Getting down to grass roots

Brands are beginning to realise that to get something out of communities, you have to put something in. Nikki Crumpton explains the thinking behind grass-roots marketing.

In the summer of 2012, London and the UK plays host to the greatest show on earth. For the first time in our lifetimes, we will be able to participate in the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games like never before. Thousands of us will be volunteers, millions of us will populate the stadiums and tens of millions of us will be at street parties, cultural events and live sites, creating individual and collective memories that will be the topic of a hundred million conversations.

But the volunteers have to be recruited, the young have to be inspired to live the Olympic and Paralympic values, tickets need to be sold, communities need to be engaged in various programmes, events and experiences beyond sport need to be created and attended.

Lucky for us, now couldn't be a better time to be able to mass-mobilise communities and groups. The ways in which we are able to do this have never been more interesting and the ability to galvanise participation and involvement means London 2012 will be the first Games to be able to embrace the digital space like never before.

But is the mobilisation of communities and individuals the preserve of the more altruistic campaign, the likes of COI and the Games, and charities? And, more importantly, is it all about technology?

I don't think so. I look around me and the communications that are increasingly being cited as interesting and creative have at their core an idea that mobilises and engages and creates interaction of a nature that we could only dream of a mere couple of years ago.

I'm not going to pretend that I have any brilliant new insight into the technological reasons why the industry is increasingly constructing communications with a social/community-based epicentre.

But the blurring between the digital and physical world, fused with the empowered consumer, means that we are able to explode what used to be seen as slightly indulgent attempts to be corporately nice or quirkily cool into genuine global events that can achieve effects (both social and commercial) on a scale that would have previously been thought of as impossible and at a fraction of the cost.

We are also able to connect up small, tightly targeted pieces of local activity in ways that create bigger communities (and thus effects), so reducing the worry about grass-roots marketing activity being a solitary, isolated event that stays within the confines of a single community.

But to over-elevate the technology would be wrong. The importance of the social context we find ourselves in at the present time also plays an important role in the rise of these campaigns.

After the collapse of our global economy, people are desperate to reconnect with community and what's real and important, rather than just owning more stuff. Brands and business are going to have to start giving out a whole lot more. Biting cuts, shrinking government, a gloomy consumer, a host of global social issues that can't be solved without community mobilisation means that big business is going to be increasingly turned to for solutions in order to earn a share of the shrinking purse.

So how can we be a part of the newly connected world of real and virtual community (and, let's not forget, it is really new) but keep in our minds that the behaviours are as old as man and not about mere technology? How can we start to create more holistic campaigns where the value exchange is about giving as well as taking and that leaves a legacy as well as creates a sales spike (and both are important)?

Being involved in London 2012 has taught me that the desire to impact in a way that creates genuine participation requires not just creative brilliance, or technological cool, but a real understanding of the impact you want to have and what you expect to receive in return. The way communications will be used to mobilise people around the Games will only deliver if we are able to connect people, not through technology but what they care and are excited about, and what we can make them believe their actions and commitment will achieve.

Therefore, I think we need to look to the people who are genuinely steeped in the world of community mobilisation, not just the technologists: the coaches of sports clubs who reach out to disadvantaged kids, the educators who are planning the programmes to excite communities of young people, the artists and creative talents who design experiences for people that make them feel something for real. I think we need to learn from these experts to be genuinely successful in this space.

For what it's worth, this is what I've learnt. First, you've got to know why you're here! It seems blindingly obvious, but what are you doing here? I'm not talking about what you want get out of it, I'm asking what are you going to do to help this group achieve what they want? Do you know what they are struggling with, what they care about, what they are passionate about? What do you really know about them and what can you do together?

Second, don't hide your motivations; be open. Be clear about what you want to get out of it. Honesty is always the best policy.

And then be a part of it, not apart from it.

You want people to feel good about your presence.

Free stuff is good. Communities have always looked for things that keep serving them without expectation. Make life a little easier, a little more fun, a little more joyous, and don't keep asking them to put their hand in their pocket for the privilege.

But frequency of interaction is probably the most critical behaviour you have to foster because grass-roots marketing is all about driving behaviours that are characteristic of successful interactive community campaigns. You have to foster comment (the initial start of involvement), conversation (when comment starts to explode into exchange), content (where conversation spawns creation) and commitment (where communities make something happen).

And that doesn't come easy. You have to be in it for the long game. This is about nurturing relationships that lead to commitment. You need to understand the nature of that commitment (both yours and theirs) in order that behaviours are repeated time and time again, whether that's running or recycling or doing your homework, or even getting people to stop repeating behaviours.

This is why the debate around paid, earned and owned media is so critical. These campaigns are about the interplay and clever usage of these three types of media. If I was to set up an agency tomorrow, I would be looking to create communities of experts in paid, earned and owned media, which, of course, means fishing in quite a different pool of talent. It's about looking to the people who are on the ground, who understand the ways in which best to communicate with communities and the ways they, in turn, like to communicate.

Without doubt, a smarter blend of these three forms of media potentially has tremendous economic efficiencies, and it doesn't take a genius to work out that our structures and business models don't lend themselves naturally to the management of this dynamic that looks set to dominate the way we construct our communications.

We also need to look at how we invest properly in data management.

We're going to need the new data experts who can figure out how friendship groups and communities lock together, how we track the way the comment and conversation flows in real time, and how we ultimately measure those crucial four Cs. Because these campaigns need to be managed in real time on the ground; think spooks, not First World War generals sitting behind the lines far away from the action.

Agencies will need to have a GCHQ-style hub that will pull this data towards them and help strategists and creatives plan and create in real time, shaping and testing and taking down and reworking activity on a minute-by-minute basis. It's not about communicating to, it's about keeping in touch with. And, to that end, brand behaviours and narratives are going to be our currency; not the single-minded proposition that requires laborious strategic management, but fluid ways of interpreting a brand through on-the-ground action.

This is not about the immeasurable or the non-commercial. In fact, quite the opposite. It's about understanding that the path to commercial success has been irrevocably changed in the past two years, forever. Technology will continue to progress apace. The type of empowerment that this has delivered to the consumers of the now and the future, coupled with the impact of this latest global recession, means that each sale is going to have to be hard won. Get it right and the successes are there to see. Get it wrong and those are equally well-documented. But to not try at all? You may as well bow out of business gracefully now.

- Nikki Crumpton is the chief strategic officer of McCann Erickson.


Your 5 Nike enlisted 16,000 people to take part in more than 200 five-a-side tournaments in eight weeks, as part of a campaign for the sports brand that launched in February last year. An ad, by Wieden & Kennedy, featured the England internationals Wayne Rooney, Joe Cole and Rio Ferdinand playing in a five-a-side match against a team from inner-city areas. The ad was filmed on CCTV cameras and shows Rooney being nutmegged by one of his opponents.

The moment was replayed more than 700,000 times on YouTube. A range of digital assets, developed by AKQA, kicked off with a pre-launch seeding of the campaign with a teaser clip on blogs and social networking websites. The total range of content was viewed more than three million times. Local winning teams went on to play in city finals and a national final.


Cadbury, the official treat provider to London 2012, launched a campaign, by Fallon, to get the nation playing games such as tiddlywinks, thumb wrestling, crazy golf and paper-aeroplane racing. The brand's aim was to get millions of people across the UK and Ireland playing games by 2012 and leave a lasting legacy of community spirit. People are encouraged to split into teams of either spots or stripes and play games. They then register on a dedicated website whether they won their game or not. They can also join a Facebook group to find out where their local tiddlywinks or crazy golf competition is being held. The campaign includes a TV ad, by Fallon, which launched this month featuring underwater animals engaging in their very own spots and stripes game. Fallon also created a chocolate bar as part of the campaign. The Spots v Stripes Challenge Bar comes in three segments and consumers are encouraged to play a game using the third piece as a prize. Each wrapper has a challenge or game suggestion inside.


To promote sales of Walkers crisps at lunch, the brand took over an unassuming English town called Sandwich and planned a day of surprise events to put it into the national spotlight. The aim was to illustrate that Walkers crisps could make any sandwich more exciting. The events included JLS performing an impromptu gig for some sixth-formers, Frank Lampard coaching the local football team and Pamela Anderson stepping in as a barmaid. A TV ad by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, which launched in March, and a social media campaign showed how the events unfolded. The brand put 26 separate pieces of content about Sandwich online, which received 1.6 million complete views and the town made the national news. The campaign won a gold, two silvers and a bronze Lion at Cannes and was the only British entry awarded in the Promo category. Other agencies that worked on the campaign were OMD, The Real Adventure, Jigsaw and Freud Communications.