Are Brands Ready for Empowered Crowds?

by francine Hardaway on January 9, 2014

More than ten years ago, the Cluetrain Manifesto introduced us to the concept that markets are now conversations. The Manifesto predicted that with the internet, power would shift from companies to people, and that companies had better get ready for the shift.  Now, with the internet and social media no longer new, people are indeed empowered. The crowd built Wikipedia, caused governments to topple, and has begun funding artists and inventors outside the formal financial system.

And the crowd is ready ready for the next phase of democratization and localization, the sharing of the physical world. The rise of the maker movement, the growth of alternative currencies such as Bitcoin, and the appearance of companies like ZipCar, AirBnb, and Uber show the shift in consumer attitudes, from needing to own everything to needing only access to it. The recession of 2008 helped accelerate the trend. The crowd is now the company.

For corporations built on the old power structure, the big question is “now what?” The crowd is empowered to get what they need from each other. They can fund it, design it, print it, share it without having to buy it from a corporation. Are corporations in danger of becoming superfluous?

There’s a real thirst for knowledge on the part of enterprise companies who see this threat of disruption and extinction all around them, and former Altimeter analyst and social media pioneer Jeremiah Owyang has built a company to quench that thirst.  Owyang has launched Crowd Companies, his collaborative effort to bring the big brands into contact with the startups who can be their partners and the experts who can educate them for their own survival.

Owyang’s “minimum viable product” is a Brand Council that already has nineteen members, including some of the best known brands in the US.  The Council creates a safe place in which brands can learn and come in contact with some of the young companies they need to partner with. Owyang is hand-selecting startups from the marker movement, the sharing economy, and the co-innovation space and presenting them to the big brands.

Like the doctrine he’s teaching the brands, in Owyang’s model everyone wins. The startups get access to the enterprise, shortening sales cycles. The brands receive both education and access to new technologies and business models, and experts are able to teach what they know.

Owyang envisions a future in which brands collaborate for the greater good. “Imagine what retail looks like when WalMart, Whole Foods and ScootNetworks” get together, he says.

For his initial launch, Owyang is focused on Fortune 500 companies, because he knows many of those who were successful in the past may be gone if they don’t find ways to adapt. He believes it will take ten years for brands to change focus and be part of collaborative efforts, in the same way it took ten years for the internet to spread and another ten for social media to become global.

His vision:  Empowered people and resilient brands for shared value.

One little secret: Owyang, a friend, walks the talk. He has been building his business on shared resources, such as ODesk and 99 Designs, and has transformed himself from a consumer to a person who participates in real-time access to goods and services he needs. He says in the past six months, he has bought almost nothing new. No wonder Black Friday numbers were down.

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