5 companies that let fans lend a hand

Jun 24, 2013

When it came time to create the newest flavor of Frito-Lay potato chips, the brand's brain trust turned things over to its most creative and important food critics: its customers. As part of the brand's "Do us a Flavor" contest, Frito-Lay lovers sent in 3.8 million chip flavor ideas (more on the winner to come). This crowdsourcing technique is nothing new to parent company PepsiCo. Its history with crowdsourcing dates back to 2007 when its "DEWmocracy" promotion generated the newest Mountain Dew flavor: Voltage. "It really started what I'll call a wave of consumer engagement and consumer control," says Frito-Lay chief marketing officer Ann Mukherjee. Since 2007, PepsiCo has received more than 20 million flavor suggestions from customers across all brands.

Like PepsiCo (pep), many prominent brands are a lot more willing to place important decisions in the hands of their fans. And it's no coincidence. Much of the movement stems from the rise of social media integration, says Sam Decker, CEO of Mass Relevance, which builds social media experiences into client websites, helping brands -- including Nike, NBC, and the National Basketball Association -- engage users by highlighting content on their sites. And with so many fans eager and willing to share their thoughts over social media, it's no surprise that companies are beginning to listen more closely. "The audience is there. They're used to participating and creating content," says Decker. "By doing it through a social network, you get the benefit of amplifying their participation out to their followers and then pulling in more people."

From chip flavors to NBA uniforms, here's a look at some notable and recent crowdsourcing and fan voting campaigns.

1. PepsiCo

The beverage and snack maker has been a crowdsourcing pioneer, utilizing the creativity of customers to come up with new flavors across a number of its brands. Pepsico's most recent "Do us a Flavor" campaign for Frito-Lay, garnered nearly four million submissions for its newest flavor of potato chips. A panel of food experts, including celebrities like Iron Chef Michael Simon and actress and restaurateur Eva Longoria, helped narrow submissions down to the final three, and a fan vote determined the winner. Finalists included Chicken and Waffles and Sriracha, but Cheesy Garlic Bread took the top spot. (Other notable submissions were Margarita and Korean BBQ.)

Cheesy Garlic Bread will become a Frito-Lay regular later in 2013, but the top two runners-up will also be brought back for a limited run due to popularity, says Mukherjee. In total, more than one million votes were cast. "What we got in total talk value for the brand [during the campaign]," she says, "was unprecedented."

2. College Football Playoff

College football fans have been clamoring for years about a football playoff system. Not only did they get their wish -- a four-team tournament will decide the national champion each year beginning in 2014 -- they also got a say in the new tournament's logo. "College football is obviously a passion for many, many people," says Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff (formerly known as the BCS). "You're obviously not going to have fans deciding what play to run on third and two, but to whatever extent fans can be involved, they need to be."

The logo (above) was determined by more than 100,000 fan votes over a five-day period, and they were directed to the organization's website via Facebook and Twitter. The logos were created internally, and no outside submissions were accepted to avoid issues involving intellectual property laws, says Hancock.

The College Football Playoff did run into trouble on day one of the voting when officials running the campaign noticed thousands of votes streaming in from a single IP address. It caused a temporary halt in the contest, and those votes were wiped out, but the trouble won't deter the College Football Playoff from implementing fan votes in the future, says Hancock.

3. LEGO Cuusoo

Originally created by a group of LEGO diehards in Japan, LEGO's Cuusoo fan page is now operated by the brand itself. (Cuusoo is a Japanese word that means "to wish something into existence.") The toy-brick maker uses the platform to interact with its users and offers a pipeline to submit original ideas for "the LEGO set of their dreams," says Mark Fothergill, LEGO's head of children's community and moderation.

Once an idea placed on the community receives 10,000 supporters (the equivalent of "likes" on Facebook), the set is considered by LEGO for actual production. The most recent idea accepted by the Cuusoo team: a LEGO model of the DeLorean from Back to the Future, currently in production. Fans are compensated for their contributions, too, receiving 1% of their suggested product's net sales total.

4. NASCAR

NASCAR's Fan Council isn't for the uninitiated. The online group is vetted to ensure that only racing's faithful take part in the 10,000-member community. The reason? These 10,000 fans have some serious pull with the sport's head honchos. "We bounce a lot of ideas off of them," says Blake Davidson, vice president of licensing and consumer products at NASCAR. "It's something that's been very beneficial to us since we've started it and a way to get immediate feedback from the fans on everything from marketing initiatives to things happening in the [live] competitions, to broadcast."

In 2009, NASCAR instituted double-file restarts into every race thanks in large part to suggestions and input from its fans, says Davidson. (Previously, when a race was stopped due to an accident or weather, the race resumed with cars lined up in single-file instead of side by side.) NASCAR fans even have a say in the league's Hall of Fame inductees. They accounted for one of the 55 votes eligible to determine the hall's next members, which carries significant weight, according to Davidson.

Other NASCAR sponsors are also getting in on the crowdsourcing action. Wal-Mart used fan input to decide nearly every aspect of this month's race at Pocono Racetrack in Long Pond, Penn. The fans chose everything from the race name -- Party in the Poconos -- to the kind of concessions that were served --loaded potato skin perogies.

5. Dallas Mavericks

Mark Cuban is one of the NBA's most colorful owners. His in-game antics right on the sidelines demonstrate his dedication to his Dallas Mavericks as both an owner and a fan. So it made sense for Cuban to turn to other fans to design the team's uniforms for the 2015-2016 season. "What's the best way to come up with creative ideas? You ask for them," he writes on his blog. "So we are going to crowdsource the design and colors of our uniforms."

Cuban may be unmatched among owners when it comes to connecting with fans (he also has 1.7 million Twitter followers), but he isn't sugarcoating his offer. In his characteristically blunt style, he tells those who suggest ideas that they will automatically forfeit ownership rights. And the submissions that aren't picked? "If we don't use your design, it will still be here on this site for now and ever more for you to glance longingly at," Cuban writes. "If we don't choose any of the designs, including yours, then we don't choose any of the designs. That is life in the big city. Move on."

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