Brand Building In The Referral Generation

“Instead of creating content, we should be creating opportunities for content creation – instagrammable moments, inspiring experiences.” – Sophie Turton, eConsultancy

Every day millions of people are sharing their experiences with brands and products – the good, the bad and the ugly – through their social micro-actions, whether explicitly or subtly.

What about your product or brand experience is share-worthy? What would a tweet about receiving your product as a gift sound like? What Instagram filter would work best in showing off your product? What emoji would accompany a check-in to your location? And importantly, are you considering this when you’re developing your product or brand experience to begin with?

There’s a generation of companies who are building their brand and business on the back of these ‘everyday referrals’, and the referral behaviour and systems are built into their business models. Take a look at most ‘disruptive’ companies today – e.g., Uber, Birchbox,, Ocado, to name just a few – and at the most basic level, ‘refer a friend’ is a built-in reward system to get fans of their service to socially share and be monetarily rewarded. It’s likely how you heard of many of those companies to begin with.

screen-shot-2014-09-17-at-11-28-04-pmBut they don’t stop there – they truly consider the experience with their brand. Why did Uber deliver kittens to people around the world on World Cat Day? And free ice cream on World Ice Cream day? They want people to know about and love the personalised and unique experience they will get with Uber vs. any other local transport option – and the 1,000’s of positive social mentions these stunts generate are communicating this exactly, straight from the trusted consumers mouth.

Why does searching for ‘Casper mattress unboxing’ on YouTube lead to over 40,000 results, many with 1,000’s of views….for a mattress?!? The small but massively disruptive and growing company has prioritized the product delivery and unpacking experience, delivering first by bike in NYC. (Yes, you must now Google it as well – a mattress delivered by a bike!)

These are just a few examples of disruptive brands who are building their reputation not by pouring millions into massive brand campaigns, but who are putting their effort into their brand and product experience, and ensuring in-built shareable moments. People trust their peers, so with the experience optimised and mechanics in place to reward and incentivise social kudos, the newcomer brands are building strong business foundations on the back of passionate customers.

For some brands, this has led to enough success to spur more funding and the ability to invest in more traditional brand-building advertising techniques to really help them scale to the next level. Think Airbnb, with their ‘Is ManKind?’ global campaign, which has helped lead them to record host and lodger numbers, and brought their valuation above Hilton Hotels, making Airbnb the largest accommodation brand in the world. I’m doubtful this new brand and business model could have achieved this success without developing its passionate advocates first.

So the disruptors are getting it right, but what can long-standing brands do to also tap into these grassroots referrals and continue to grow their business (and attempt to minimise the threat posed by these disruptors)? Here are a few ideas:

  • Packaging tweaks: these are an obvious – and potentially simpler – way to integrate impactful design and messaging cues into your customer experience. Think Innocent with its hidden messages and playful copy; or Apple with their sleek, beautiful boxes. What share-worthy surprise could you integrate into your packaging or unboxing experience?
  • Event activation: many big brands already put significant money into events or sponsorships – festivals, fashion week, sporting events, tech conferences, etc. – but often the impact is still limited to those who can make it in-person. Social activation of these events is critical. Special effort around awarding of tickets is also key; e.g., which of your customers (or other trusted influencers) are likely to share, and whose shares could have the biggest impact?
  • CRM prioritisation: simply put, reward loyalty. This comes with many challenges (e.g., how do I even know who my customers are when they buy in-store from a retailer?), but if you have a database, you should begin activating it. There are some great start-ups that have emerged to try to help easily manage referral schemes through email and social tactics – they could be a good starting point.
  • Retailer opportunities: big brands often have long-standing, trusted relationships with retailers, giving them a chance to make the in-store (or eCommerce) experience unique. Think beautiful Instagram-worthy displays, unique product demos, and more. Make social sharing explicit into these custom experiences.
  • Omni-channel experience: this is often the trickiest thing for big brands, many of which are on dated legacy IT systems, to get right. And it’s where the new disruptors typically excel. Across desktop, mobile, tablet, in-store, on email and with customer service, consumers expect a seamless experience, i.e., data to be connected, shopping carts to be transferred, same offers to be presented, details to be remembered. A long-term plan to conquer this must be built.

Content is key to engaging with rather than just interrupting consumers. But, in the age of micro referrals everywhere we scroll, it might just be that inspiring consumers to create content – through your products, services and brand experience – is where you should really be focusing.

This is the first in a series of content on ‘Category Disruptors: what big brands can learn from marketing in the sharing economy.’ We welcome your thoughts and input – please comment or tweet @oliviarz.

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