diversity, independence and decentralization are three of the four “elements required to form a wise crowd” that Surowiecki lists: “Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.” But 1,185 responses to a brief from perhaps as many people working independently of each other do not constitute collective thinking, and are not the product of disagreement and contest.


Surowiecki’s fourth element is aggregation: in this context, the marketing management of the company deciding – singly, collectively or sequentially – among the shortlisted submissions. So it is finally down to the quality of decision-making. If you decide on iSnack 2.0, it doesn’t matter whether the submissions come from the crowd through a crowdsourcing agency, or from known people through an advertising agency.


That the advertising agency has designated, informed people and institutional memory is only one of its advantages over a crowd. The other is that if you make bad decisions you can always blame the agency and fire it. You can’t fire a crowd.


The writer is a Strategic Marketing and Media Consultant


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3 responses to “Guest Column by Chintamani Rao: No safety in numbers with Crowdsourcing”

  1. Quateel Ahmad says:

    Crowd sourcing will remain a strong method of finding a clue…sometimes
    companies and brand are at a loose end and just don’t know the
    direction to take and crowdsourcing can help. Also, it becomes a talking
    point by itself. Lays is not doing it in India only, its ‘Do yourself a
    Flavour’ is an international campaign. Magnified in India no doubt,
    still part of a global play. Micromax, got its logo designed through
    Corwdsourcing. So all creative exercises may not lead to furores.
    Starbucks has a quasi-crowdsourcing format through a seperate website.
    The point is rather who does it. Ad Agencies see it with a very narrow
    point of view and thus will always suffer. One should know what can be
    done, Tantra’s efforts to get new t shirt designs through crowdsourcing
    did not do well, but in Brasil Fiat managed to get the crowd to give a
    decent spec sheet for a new car. And for every iSnack2.0 there is a New Coke. Blunders will happen, Crowdsourced or not.

  2. Rahul Kansal says:

    Chinta, I think the trick may lie in taking the crowd seriously and rewarding their efforts… rather than in seeing crowd sourcing as a cheaper way of developing creative content. Your Frito Lay example above, is the one to follow.
    Lonely Planet magazine, for instance, sources travel pics from readers, and because they showcase the selected pics with respect (full pages, for instance), they get great pictures… comparable to the best that professionals could offer.

  3. arun iyer says:

    You can fire an agency. can’t fire a crowd. Ha Ha Ha ha. Well said Chinta! Fantastic read.

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